Belfast Telegraph

Foul-ups that let criminals go free

Every day one case is dismissed because of police and PPS gaffes

By Adrian Rutherford

The blunders which are allowing hundreds of thugs and petty criminals to escape justice are today revealed by the Belfast Telegraph.

Failings by prosecutors and the PSNI are allowing dozens of suspected criminals to walk free every month — including people alleged to have committed assaults and disorderly behaviour.

Cases were discharged in magistrates courts because prosecutors were not ready to proceed — in most cases because police evidence arrived too late.

In legal terms, cases at this level become statute-barred and cannot be brought to trial where prosecutors have failed to start proceedings within six months of the alleged offence.

According to figures released to this newspaper, cases involving 459 suspects collapsed in just nine months for this reason — more than one every day.

Both the PSNI and Public Prosecution Service (PPS) said it represents a tiny fraction of their total caseload.

Last night there were warnings that the situation is likely to get much worse as more officers are moved from behind desks on to the front line.

It has also prompted calls for an urgent review amid claims the criminal process is failing victims.

Lord Morrow, who chairs the Stormont justice committee, called on the PSNI to provide a full explanation for the failings.

“The police owe us an explanation as to why they are not processing these cases in the required timescale,” he said.

“This again gives the impression that crime is not being taken seriously.”

Details of statute-barred cases were released to the Belfast Telegraph by the PPS after a Freedom of Information request.

Between December and August 2009, cases involving 459 suspects slipped through the net – and in 340 cases this was the direct result of PSNI delays in submitting paperwork.

Cases involving 68 other people were attributed to PPS blunders, while the other 51 were blamed on both the PPS and PSNI.

The cases involved are summary only — those dealt with by magistrates courts — and include assaults, disorderly behaviour and road traffic offences.

Serious crimes such as murder, rape and armed robberies are not subject to time limits.

Policing Board member Basil McCrea said moving officers from behind desks and putting them on the streets would impact on the PSNI’s performance in preparing files in the future.

“The situation is definitely going to get worse unless some agency actually decides who is going to deal with this,” he said.

“It is an important issue which the Justice Minister needs to look at.

“The relationship between the PSNI and PPS is an ongoing saga and it remains a cause for concern.

“Prosecutions should not be failing because of poor bureaucracy — but the question is where does that bureaucracy come from.”

Today’s details come two weeks after a major report criticised the Crown Prosecution Service in England and Wales.

An audit revealed £650,000 was wasted on almost 1,700 cases which collapsed in 2009/10.

The report was highly critical of the disjointed criminal justice system. A spokeswoman for the PSNI admitted some investigations had reached a point where it is no longer possible to pursue them within legislative timescales.

“There are a variety of reasons why this may have happened including delays due to the unavailability of key parties or the complex nature of the enquiries involved,” she said.

“Nonetheless, we recognise how important these matters are in terms of public confidence.

“The PPS and PSNI continue to work together to ensure that all persons who should face prosecution are properly brought before the court.”

Meanwhile a spokeswoman for the PPS said the number of cases which become statute-barred represents less than 1% of their annual caseload.

“The number of these attributed to the PPS represents a very small fraction,” she said. “The PPS and PSNI continue to work together to ensure that all persons who should face prosecution are properly dealt with.”

Analysis: It’s not just the ever-increasing paperwork

The revelation that cases involving 340 people collapsed as a direct result of the PSNI’s failure to submit files on time will place fresh scrutiny on the paperwork jam facing the service.

Chief Constable Matt Baggott has warned that his officers are being stifled by red tape and excessive bureaucracy.

His predecessor Sir Hugh Orde also infamously claimed the PSNI was the most scrutinised and accountable police force in the world.

Clearly the time-consuming raft of paperwork facing the PSNI is an issue.

And there are warnings it could get worse as officers are redeployed on to the streets to deal with the rising terrorist threat.

But it is only part of the story.

There are various reasons why cases can become statute-barred, and not all are because of sloppy police work. In some cases, delays are caused by the complex nature of inquiries while unavailability of witnesses and other key people can also lead to hold-ups.

The Public Prosecution Service is also identified as culpable in some of the cases.

Nor is it a problem unique to Northern Ireland.

Last month a report by Her Majesty’s Crown Prosecution Service Inspectorate found 1,693 cases were statute-barred in England and Wales last year.

The abandoned prosecutions cost the CPS more than £650,000 — around £300 per case.

The criminal process starts when an incident is reported to police. An investigation begins to gather as much evidence as possible and bring the perpetrator to justice. Once detectives have finished compiling their evidence, a file should be presented to the PPS, which then decides if there is a case to answer.

But they become statute-barred and cannot be brought to court where prosecutors fail to start proceedings within six months of an offence occurring.

This applies to summary-only cases — those dealt with by magistrates courts. Serious crime cases, including murder, rape and armed robberies, are indictable offences and not subject to statutory time limits.

But while the types of offences slipping through the net may be relatively minor, behind every one is a victim — someone who has not seen justice served.

Rosemary Craig: We deserve an accountable prosecution service

Without doubt there is constant criticism of the criminal justice system in Northern Ireland.

It seems that the pendulum has been swinging somewhat out of control recently with the PPS and PSNI being weighed in the balance and found wanting.

Today’s report that, in a nine-month period, 459 suspects slipped through the net because paperwork was not submitted in time represents more than one failure to detect/prosecute every day of the year.

It is a fact that both the PSNI and the PPS are relatively new. Both are products of the new Northern Ireland coming out of a long war of terror.

The PSNI has a relatively new Chief Constable in Matt Baggott. Time will tell whether or not his vision for community policing here is sustainable.

Sir Alasdair Frazer QC, the second DPP for Northern Ireland, recently retired. There is a golden opportunity to appoint a new superintended Director with vision and purpose to lead and direct the PPS in the way it must go in 2011 and beyond.

The public in Northern Ireland deserve a prosecution service which is fully accountable via an audit trail for prosecutions which is open, transparent and above all reproach.

The audit trail should also embrace the actions or omissions of the PSNI when the crime is first detected. The subsequent monitoring of middle management actions in ensuring that the PSNI and PPS work in concert is crucial.

It could be argued that failure to detect and subsequently prosecute all those who commit offences, without fear or favour, irrespective of the crime, is a serious dereliction of duty and something to be abhorred in modern society.

Rosemary Craig is a law lecturer and magistrate

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