Mother of murdered teen speaks out after killer's trial took two years to get to court after delays from COVID and strikes
A woman who waited two years to see her son's killer brought to justice has told Sky News the huge court delays only added to her trauma.
Tai O'Donnell, 19, bled to death after he was stabbed four times by his girlfriend at home in Croydon in March 2021, just one day after his mum had voiced concerns about his relationship.
Last week Kamila Ahmad, 24, was sentenced to life in jail with a minimum of 23 years for his murder.
A combination of the overstretched justice system, the backlog in cases caused by COVID, and the barristers' strikes meant that the trial took two years to come to court.
Stacey spoke to Sky News at her son's graveside at Croydon Cemetery, describing him as a beautiful young man and a talented musician: "He was energetic, the life and soul of the party, he always had a smile on his face."
She added that as she struggled to come to terms with his death, facing such a long wait for the trial only added to her trauma: "I spent months worrying about what might happen, overthinking different scenarios, about how the trial might play out.
"It came to September and I hadn't been sleeping all year, I had been waking up four or five o'clock every day. Anxiety. Really going through it.
"We then got three or four days into the first trial in September, only to be then told we were being cancelled again because of the barristers' strikes.
"There's no way to describe the impact this has on families, not just myself, but all the countless families going through this experiences like us.
"It's not until the time has passed that I can actually feel how much weight has been lifted."
There's been growing concern about the overstretched court system since before the pandemic, but the backlog in cases caused by lockdown is still having an impact, with defendants too, being harmed by the delays.
The number of people awaiting trial while on remand in England and Wales is at 14,700, its highest level for more than 50 years.
Guidelines say a person shouldn't be kept on remand more than six months, but 770 prisoners have currently been on custodial remand for more than two years.
There are a number of reasons why a defendant would be put on remand; including if they have been convicted of a crime in the past; if they have skipped bail before; or if the court thinks they might not go to their hearings, or commit a crime while on bail.
'No support, nothing, no guidance'
Emma Lewis, director for law firm MK Law, told Sky News that all of her clients facing trial in the next month have been waiting in jail for more than a year.
She says it's harmed their mental and physical health, as they are kept in cells for 23 hours a day, even though they haven't been convicted.
In one extreme case her client was kept behind bars for 18 months, before being found innocent and released back into the community, without any support:
"We had a two-week trial, and the same day the jury went out they found him not guilty, and then he was just released with no support, nothing, no guidance or counselling for the 18 months he had just gone through.
"He was expected just to get on with it, but he'd developed depression, he became an introvert. He struggled to speak."
In January, the Common's Justice Committee released a report that raised concerns over the increasing size of the remand population, which it said was "placing pressure on an already stretched prison system... with some prisons now at risk of becoming dedicated remand prisons by default."
The report also criticised the lack of any support for those found not guilty at trial after months, or even years in jail.
The government rejected the committee's recommendation to review the legal framework for custody time limits.
'They get less support than someone who was actually found guilty'
Sir Bob Neil, who chairs the Justice Committee, said: "These are people who have not been convicted of anything, and statistically many won't be found guilty.
"They will have spent months, or years waiting. They are likely to have lost any job, accommodation and their family ties will have been weakened.
"Yet when they're released from prison they get less support than someone who was actually found guilty, although I'm pleased to say that is a recommendation that the government promised to look at."
In a statement, a Ministry of Justice spokesperson said: "Remanded defendants are now waiting 15 weeks for trial on average, and we are investing almost half a billion pounds to reduce the outstanding caseload in the courts exacerbated by the pandemic and last year's barristers' strike.
"We have accepted the majority of the committee's recommendations, and we are already working with the judiciary to consider how the Bail Act is applied in practice. All remand prisoners can access mental health support, and we are training more than 25,000 prison staff in suicide and self-harm prevention."