Third of police evidence files sent to prosecutors are substandard - inspector
A third of police evidence files submitted to prosecutors in Northern Ireland fall below required quality standards, inspectors have found.
Criminal Justice Inspection NI said "significant failings" in case file preparation needed to be addressed.
The inspection team from CJINI also raised serious concern about the standard of the onward disclosure of information to defence lawyers, deemed satisfactory in less than 25% of Crown Court cases.
Chief inspector Brendan McGuigan called for greater co-operation between the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) and the Public Prosecution Service (PPS) to tackle the problems and recommended that both organisations should immediately establish a joint prosecution team to "address poor practice and deliver change".
Concerns about the quality of case file management have been raised in previous CJI inspection reports.
"Substantial change by police and prosecution needed to address case file and disclosure failings," said Mr McGuigan.
"With over 45,500 case files submitted by police officers to prosecutors in 2013-14, putting together a timely case file that is of sufficient quality to be considered for prosecution, and used to present evidence in court, is a fundamental strand of an efficient criminal justice system.
"When an incomplete file is submitted by the police because evidence has not been recorded or presented in a coherent way to meet the required standard, or problems arise when information is electronically transferred to prosecutors, it is the victims of crime and those people facing possible prosecution who suffer as a result.
"Poor quality files lead to increased costs, court adjournments, avoidable delay and in the worst cases, prosecutions being discontinued, all of which weakens public confidence in the justice system.
"This inspection found one third of case files were either of an unsatisfactory or poor standard. We recommend a prosecution team, made up of representatives from both organisations, should deal with issues such as investigative standards, bail management and forensic strategy, case management and disclosure.
"This approach will clarify for police officers what information and evidence should be included in a case file and help set clear standards around file quality. It will also assist prosecutors to develop a consistent, proportional approach around the level of detail required to decide whether or not a case should be taken forward for prosecution."
Among issues identified by the CJINI were weaknesses in the supervision of case files within the PSNI and problems in sending electronic files from the police to the PPS.
Mr McGuigan said inspectors also identified serious concerns around disclosure processes where information is shared with defence legal teams.
"A file review carried out as part of this inspection revealed that disclosure was dealt with satisfactorily by police in only 23% of Crown Court cases. This is unacceptable," he said.
"Disclosure is an integral part of the criminal justice process and when statutory obligations are not met, it can lead to a number of potentially damaging outcomes including abuse of process arguments at trial and the acquittal of an accused person.
"Information provided by police officers to prosecutors around the unused material available must be clear and sufficiently detailed, so that a decision can be made by the prosecution about whether or not the information should be disclosed."
Mr McGuigan recommended that a central disclosure unit should be created within the PSNI.
"It will help improve oversight in this area and address knowledge gaps around disclosure by enhancing the skills of police officers," he said.
"In addition, the PPS should provide the police with greater support and guidance to ensure statutory obligations around disclosure are met."
He said he hoped the report could provide the impetus to deliver "transformational change" and greater co-operation between the PSNI and PPS.
"The leadership of both the PSNI and the PPS have accepted the inspection findings," he said.
"They have given a commitment to work in co-operation to improve file quality standards and compliance around their disclosure duties. I am heartened by the steps already taken by both organisations, to establish the prosecution team and achieve the six strategic recommendations made in this report.
"CJI will work with the project board established by the PPS and the PSNI to monitor and advise on the improvements we have called for and ensure the importance of improving file quality and disclosure remains a priority."