Court delays left my attacker free to strike again

time:2023-06-03 02:43:20source:BBC News (British Broadcasting Corporation) author:Press center7

A mother who was subjected to an attack by her violent ex-partner said charging and trial delays left him free to attack a second woman. Speaking to the BBC, Elizabeth Hudson said the backlog of crown court cases was causing misery and distress for many victims.

As Martin Underwood held a knife against her face, Elizabeth Hudson's first thought was if she would see her children again.

"He had been telling me he was going to kill me, then he was going to kill himself and the kids would have no parents."

She was convinced she was going to die and her children would be left orphaned. Elizabeth had already been slashed by the knife Underwood was wielding, as he pinned her in the kitchen of his Barnsley home.

Bolting for the front door, she ran into the street and into the arms of a neighbour. This lucky escape ultimately saved her life.

"It was the most terrifying few minutes of my life. I wouldn't be here now," the mother of two recalls.

The attack in April 2021 began almost two years of misery for Ms Hudson and her family. Despite the level of violence faced, she said she was surprised to hear Underwood was released under investigation by police a couple of days later.

"The panic that hit then, knowing what he had just done to me, knowing how angry he was likely to be. Every night I was panicking, listening for noises, checking the doors were locked."

Elizabeth left her home to stay with friends and installed CCTV at her terraced house, where she lived with her children. South Yorkshire Police said despite the evidence it had against the former Army sergeant, the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) did not feel it was enough to charge him.

They said they submitted a case to charge Underwood to the CPS a number of times before it was finally agreed there was enough evidence.

For four months, Underwood went about his day-to-day life. For Elizabeth, hers had been shattered.

"It was utterly horrendous," she says, clearly angry at what she went through.

Underwood was eventually charged with threats to kill and actual bodily harm (ABH) in August of the same year and appeared in court - 159 days after the attack.

He was bailed by the court after pleading guilty to the ABH, but continued to deny the threat to kill charge.

Most cases go through the system in just under a year, according to figures from the Ministry of Justice.

Underwood's trial was listed for July 2022, but the date coincided with a strike by barristers so was pushed back to November - 18 months since Elizabeth was attacked.

In the time between his court appearance and his trial date, Underwood, who had been able walk the streets freely for months, attacked his second victim.

Elizabeth remembers hearing about it: "I get a message on Facebook. Martin has now attacked his new, much younger girlfriend. She messages me and tells me that it's a horribly violent attack on her too."

At this point, it had been 488 days since the attack on Elizabeth. Underwood was again arrested and this time was put behind bars ahead of his court date.

Elizabeth says she could breathe a sigh of relief - but that breath came at the cost of a second woman being violently assaulted.

At his next appearance at Sheffield Crown Court, Underwood pleaded guilty to a new charge of non-fatal suffocation after holding a plastic bag over his new partner's face.

He also changed his threat to kill plea to guilty. The trial was scrapped and a sentencing date put in the bulging court diary instead.

"Those delays ultimately meant that another woman was put in incredible danger. She could have died and that is due to a criminal justice system that just doesn't work," Elizabeth said.

Gul Nawaz Hussain KC, a criminal defence barrister who has worked on some of the biggest cases in the country, said a lack of courtrooms and judges was making the system crumble.

"The delays are endemic in the system and they all effectively stem from a lack of investment. The system is falling to bits," he explains.

"It's not unheard of now for cases to come to trial years after the alleged incident happened. It causes unnecessary anxiety to witnesses and defendants."

More than 4,700 cases are currently going through crown courts in Yorkshire - the busiest time for courts since 2014.

A Ministry of Justice spokesperson described Underwood's attacks as "appalling" adding their sympathies were with his victims.

They said the government was investing £477m to tackle the crown court backlog which increased through the Covid-19 pandemic.

"We are quadrupling funding for victims' services so more victims get the support they need," the spokesperson added.

The CPS said once South Yorkshire Police had submitted a full file of evidence in July 2021, it authorised charges against Underwood within days.

"Supporting victims is essential to helping secure justice, which is why we are committed to making significant improvements in the way we engage with victims," a spokesperson said.

Underwood was jailed 671 days after he attacked Elizabeth.

In court, the judge said he posed a "significant risk" to future partners because of the violence he used.

He was jailed for six years and three months for his crimes and given indefinite restraining orders in relation to both women, but after the turmoil Elizabeth went through, she feels it might not have been worth her trauma.

"The whole system doesn't put victims at the heart of it. The impact on their lives isn't taken into account, because if it was there's no way it would have taken nearly two years," Elizabeth says.

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