Delays leave man facing four years in Leicester jail without trial – The Guardian

Exclusive: case of Voja Petkovic highlights pressures on criminal justice that campaigners warn is leading to miscarriages of justice
A man has been told he will have to spend at least four years and three months in jail without trial as a result of Covid, barrister strikes and a malfunctioning courtroom.
Voja Petkovic, 36, was arrested in January 2019 and remains on remand in Leicester prison despite not having been convicted of any of the charges against him.
He is not now due to step into court until April 2023, and the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) has already started making representations to delay the case further until 8 May 2023 owing to a backlog.
Petkovic has been caught up in a multifaceted crisis that has led the Law Society of England and Wales to warn of a “collapsing criminal justice system”.
Petkovic’s solicitor, Brian Swan, said he had never heard of any defendant facing such a long period in jail without trial where no fault for delay could be pinned on the accused.
“He is not doing well mentally,” Swan said. “His daughter was one month old when he was arrested and is now starting school.”
The extraordinary case highlights the strains on the legal system, which campaigners say is leading to widespread miscarriages of justice with a backlog of about 60,000 cases awaiting trial at crown court.
The latest figures released after freedom of information requests show that 1,777 people have been held on remand for longer than a year, and more than 533 people have been held longer than two years.
Many on remand will walk free after trial. In 2021, more than one in five people (21%) were not sent to prison after being held on remand, and one in 10 people held on remand were subsequently acquitted at trial.
Griff Ferris, a senior legal and policy officer at the campaign group Fair Trials, said: “There’s no justice in a system that imprisons people awaiting trial for months and years.”
Petkovic was arrested near his home in Allenton, Derby, on 10 January 2019 and charged with offences including conspiracy to supply class A drugs and possession of a prohibited firearm.
He appeared at trial with eight other defendants at Birmingham crown court from 4 February 2020, but two months into the trial, on 23 March, the judge dismissed the jury owing to the Covid outbreak.
At the time, the custody time limit – the amount of time that someone can be held on remand – was six months. That was extended in September 2020 to eight months because of the pressures on the system from Covid.
However, cases such as Petkovic’s, where a trial has started but collapsed for whatever reason, are not covered by any custody limits, and his file was pushed to the back of a long queue.
“Every time I tried to get a trial date, I was told that people who were covered by the custody time limit were the priority,” Swan said. “But if this case is not urgent now, I don’t know what is.”
At a hearing on 4 May 2020, a new trial date of 12 July 2021 was set, but the judge warned that this would be reviewed. An application for bail was rejected.
On 18 December 2020, the judge said the trial date previously offered could not be accommodated in any court owing to the level of demand. A new date of 10 January 2021 was set in a new “super court” in Loughbrough set up to deal with the backlog of cases.
That court, however, turned out to be unable to deal with more than one trial at a time. The first case heard there then overran, delaying Petkovic’s case by two more months.
When Petkovic’s trial did start, on 7 March 2021, its progress was then heavily delayed by the failure of the court’s air conditioning system in heatwave conditions. The trial collapsed in chaos on 27 July and the jury was discharged.
“The prison staff would not attend if the temperature in the court went above 23 degrees,” said Swan, of Stokoe Partnership solicitors. “The prosecution actually asked for the case to be discharged because it was taking so long. The judge took two weeks to consider. He came back and said: ‘No, we will carry on.’ Then the next day he changed his mind and discharged the jury. It would have been discharged anyway because of the barristers’ strike.”
A spokesperson for the judiciary said there had in fact been a 10-day interval between the discharge argument and the judge’s ruling, with a week of strike action in between which meant no judgment could be delivered. And that the jury was discharged two days later.
A new trial date has been set for 17 April 2023 at Loughborough but the prosecution have made representations to the list office to move it back to 8 May. A further bail application is not currently possible as Petkovic’s barrister is on strike.
Swan said: “People go to jail for long prison sentences but they have had their trial, their day in court. I have never heard of anything like this.”
A Ministry of Justice spokesperson said: “Remand cases have been prioritised following the unprecedented impact of the pandemic and only those posing the greatest risk to the public or who are likely to abscond are held in prison.
“Decisions on bail applications are made by independent judges who ensure the public are protected.”
This article was amended on 16 September 2022 to include a response from a spokesperson for the judiciary with regard to the timing of the judge’s decisions.


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