A little over a year ago, a world-class golfer with chiselled good looks walked down the steps of a British Airways plane at Heathrow airport and straight into the arms of police from Scotland Yard.
The officers were investigating reports of a disturbance in the first-class cabin of the aircraft during its ten-hour journey from Tennessee to London, where Danish Ryder Cup player Thorbjorn Olesen has a home in an expensive enclave of the capital.
The incident, according to court papers, involved a female BA cabin attendant, a passenger urinating in public and Olesen, then aged 29, who at an initial hearing denied charges of sexual assault, being drunk on an aircraft and assault by beating.
He was due to stand trial in May this year but, because of the chaos and court backlogs caused by Covid, the matter has yet to come before a jury for justice to be served.
A new date is now pencilled in for December 6, 2021 — two years and five months since the fateful plane trip by the golfer, who until recently was ranked 62nd in the world.
For legal reasons, we cannot speculate or comment on what happened on board that flight. What we do know, however, is that the ramifications for Olesen have been great. He has been on unconditional bail since his arrest and was suspended from playing as a professional golfer pending the outcome of the case.
Only last month was that suspension lifted by the Professional Golf Association European Tour, the organisation operating the three top men’s golf competitions in Europe. It allowed Olesen to play again for the first time competitively (in his native Denmark), blaming the extraordinary delays to his trial hearing for its change of heart.
Before Covid, Britain’s legal system was already in chaos. But as this shocking report reveals, just TWO of the ten Nightingale Courts – designed to clear a huge backlog – are open, leaving thousands of victims in despair
But he is by no means the only person whose life has been left in limbo after Britain’s judicial system was put on pause by the pandemic.
The flight attendant caught up in this affair must surely be feeling that nearly two and a half years is a very long wait to give a view in court about this sorry story.
Then there are the other witnesses on the flight, including one of Olesen’s team-mates, who may be called to court. They also have their appearance at what will be a high-profile trial hanging over them until nearly the Christmas after next. The Olesen case is just one of thousands that have been put into cold storage because of coronavirus.
Yet in early February this year, before there was any inkling of an imminent shutdown, Her Majesty’s Courts & Tribunals Service was already in deep crisis. Because of cuts to the service, delays in criminal cases were a big problem.
One day last August, 127 out of 260 available courtrooms surveyed were idle, including 12 out of 15 at the ever-busy Southwark Crown Court in London.
Some may suggest this was because August is high season for summer holidays. But that seems unlikely. Last December a survey showed that of 729 available courtrooms, nearly half — 350 — were not ‘sitting’.
‘There is a deliberate and aggressive squeeze on court capacity by the Government to save money,’ Chris Henley, QC, then chairman of the Criminal Bar Association, alleged last year.
He revealed: ‘Judges are being told to stay at home or take extra holidays on full pay because so many courtrooms are shut. This is nothing to do with a lack of work.’
Indeed, figures released by the Government show that in 2019, at any one time, an average of 17 per cent of courts were idle.
Thorbjorn Olesen was due to stand trial in May this year but, because of the chaos and court backlogs caused by Covid, the matter has yet to come before a jury for justice to be served
According to the BBC, even before Covid struck there were some 40,000 crown court cases waiting to be heard in England and Wales, and no fewer than 400,000 cases in the queue for magistrates’ hearings.
Recognising this, the Ministry of Justice announced it would increase the number of crown court ‘sitting’ days by several thousand a year to speed things up. Yet crown court case times were already lengthy. The average was taking 525 days from offence to completion, compared with 392 days in 2010.
The courts’ watchdog, Her Majesty’s Crown Prosecution Service Inspectorate, says in a recent analysis that even at pre-pandemic hearing rates, the backlog of cases caused by the cutback in trial space could take ten years to clear.
And then came Covid.
With social-distancing rules in place, only a small proportion of existing courtrooms can accommodate trials.
So, following the lead of the NHS, the Government announced earlier this summer that it would establish ten emergency ‘Nightingale Courts’ dotted around the country: no-frills halls of justice, sufficiently spacious for the safe social distancing of jurors, lawyers, defendants, witnesses and the public.
Yet as the Mail discovered last week, just two of the ten — one in London and one in Worthing, West Sussex — are open for business.
On Thursday, we watched a fraud trial at the capital’s sole functioning Nightingale Court, based in a privately owned conference centre just south of the Thames near Tower Bridge and Borough Market.
Jury members sat at single desks laid out as if this were a school exam hall. The security staff were handing out blue masks and bottles of hand sanitiser to those entering the large hearing room, which was spacious enough for everyone, taking part or watching, to stay two metres apart.
Back in the chamber, the judge, Sally Cahill, QC, sitting on a rostrum, thanked jurors for attending when the streets outside were ’empty’. ‘This is a strange time for all of us,’ she added, after 48-year-old Angelica Zabrodina was found guilty of returning counterfeit clothing to High Street outlet TK Maxx between October and November 2018.
After an 18-month delay, her trial was scheduled for April this year but then delayed further because of the pandemic courtroom shortage. Zabrodina will be sentenced later this month.
But when we visited another planned Nightingale Court, at historic Peterborough Cathedral, in the Fens, on Wednesday, we found that, far from busily hearing cases, it was still being built for an opening due in September.
Workmen were pulling up in large vans to help convert the Knights’ Chamber and Visitor Centre at the 13th-century site into a makeshift hall of justice. It had been expected to launch this month and remain open until February next year.
In the eyes of the law, Olesen, now aged 30, may well be an innocent man. But regardless of whether he is or not, he has certainly paid an extra penalty thanks to the court chaos caused by Covid
Welcoming the plan when it was announced, the Dean of Peterborough Cathedral, the Very Reverend Chris Dalliston, said: ‘We are proud the Knights’ Chamber is among the first venues to be selected as a Nightingale Court. Attending court can be a very anxious time for people and we hope that some might find a moment of peace and tranquillity in the Cathedral whilst they are here.’
Fine words indeed. But where does that leave the thousands waiting for justice?
They will be disturbed to learn that last week some suspects, on remand in prison awaiting a hearing, have been freed because the legal custody time-limit of 182 days had passed. It is a move some critics say could create a danger to the public.
In one important ruling, a judge ordered the release of a suspected drug dealer, who will not face trial until next year.
Outspokenly critical of the Government, His Honour Judge Keith Raynor said that while a shortage in government funding had caused a lack of court space, ultimately this was not a good enough reason to keep the accused man, Richard Graham, 49, in prison.
Sitting at Woolwich Crown Court, the judge criticised the Government response to the pandemic, which meant that ‘many defendants in custody will not be tried until well into 2021’.
Mr Graham was arrested and charged in December, with his trial due to start in May. It did not take place. Instead, he has been released on bail and ordered to stay at one address and wear an electronic tag.
Refusing a third extension to Mr Graham’s custody, the judge said: ‘The delays in bringing cases to trial … will not be alleviated by the current steps being taken by Her Majesty’s Court Service.’
He added that if ‘sufficient investment had been made to create dozens of [rather than just ten] additional Nightingale courts to undertake criminal trials’, the situation might have been different.
Sitting at Woolwich Crown Court, a judge criticised the Government response to the pandemic, which meant that ‘many defendants in custody will not be tried until well into 2021’
Meanwhile, Caroline Goodwin, QC, current head of the Criminal Bar Association, has said there are ‘growing concerns’ that more suspects, arrested for less serious crimes, may have to be released from custody following the Raynor ruling, which happened last month but only came to light last week.
Ms Goodwin has also criticised the scale, and slowness of opening, of the ten Nightingale courts. She said last month that 50 more were needed to address delays in criminal trials.
Yet a spokesman for Her Majesty’s Courts & Tribunals Service said this week that 90 per cent of court buildings are open, remote hearings have increased, urgent cases are being prioritised and millions of pounds is being invested in buildings and technology to ‘keep justice going’.
But is this working? Not at all, according to a woman called Emma who went to the police more than three years ago, alleging she had been raped. The suspect was arrested soon afterwards but it was another two years before he was charged.
The trial was due to start this June but has been adjourned because of the pandemic. Police have told her it may not begin for another year. We have changed Emma’s name and not identified where she lives for legal reasons.
Through it all, she has been supported by the charity Solace Women’s Aid, which says there is nothing unusual about the delays she has faced.
Emma told the BBC in a recent interview: ‘It’s really difficult. How are people like me expected to move on when it’s never finished? And it’s not just me. It’s my family and friends. It affects others.’
She started to cry when asked about the delays in the system. ‘Please don’t forget us,’ she said sadly.
As for golfer Olesen, his world ranking dropped like stone following his arrest because he was banned from his professional sport. As of yesterday, he was standing 231st in the world.
It is not an exaggeration to say this brilliant golfer’s entire career may have been put in jeopardy by the failings of our justice system.
After the PGA announced that it would let him play again, the Dane said: ‘I am incredibly sad about what has happened and would like to apologise to those who have supported me for so many years.’
In the eyes of the law, Olesen, now aged 30, may well be an innocent man. But regardless of whether he is or not, he has certainly paid an extra penalty thanks to the court chaos caused by Covid. And that, surely, is not right or just.