Delays to criminal cases unfortunate but not surprising after upheaval, says PPS
The Public Prosecution Service has said it is "unfortunate" that a number of serious criminal cases in Northern Ireland have been delayed because it has taken too long to make a decision on whether to prosecute.
Staff redundancies, a crown court strike by lawyers and time taken by police to respond to requests for more information have been blamed on the delays in 71 indictable cases.
Under an official target, 80% of indictable decisions (on cases to be heard before a crown court) were supposed to be made within 180 days, but the actual proportion was 76%. This meant 71 cases out of 43,000 faced delays.
Director of Public Prosecutions Barra McGrory said the delays were "unfortunate" but "maybe not surprising in terms of the significant upheaval we had to undergo".
Multimillion-pound budget cuts have meant that the Public Prosecution Service (PPS) has lost some of its most experienced senior prosecutors through a Voluntary Exit Scheme (VES).
VES resulted in the loss of 79 legal and administrative staff, including a number of the PPS's most experienced senior public prosecutors.
"We lost nearly 20% of our workforce and had to shut offices and redesign our regional structure so there was bound to be some slippage in the indictable regional work," said Mr McGrory.
He added that a new recruitment process is now under way and he was hopeful this would help with future targets.
Despite the pressure on finances, nine out of 10 targets surrounding the timeliness of decisions was met and further steps have been taken to make the service more effective.
An Omnibus Survey on public perceptions of the PPS found that public confidence in the body is at its highest level in a decade.
According to the Northern Ireland Omnibus Survey published today, more than three-quarters (76%) of the public are confident that the PPS provides a fair and impartial prosecution service to the people of Northern Ireland.
Senior prosecutors deal with the bulk of the serious casework submitted to the service.
The PPS report said: "The need to mentor replacement personnel (typically public prosecutors on temporary promotion) has caused additional resource pressures.
"The new Serious Crime Unit, which deals with all homicides and serious sexual offences, has also faced pressures on workloads during a bedding-in period."
Comparing April 2015 and 2016, staffing numbers at the PPS fell from 565 to 486, a reduction of 14%.
The time taken for responses by police to PPS requests for more information continued to be a "key" issue in the time taken to issue decisions, particularly in more serious cases.
More than half of the indictable prosecution decisions issued by PPS during 2016-17 required one or more requests to officers.
Mr McGrory said the major challenges had been offset somewhat by the consolidation of operational teams and the centralisation of some of the most serious indictable cases within the new Serious Crime Unit.
He added: "In developing the new organisational model, the aim was to increase the flexibility of the service, streamlining our operations so as to improve resilience and maintain a high level of effectiveness.
"As a result, we have been able to maintain our focus on performance and meeting our existing key delivery targets."
A new indictable cases process, which demonstrated substantial benefits to timeliness during its pilot phase in 2015, commenced in May 2017.