Sunday sessions as magistrates struggle to clear growing backlog of riot cases


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London's judiciary was stretched to the breaking point yesterday as two magistrates courts took the unprecedented step of sitting on a Sunday in a desperate bid to make headway against the mounting backlog of cases generated by last week's riots.

Even with court officials volunteering to come in over the weekend, the capital's legal system is buckling under the strain, with police cells overflowing and judges struggling to mete out justice fast enough to free up space.

The 500 police officers working on Operation Withern – the name for the post-riot investigation – are making arrests 24 hours a day as they receive tips, review evidence and trawl through more than 20,000 hours of CCTV images.

Yesterday the magistrates courts at Westminster and Camberwell Green opened on a Sunday. One defence lawyer, who had been up since 6am, said: "I've been doing this for 16 years and I've been called in on New Year's Day, even Boxing Day. But I cannot remember a single instance where the courts have had to open on a Sunday. It's remarkable."

At Westminster it was up to District Judges Deborah Wright and Susan Williamson to dispense justice amid chaotic scenes as court officials, prosecutors and defence lawyers struggled to locate prisoners and pre-trial paperwork. In court one, Judge Wright became increasingly exasperated as the prosecutor – who had volunteered to come in on her weekend – said she had not been able to locate any papers on the people due to appear that morning.

By 11.30am not a single defendant had appeared. "It is now one and a half hours into sitting time and we have done nothing in this court," the judge said. Things were little better next door in court two.

Court officials told reporters that Westminster and Camberwell both had two courts open and were hoping to get through 79 cases. Two magistrates have also been called in to deal exclusively with search warrants. Police officers travel directly to the courts with the papers needed for raids, which are signed off straight away.

The majority of cases coming before the courts yesterday were not defendants implicated in the riots. As one court official explained: "Our strategy is not just to deal with the discord cases but also to help police deal with other cases so that we can free up space in the cells."