ENCROCHAT: More than 500 unconvicted people remanded more than 2 years - when maximum limit 6 months
EXCLUSIVE: HUNDREDS of unconvicted people awaiting trial have been remanded in custody for more than two years, when the maximum time limit should be six months, Essex News and Investigations can reveal.
In some cases defendants have been in prison for 27 months with trials not set to start until next year.
The staggering delays are said to be down to a crown court backlog of cases that grew to 61,000 as many were suspended during the coronavirus pandemic and attempts to decrease it have been affected by the ongoing strike action by barristers over pay.
Alan Collins, partner at Hugh James Solicitors, said: "If criminals are not prosecuted in a timely fashion that is unfair on the victims and witnesses. It is also unfair on defendant who are entitled to be tried fairly and in a reasonable time.
"Delay, of course, has a corrosive effect because memories fade, witnesses may no longer remember let alone still be around to give evidence. There is also the psychological strain on all those involved with the attendant anxiety and stresses."
The six month custody time limit can be extended by a judge due to extenuating circumstances, but the backlog has seen huge numbers of custody extension applications being approved by judges.
According to Fair Trials, around a fifth of people remanded will not be jailed and about one in ten remanded in 2021 were acquitted so they were effectively jailed before trial.
DEMO: There have been protests about EncroChat evidence outside crown courts
A large proportion of the 500 defendants remanded for more than two years are believed to have been charged as part of the country's biggest ever operation against organised crime after Dutch and French police hacked into the encrypted EncroChat mobile phone system used by 9,000 people in the UK in April 2020.
One of the cases was up in court on August 26 for a mention hearing at Woolwich Crown Court.
Julian Agaliu, 47, (pictured below) from Enfield and Daniel McNeil-Duncan, 37, from Brentwood, Essex, have been remanded in custody since June 2020 after being charged with conspiracy to supply class A drugs as part of the Met Police EncroChat investigations.
It means they have had their custody time limit extended four times already and they are not expected to face trial until November, the court heard.
The judge said: "this trial is getting a little bit old to say the least."
The case was adjourned after the judge said their next custody time limit expires on November 24.
After putting a call out through Twitter, Essex News and Investigations was contacted by relatives or friends of 36 defendants who have been on remand for more than a year and 22 of them had allegedly been in custody for more than two years.
All of them had been charged in connection with EncroChat prosecutions, mainly for drugs and money laundering offences.
One relative said: "My partner's been on remand since July 2020 and it keeps getting extended. Trial was due in May this year but was extended to march 2023. His mental health not good".
Another said the trial " has been adjourned four times for different reasons, including the strike."
Statistics obtained by Fair Trials show as of June this year it said there were 13,409 remanded prisoners, including 8,763 awaiting trial and 4,646 awaiting sentence.
More than 500 have been on remand for more than two years, nearly 1,800 for more than a year, with 3,879 (27 per cent) held for more than the maximum six months.
More than half of those held on remand for more than six months are also held for non-violent offences.
Fair Trials said black people are disproportionately remanded more than white people, despite being less likely to be sent to prison and more likely to be acquitted at trial.
Griff Ferris, Fair Trials Senior Legal and Policy Officer said: "There’s no justice in a system that imprisons people awaiting trial for months and years, while many will walk free after trial. There’s no justice in a system where Black people are repeatedly remanded in custody more than white people, despite being more likely to be acquitted at trial or not receive a prison sentence."
Legal challenges by some of the EncroChat defendants have also contributed to the delays.
Dutch and French police allowed the National Crime Agency (NCA) access to historic EncroChat messages sent and received by people based in the UK, but they were also allowed to monitor those being sent in realtime.
Lawyers for the defendants have argued this would constitute a "live intercept" which is not legally admissible in British Courts.
However, so far a number of challenges in crown court to have the evidence ruled inadmissible le have failed.
A separate challenge was made to the Investigatory Powers Tribunal (IIPT), which which operates independently of government to provide a right of redress for anyone who believes they have been a victim of unlawful action by a public authority using covert investigative techniques, and a full hearing over the matter is set to take place.
Some believe the custody extensions could be a tactic by the prosecution to wear defendants down in the hope they will plead guilty before the full IPT hearing takes place.
As at June 9 this year the NCA said that 2,864 people had been arrested in connection with EncroChat devices and 1,572 people had been charged.
The NCA would not comment on the remand extensions, saying it was a matter for the Ministry of Justice (MoJ).
An MoJ spokesman said: "Decisions on bail applications are made by independent judges who ensure the public are protected. They have been prioritising remand cases following the unprecedented impact of the pandemic.
"The Government has deployed a range of measures – including unlimited sitting days, Nightingale courts and increasing magistrate sentencing powers – to reduce the backlog by over 2,000 from its pandemic-induced peak of 61,000 in June 2021 to 58,600 in March 2022.
"Ongoing strike action by barristers is now impacting hundreds of victims a week and the Crown Court backlog is starting to increase. It is now standing at nearly 59,000."