Legal system in gridlock as officials dither over decisions to prosecute
Crime suspects are not being prosecuted for up to seven months, causing massive hold-ups within the justice system.
The legal gridlock is being caused by delays in the Public Prosecutions Service in deciding whether to bring people to book.
Despite repeated concerns over several years about the problem, the PPS has failed to improve performance times when considering if a criminal case should be taken for crown court offences.
An inability by the criminal justice agencies to bring delays within the system under control has led the Department of Justice to plan the introduction of statutory time limits, which could see suspected criminals walking free if their case should take too long to be dealt with.
The PPS, which has an annual budget of more than £30m, has been blamed for being a major cause of the problem because of the time it is taking to decide if a defendant should be prosecuted in the crown court — where the most serious crimes, such as murders, rapes and robberies, are dealt with.
Admitting that “victims and witnesses are best served when the cases in which they are involved are dealt with as soon as possible”, the PPS said it will “work hard to ensure the time taken to bring a case to court is as short as possible”.
Figures obtained from the PPS by the Belfast Telegraph show that across Northern Ireland the average time it took over the past year to reach a decision to prosecute was 25 weeks — around six months.
This is 10 weeks longer than two years ago when, according to a report by the Criminal Justice Inspection into avoidable delay, it was taking an average of 104 days (15 weeks) for a decision to be made.*
Over the past year it took up to 30 weeks — around seven months — in some court divisions after receipt of a police file to decide to prosecute in the crown court.
As the times are average this means that some cases are taking longer.
PPS figures show that the worst offending court divisions are Londonderry, which includes Limavady, Derry city and Magherafelt, and the court division of Antrim, incorporating Antrim town, Coleraine, Ballymena and Larne.
Belfast is another of the top offenders, taking over 28 weeks — more than six months.
The Public Prosecution Service said that a lot of work is done during the decision-making process, including full preparation of papers, addressing the needs of victims and witnesses, dealing with disclosure issues and additional preparation work required to be done by police.
A spokeswoman added that many of the cases are complex and require considerable legal and administrative work.
A large number of cases also require medical, forensic and scientific evidence to be obtained and evaluated, she said.
“The PPS would not be acting properly nor serving the people of Northern Ireland if it did not ensure that these cases were fully prepared for court,” the spokeswoman added.
“The PPS remains committed to ensuring prosecutions are properly brought, that the guilty are properly convicted and that the highest standards of integrity, case preparation and prosecution are maintained.”
The PSNI is also under pressure to tackle delays from their side, which is prolonging the time cases are within the court system.
In 2009/10 it took the PSNI 10 weeks to forward a file to the PPS for offences to be dealt with in the Crown Court.*
Concern has also been raised over the quality of some police files that are initially submitted to prosecutors.
“To sort this mess out, the Justice Minister has recommended statutory time limits,” said Paul Givan (below), chairman of Stormont’s justice committee. “It shouldn’t take time limits to act efficiently. It is shocking that the PPS is not getting any better dealing with delay in the system.
“Barra McGrory (head of the PPS) needs to demonstrate they are turning the ship around,” Mr Givan said.
The DUP man added: “The PPS need to be engaging and co-operating with the police at a much earlier stage in the investigation rather than just waiting for the handover of a file.
“This delay in the system is not fair on victims or defendants. Suspects are also being remanded in custody for longer than is necessary. This is unfair to them and also increases the cost to the public purse.”
*Avoidable Delay, Criminal Justice Inspection Northern Ireland, June 2010
Why victims face a longer wait for justice than in England or Wales
Victims of serious crime are currently having to wait 15 months on average to see their attacker tried and sentenced by a crown court judge.
The long wait for justice is frustrating and nerve-racking for victims and witnesses.
It is also placing additional strain on the public purse.
Criminal cases in Northern Ireland are taking “significantly longer” than in England and Wales to proceed through the justice system, according to a recent progress report by the Criminal Justice Inspection (CJI) into avoidable delay.
The report found that the province’s overall performance for magistrate, crown and youth court cases compared “unfavourably” to England and Wales and that it was taking “simply too long” to process defendants through the courts.
Just one example of the differences between the two jurisdictions was how quickly the courts in England dealt with those arrested for the summer
riots. Many of these cases were done and dusted within days — sometimes even within hours.
But here the courts are still clogged up with many riot suspects who were arrested for public order offences during disturbances across Belfast last July. In one case more than 20 defendants are still waiting for a trial date. The length of time it is taking the PPS to make decisions on whether to prosecute is one of the major causes of delay within the system.
However, also under the spotlight is the PSNI which has been criticised by the CJI for the “poor quality” of police files presented to the PPS for consideration. When files are not of an appropriate standard the PPS has to request additional information from the police and this can add to the length of time in the decision making process.
England and Wales have attempted to address this issue by having duty prosecutors permanently present in police stations. The move has led to increased levels of co-operation between police and the Crown Prosecution Service and this in turn is resulting in a reduction in case processing times.
A lack of progress in addressing the issue of delay has led to the controversial recommendation by the CJI for the introduction of statutory time limits within the next two years.
The recommendation — which could see many crime suspects walk free if their case is not processed in time — was met with outrage by members of the justice committee who warned that it would seriously damage public confidence in the justice system.
“Why should victims of crime be punished just because criminal justice bodies are not doing their jobs properly?” said justice committee member Jim Wells.
“If (private sector) employees were not doing their jobs properly they would be given their marching orders,” he added.
My View: Susan Reid
Delays can be harmful to trials... a witness can forget
The emotional impact of delay is significant and what many people report is a sense of waiting for the court process to begin and believing that they will feel better when it’s over.
However, afterwards they feel the full emotion of the impact of the crime they experienced for the first time.
We must also be mindful of the impact that delay could potentially have on the achievement of justice itself.
The cornerstone of the process is that the statement given by the person reporting the crime is tested through cross-examination in court.
Yet we know from improved understanding of neurology over recent years that the human memory of events where the person perceives their life to be at risk will fundamentally change over time.
We recognise the efforts being made to reduce avoidable delay.
However, a recent survey of victims’ and witnesses’ views (NIVAWS) suggests that more work is necessary to reduce the amount of time witnesses have to spend waiting for the court hearing to take place and then the amount of time they spend in court, waiting to give their evidence.
One in three witnesses said that they were unlikely to agree to be a witness again.
We would caution that any action introduced, including statutory time limits, does not result in cases being dropped.
Ultimately, we would like to see a society where there is no crime and in Northern Ireland as a whole the picture is better than in other parts of the United Kingdom, but for those who do experience a crime, we believe that, as a society, we should respond to assure that person that we care.
Victim Support NI demonstrates this through a network of people volunteering their time to help, to listen and to support people in getting answers to their questions.
We also believe that the criminal justice system has a responsibility to ensure that there is no further harm to the person affected by crime due to them having engaged with the system.
Delay is a potential cause of both frustration and harm — and that is why we strongly support, and urge, further and continuing attention to this issue.
Susan Reid is the chief executive of Victim Support NI