London's judiciary was stretched to breaking point yesterday as two magistrates' courts took the unprecedented step of sitting on a Sunday to clear the 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 was buckling under the strain, with police cells overflowing and judges struggling to mete out justice quickly enough. The Metropolitan Police has made 1,414 arrests in connection with the three nights of violence across the capital, and has charged 810 people. 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 decided to open. 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 in court two, where Judge Williamson was told by lawyers that the papers they needed for the cases yesterday had been mistakenly sent to court one. "I don't know how we have ended up in this rather parlous state," she fumed.
Court officials said Westminster and Camberwell each 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 to get the papers for raids, which are signed off straight away.
The majority of cases 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."
Those who did appear charged in connection with the riot included a 14-year-old boy who admitted buying a mobile phone that had been stolen from a 3 store in Camberwell.
Another was a 37-year-old mother of two, Tracey O'Leary, who works as a care assistant at the Beatrice Tate school in Bethnal Green, which specialises in educating teenagers with severe learning difficulties. After she pleaded guilty to handling stolen goods, the court heard how O'Leary saw a group of teenagers drop a bag containing designer clothes in a park. She picked the bag up and took it home.
Sentencing her to 16 weeks in prison, Judge Williamson said: "You jolly well ought to have known better. I can't look at you in isolation. Everyone who played a part in these disturbances one way or another added to the length and seriousness of them."
A 15-year-old pleaded guilty to three theft charges. He was caught on CCTV looting the designer-clothes store Zee and Co in Hackney three times on Monday evening, and again the following morning. In total the independent retailer lost more than £600,000 worth of stock. District Judge Wright turned to the boy's mother and asked: "Didn't you know he wasn't there?" She replied: "No, I didn't know he wasn't there. I thought he was at home."
The judge ordered a review of her parenting skills. Her son was instructed to attend the youth court next month for sentencing and was told to expect a custodial sentence.
* Several arrests were made last night in relation to a number of high-profile incidents last week. A 16-year-old boy was arrested on suspicion of the murder of 68-year-old Richard Bowes, who was attacked as he tried to stamp out a fire in Ealing, west London, on Monday.
Detectives investigating the murder of Trevor Ellis, who died after he was shot in Croydon last Monday, have arrested a 24-year-old man. Another man is still in custody.
Gordon Edward Thompson, 33, was charged yesterday with starting a fire which destroyed the Reeves Furniture Store in Croydon last Monday.
The defendants: From petty theft to violent disorder
Shane Johnson, 20
Johnson pleaded guilty to violent disorder during the Hackney riots last Monday night. Prosecutors said he had gone on a one-hour rampage. He was captured on CCTV targeting police officers and used sticks and poles to attack a Ladbrokes store on Mare Street. Remanding Johnson in custody, the judge sent the case to crown court for sentencing. "This is at the high end of the scale," she said. "My powers of sentencing fall a long way short."
The defendant, who cannot be named for legal reasons, pleaded guilty to knowingly receiving stolen goods. The court heard how the boy from East London had paid £150 for £400 worth of clothing that had been stolen from Zee and Co. Police stopped him because the clothes he was wearing were expensive, new and ill-fitting. His defence lawyer admitted: "This was not a sophisticated crime." The matter was referred to a youth court. He was given bail and an electronic tag and told to expect a custodial sentence.
Tracey O'Leary, 37
The mother-of-two was sentenced to 16 weeks in prison after pleading guilty to handling stolen goods. Prosecutors described how the care assistant, who works at the Beatrice Tate school for children with learning difficulties in Bethnal Green, was found with a bag containing designer clothes in her flat. The court heard how O'Leary saw a group of teenagers hide the bag under a bush in a park on Tuesday evening. She then took the bag home. District Judge Susan Williamson said: "It is outright greed. What a pity you didn't think first."
George Chandler, 18
The teenager from Hackney was ordered to serve 12 weeks in a young offenders' institute after pleading guilty to receiving stolen goods looted from Zee and Co. The court heard how he had been in possession of a "ToyWatch". District judge Susan Williamson said: "You have no excuse for your behaviour, those who acquire stolen goods perpetuate the process of stealing."
Thomas Miller, 20
Mr Miller, of Torrington Place, Wapping, denied taking £700 worth of clothing during a burglary at Zee and Co.
Miller, a full-time lifeguard in Wapping, appears next at Highbury Corner Magistrates' Court on 26 September.
The teenage boy from Walthamstow who raided a supermarket at 1am last Tuesday, attended court with his step- father as his mother was too angered by his actions to be there, the district judge was told. The boy, who admitted burglary and was given a nine-month referral order, took an MP4 docking station, which he dropped as he was leaving the building.
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