THROUGHOUT the night and into the morning they streamed into the dock of the court in London, a parade of dozens of people from all walks of life charged over the riots that rocked the city.
They were part of a massive backlog of cases from the unrest that forced the City of Westminster Magistrates Court in the British capital and courts in other English cities to stay open all night to administer justice.
At Westminster there were chaotic scenes as defence lawyers rushed about the building trying to locate their clients in the cells in the basement of the building.
As weary court staff handed over from the first overnight shift they could remember for a decade, one of the first to appear early on Thursday was Natasha Reid, a 24-year-old university graduate.
Reid, whose lawyer said she wanted to be a social worker, pleaded guilty to stealing a JVC television worth $430.67 on August 7 from a looted electronics store in the north London district of Enfield.
She held her head in her hands as the defence lawyer told the court she had handed herself in at a police station yesterday afternoon – bringing the television with her.
“She simply couldn’t sleep after committing the offence,” the lawyer said. Reid was released on bail until sentencing on September 1.
With more than 1200 people arrested so far over the riots and over 400 charged, courts also stayed open through the night in the major English cities of Birmingham and Manchester.
Prime Minister David Cameron has called for judges to jail all those found guilty of a role in the worst riots for a generation, and the first two were jailed last night in Manchester.
Back at Westminster Magistrates Court, a string of young men with close-cropped hair and dressed in sportswear were brought before the judge, accused of violent disorder in the upmarket London district of St John’s Wood shortly after midnight on Tuesday.
Prosecutors say as many as 50 young hooded and masked men broke into two cafes while customers cowered inside. They overturned tables and tried to set the premises alight with towels soaked in lighter fuel.
As the case started, a lawyer told the court: “Chaos reigns downstairs.” District judge Daphne Wickham replied: “It certainly does.”
Maroune Rouhi, a 21-year-old law student, was among 16 people charged over the disorder, although his lawyer James Kelly insisted he was innocent.
He said Rouhi was on his way to mosque after a day of fasting for Ramadan but found himself in the wrong place at the wrong time. The judge remanded the young man in custody.
Kelly appeared exhausted as he struggled to keep track of the cases assigned to him as the duty solicitor, and other defence lawyers with bags under their eyes spoke of “chaos” caused by unprecedented numbers of arrests.
One female lawyer, who asked not to be named, said she had managed about 20 cases in the past nine hours, adding that up to 50 or 60 people had been through the Westminster court overnight.
Prosecution lawyer Lisa Brown managed to get some sleep after working from midnight to 6.30 am on Tuesday night at Highbury Magistrates Court in north London.
“It was very busy,” she told AFP. “This is clearly very unusual but necessary. The alternative is you take them through the courts during the day but that might be at the risk of other cases.”