Belfast Telegraph

Plea for discretionary order care

The number of low-level offences which are not prosecuted in Northern Ireland has been much higher than expected, inspectors said.

Around 13,000 discretionary disposals a year were given for traffic and similar infringements by PSNI officers to avoid court proceedings. However a driver who turned across an oncoming vehicle was given one despite a passenger having to be cut free, according to a policing watchdog.

Brendan McGuigan, chief inspector of criminal justice in Northern Ireland, said discretion should be applied consistently but added the vast majority of cases were appropriate.

"When used in a judicious manner, discretion is an important building block in establishing police legitimacy and assists in the delivery of faster, fairer, justice for victims and offenders while freeing the courts to focus on more serious matters.

"But with great power comes great responsibility. It is therefore imperative the PSNI works to ensure individual officers throughout Northern Ireland apply discretion in an equitable, consistent manner that is in keeping with the ethos and parameters of the initiative."

Discretionary disposals were introduced from 2010. The report - Police Use of Discretion Incorporating Penalty Notices - from Criminal Justice Inspection Northern Ireland said t hey comprise on average 38% of total disposals by alternative methods for road traffic offences.

The Policing Board expected that the number of discretionary disposals issued annually would be around 3,000 but actually averaged around 13,000.

The disparity was inflated by the addition of other offences to disposals regime. The like for like comparison is around 4,000 per year, a quarter above the original estimate.

Prosecutors have indicated a marked improvement in the administration of the disposals but highlighted one case.

A driver attempted a right-hand turn across the other's path; one vehicle was completely written-off, a passenger had to be cut free and the fire service and paramedics attended.

The driver was given a disposal although he had previously received the same sanction during the previous year for driving whilst using a mobile telephone.

The PSNI had checked the circumstances of this incident and concluded that its use was warranted.

In other instances it was found that the cases appeared unsuitable for discretion because of previous offences committed by the alleged offenders. An instance of tendering counterfeit currency and an apparent domestic incident had also been dealt with using discretion.

The report said: "The use of discretion undoubtedly belongs to the stable of 'faster, fairer justice', but requires effective supervision to ensure the risks associated with its application are minimised."

One recommendation included that recording the decision making process employed by officers in choosing a means of disposal would increase public confidence and mitigate the risk of inappropriate use by officers.

Mr McGuigan said discretion is one of the most powerful tools available to officers in Northern Ireland, is commonplace in many jurisdictions and viewed as a valuable extension to the formal criminal justice system. Inspectors have recommended that the PSNI and PPS should review the governance and management of all disposals not considered by prosecutors.

Superintendent Tim Mairs said he was committed to acting on areas recommended for improvement.

"We acknowledge that the use of discretionary disposals for dealing with minor crimes must be responsible and complement the role of the PPS as the prosecuting authority in Northern Ireland.

"As such, we are working with the PPS to enhance existing joint quality assurance processes to provide confidence to partners and the community that this essential process is used to the benefit of victims, suspects and the community."

Senior assistant director of the PPS Stephen Herron said it supported non-prosecutorial disposals as a proportionate, effective and speedy response to low-level offending.

"The PPS is fully committed to continue to work with PSNI to improve the management of non-PPS disposals, with the aim of ensuring greater visibility and appropriate use of such alternatives to prosecution.

"We are also working with PSNI to develop clear guidance for officers to ensure discretion is applied as consistently as possible."

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