A judge who attacked the Ministry of Justice’s response to the coronavirus pandemic has made explosive allegations that he has been put under “improper and undue pressure” by senior figures in the judiciary.
Judge Keith Raynor has emerged as an outspoken critic of the government’s efforts to tackling the Covid-19 courts crisis, accusing ministers of being slow to react and calling an £80 million rescue package “too little too late”.
Delivering his damning assessment this week, the judge refused to extend the time that a suspected drug dealer could be held in custody ahead of his trial because he felt not enough had been done to tackle a mounting backlog of crown court cases, with delays now stretching to the end of next year and beyond.
In a highly unusual intervention this morning, Judge Raynor lodged a formal complaint against the top judge at Woolwich Crown Court, Judge Christopher Kinch QC, suggesting he has been pressured over Tuesday’s ruling and senior judges are also likely to have been involved.
And he claimed that “within hours” of making his outspoken remarks, he had been blocked from handling another decision on custody time limits (CTLs) in an attempted murder case.
Judge Raynor said he believed an inquiry was needed, while a QC in the attempted murder case had pointed out the public may suspect “political influence” had been exerted over the judiciary.
The Government has been under sustained fire from lawyers over its handling of the justice system, as the jury trial backlog – already approaching 40,000 before the coronavirus pandemic – has continued to grow rapidly with courts able to handle fewer cases in recent months.
Judge Raynor first criticised the government in August when he decided a suspected drug dealer, 49-year-old Richard Graham, should be released from custody while awaiting his trial.
In his ruling this Tuesday in the case 19-year-old Tesfa Young-Williams, another suspected drug dealer, he said not enough had been done to get jury trials heard.
“The state has failed in its duty to organise its legal systems”, he concluded, pointing out empty town halls, cinemas, and military facilities had not been requisitioned as ad-hoc courts.
It was revealed this morning that Judge Kinch questioned how Judge Raynor was planning to handle the Young-Williams hearing, before forwarding a copy of the Government’s ‘Criminal Courts Recovery Plan’.
“It is notable for the fact that the LCJ [Lord Chief Justice, Lord Burnett] has signed the forward to the document jointly with the Lord Chancellor”, Judge Kinch wrote.
“The foreword includes this section below in which the LCJ appears to state that the response is doing as much as possible. Like it or not, this seems to me to be an intervention that is difficult to overlook.”
Judge Raynor said he “took this as a clear indication that I must ‘side’ with the LCJ and grant the CTL extension application”, and – concerned that his senior colleague also wanted to “have a word” – left court for the day to avoid him and dodged a phone call in the evening.
“I feel that I was subjected to improper and undue influence by HHJ Kinch QC to make a ruling extending the CTL in the case of R-v- Tesfa Young-Williams”, he wrote today.
In an email copied to the Senior Presiding Judge Lady Justice Thirlwall, Judge Raynor added: “I do not believe that the actions of HHJ Kinch QC towards me were undertaken without him having spoken to others.”
In a further dramatic development, he claimed that he has been replaced on a CTLs application in the attempted murder case by a High Court judge, Mrs Justice Whipple, on instruction from Lady Justice Thirlwall.
He called for an investigation to find out “when, exactly, was that decision taken and who was consulted or involved in the process? And how far up the judicial ladder would any enquiry have to go?”
Sarah Forshaw QC, representing the attempted murder suspect involved, suggested in court yesterday that the defendant – as well as the public – may think the senior judiciary were “unhappy” with Judge Raynor’s decisions and had “took it upon themselves to draft in a High Court Judge to deal with this case”.
“The risk is that an impartial observer … might assume that this was being done with some agenda to achieve a desired result”, she said.
“I would like to know the reason why a High Court Judge has been selected to hear the CTL application, so that I can allay my client’s fears that the High Court Judge has been selected due to some political influence.”
Judge Raynor said he felt compelled to make today’s intervention “in the interests of justice and to avoid any potential injustices in the cases to which I have referred – or other cases”.
The Judicial Office has been contacted for comment.