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Robbie Lawlor: Judge dismisses claims prison staff spied on man accused of killing gangster

At the time of his death, Lawlor was considered the most notorious gangster in Ireland

Robbie Lawlor

Police investigating the murder of Robbie Lawlor search a property on Etna Drive just a few doors from the crime scene in the Ardoyne area of north Belfast on April 6, 2020 (Photo by Kevin Scott for Belfast Telegraph)© Kevin Scott / Belfast Telegraph

Adrian 'Aidy' Holland

Belfast Telegraph reporterBelfast Telegraph

An abuse-of-process application by a man accused of killing gangland boss Robbie Lawlor has been refused, despite claims of eavesdropping on legal consultations in Maghaberry Prison.

Making the application, defence barrister Joe Brolly said that his inability to confidentially consult with north Belfast man Adrian Holland (38) made the administration of justice in the case all but impossible.

As such the defence team had asked the court to stay the prosecution due to an abuse of the legal process.

The defendant is charged with the joint enterprise murder of Dublin gang boss Lawlor (36), who was shot dead in the garden of a house belonging to Holland’s late grandmother, in Etna Drive, Ardoyne, in April 2020.

While there is no suggestion that either Holland or his co-accused Patrick Teer (47) was the gunman who killed the Dublin gangster in front of horrified onlookers, both are charged with murder by assisting the killer.

Police investigating the murder of Robbie Lawlor search a property on Etna Drive just a few doors from the crime scene in the Ardoyne area of north Belfast on April 6, 2020 (Photo by Kevin Scott for Belfast Telegraph)© Kevin Scott / Belfast Telegraph

At the time of his death, Lawlor was considered the most notorious gangster in Ireland, having been linked to the murder of Keane Mulready-Woods (17), whose body was dismembered and left in various locations.

Lawlor is believed to have travelled to Northern Ireland amid fears he was set to be attacked as part of a violent feud.

A previous court hearing heard he was staying in a flat above a Tesco store on University Road in south Belfast.

Mr Brolly said that the defence team were unable to properly consult with their client and that “covert eavesdropping on lawyers’ conversations” made due process unviable.

“The extent of the privilege, it is important to understand, is a substantive right, it is not a procedural right,” he said.

Adding that an accused person must be able to consult his lawyer in confidence, Mr Brolly said: “It is a fundamental condition on which the administration of justice rests.”

The court was told that on January 12, 2022, a family Zoom visit was covertly monitored.

At the visit, the accused said he had witnessed that the door of the monitoring room at HMP Maghaberry had “inadvertently” been left open.

Adrian 'Aidy' Holland

Holland reported this to the prison governor. A deputy governor issued an apology, confirming that staff do not have permission to listen into conversations taking place.

Two days later, on January 14, during the course of a phone consultation between the accused and his solicitor Ciaran Shiels, of Madden & Finucane, the line dropped and went dead.

When the call reconnected, two males could be heard conversing in the background, one of whom is reported to have said: “That’s them back on now.”

Mr Brolly said: “This was a consultation related to an extremely serious offence. It is difficult to think of a more serious offence. Mr Shiels immediately reported the matter to the senior partners in his office.”

The Prison Service later denied that any eavesdropping had taken place.

Mr Brolly told the court that there had been no investigation into the matter and that his client was in custody with no resources and that legal aid does not cover someone for an investigation of this kind.

He added that his instructing solicitor had an “uneasy feeling” that consultations were being listened to.

Mr Brolly said that the accused had been permitted temporary bail by Mr Justice O’Hara for legal consultations because of the concerns that visits were being monitored.

“He took an exceptional course of action” to allow the defendant to consult with his solicitor and barrister in privacy at the offices of Madden & Finucane in Belfast.

“That was time very well spent,” Mr Brolly added.

Holland was granted temporary release on April 6, 7, 11, 14, 20 and 29, from 11.30am until 5.30pm on those six occasions.

However, Mr Brolly added that there had been no legal consultation since April 29 last year.

“We have not been able to consult with him. We are not prepared to consult via Zoom. The solicitor has not had any confidential conversations by phone.

“He has not been able to speak to us about the circumstances of an extremely difficult case.

“It is accepted he is not the gunman but the murder is carried out in front of his home.

“In those circumstances, particularly given the involvement of an organised crime gang from the south of Ireland, for us not to be able to consult with him in private, for him not to be able to speak openly and honestly with us, is the most egregious breach, as is described in case law, as one of the fundamental pillars of the justice system.”

He added that the accused was in an “impossible position”.

During a previous bail justice, Mr Justice O’Hara cited concerns that either the accused or others could be targeted as part of the bloody feud.

“He might be the hunter or he might be the hunted, but there is a public risk involved,” the judge said.

“There is a prima facie case that Mr Holland was involved in this murder… which is believed to have been committed in the context of a drugs war between violent criminal gangs,” Mr O’Hara added.

During the abuse-of-process hearing, Mr Brolly said that a person linked to the Lawlor murder had since been assassinated in Belfast.

This was in reference to the murder of Warren Crossan, who was gunned down in the St James area of west Belfast in June 2020.

Mr Crossan, the son of slain Continuity IRA boss Tommy Crossan, had been arrested in connection with the murder of Lawlor but was released without charge.

David Russell KC said that there was “no evidence in this case” and that none of the allegations made by Mr Brolly had been agreed by the Crown.

“The Prison Service has said there is no monitoring, and assurances given to the previous court have been given again by the police that there is nothing to disclose around that.

“The reality is that the feeling of unease has lead to a voluntary decision not to consult. Be that remotely or now face to face.

“There is no evidence before the court on any of these issues.”

Judge Stephen Keown refused the application, saying: “To support the assertion that the accused and his legal team could have no confidence in the privacy of their consultations, the defence set out a number of points.

“An uneasy sensation that phone calls and Zoom calls were being monitored, backed up, it is stated by the instructing solicitor, by noises and shuffles that were unusual.

“Secondly on the January 12 HMP Maghaberry family Zoom visit, which the defence say was covertly monitored, [with] an apology received from the prison.

“Thirdly on January 14, during a phone consolation between the accused and his solicitor, Mr Shiels, the call dropped at 16:39 and at 16:41, as well as the call coming back online [and] two males can be heard conversing.

“There is no assertion, let alone a substantiated assertion, that Mr Holland is prevented from having confidential in-person legal consultations in the prison.

“As such the defence have not, in my view, established that they cannot consult in private.

“I therefore dismiss the application to stay the proceedings for abuse of process.”

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