Time limits urged for legal cases
A phased introduction of statutory time limits for certain cases should begin as part of a more radical approach to quicken the pace of Northern Ireland's judicial process, a new report has claimed.
With the average avoidable delay in some prosecutions now running at 289 days - a month more compared to a year ago - the Criminal Justice Inspection said the hold-up in disposing of crown court and magistrates court summonses was twice as long as in England and Wales.
Some youth cases were taking seven and a half times longer, the report said, and even though the scale of the problem had been highlighted in the summer of 2010 when there was a call for an immediate and effective response, progress had been slow.
Michael Maguire, chief inspector of criminal justice in Northern Ireland, said it was important the justice organisations, including the police and the Public Prosecution Service, responded flexibly to ensure the system overall did not suffer.
But he said it was a continuing challenge which required constant monitoring and corrective action at an operational level. A significant reduction in the end-to-end times for case progression required a number of successful building blocks to be put in place, he said.
Dr Maguire said: "It requires in the first instance a real desire and commitment to make it happen. It necessitates having the right people taking decisions on the basis of common real-time information and implementing these changes at an operational level across a range of organisations.
"It requires ongoing monitoring and review to ensure that progress is maintained and embedded into operational practice. It requires changes in behaviours at the front line and a shared desire among all those involved to make a difference.
"It requires an ongoing focus, adaptability and flexibility in approach to deal with new issues as they emerge."
Dealing with the problems of reducing avoidable delay was beyond the capability of any single organisation within the justice system, according to Dr Maguire. It was not surprising the problem had been such an intractable one, he said. There were a number of bodies involved, each with their own priorities.
It required changes in behaviours by defence solicitors and barristers whom he claimed were outside their normal accountability arrangements. This reality could often work against a collaborative approach in achieving the common goal of reducing avoidable delay, he said.