10:32, June 19 128 0 theguardian.com

2020-06-19 10:32:05
Preston court blames Covid-19 backlog as teenager remanded in jail for 14 months

A 19-year-old woman from Barrow accused of making up allegations of sexual exploitation against five men may not stand trial until August 2021 because of legal delays caused by the coronavirus pandemic.

During the woman’s appearance at Preston crown court on Friday, the judge explained that the lockdown was leading to huge backlogs in the judicial system.

If a vaccine were found and social distancing guidelines were relaxed, the court would try to find an earlier date for the 10-week trial, the judge, Mark Brown, honorary recorder of Preston, said.

The woman, from Walney Island in Barrow, appeared in court charged with seven counts of perverting the course of justice between October 2017 and October 2019. She did not indicate a plea but her barrister, Louise Blackwell, QC, said she denied the allegations.

Outside, around 40 people gathered to support her, chanting and wearing T-shirts and hoodies demanding “justice”.

No bail application was made to release the woman from custody, where she has been held since breaking her bail conditions on 20 May.

Summarising via videolink, the prosecutor, Jaime Hamilton, QC, said the case involved “a number of separate but connected incidents”.

The first was in October 2017, in which the woman allegedly made a false allegation of rape and sexual assault against a man and then manufactured evidence to support the claim, he said.

Three allegations of a similar nature were made against a second man, which the Crown said were supported by fabricated evidence in text messages and social media posts by the defendant.

The woman faces two further counts in relation to an “extensive” allegation of being trafficked to Blackpool and sexually exploited by two men, which the prosecution will say was “wholly false” and supported by fabricated messages, Hamilton said.

In a separate incident she is alleged to have invented another account of sexual exploitation and trafficking against a man she met on a night out in Preston.

The barrister urged caution to anyone commenting on the case on social media, and warned that publishing anything that could prejudice the trial would be contempt of court.

The woman is expected to enter her pleas in a hearing at the same court on 23 or 24 November.

A provisional trial date of 2 August 2021 was set, with the judge saying the delay was “due almost entirely to the current circumstances we face due to this dreadful pandemic”. He added that he hoped it would be brought forward at some point, for example “if a vaccine has been developed and introduced”.

Blackwell described the date as “shocking but not unexpected”.

All trials were halted in England and Wales on 23 March, with some resuming last month.

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