Belfast Telegraph

Revealed: How Northern Ireland’s legal cases drag out for twice as long as they do in England

By Adrian Rutherford

Northern Ireland's justice system is failing victims with cases taking too long to reach court, a report warns today.

Crown Court cases typically take more than 500 days from the date an offence is reported until a verdict is delivered - twice as long as in England and Wales.

Around one in eight cases here take more than 1,000 days to complete, the Northern Ireland Audit Office found.

Its report concludes that victims and defendants are being let down.

Auditor General Kieran Donnelly said: "Currently the criminal justice system in Northern Ireland does not deliver value for money.

"The cost of criminal justice is significantly higher than in England and Wales and cases take considerably longer to complete.

"This has negative impacts on victims, defendants and witnesses."

The report found:

  • Weaknesses in the early stages of investigations, when the PSNI gathers evidence and the Public Prosecution Service (PPS) decides whether to prosecute, are a key cause of delay;
  • Once cases reach court, ineffective and adjourned court hearings lead to more delays. On average, cases are adjourned between six and seven times each;
  • Just over half of trials proceeded as planned on the first date they were listed (57% in 2016). Victims, defendants, witnesses and staff often attend court for hours with no progress made.

UUP MLA Doug Beattie said it was evidence of a system in crisis.

"The Comptroller and Auditor General has delivered a damning indictment of the local criminal justice system and confirmed what many already knew to be the case, namely that it does not deliver value for money," he said.

"It is indisputable that the justice system in Northern Ireland has proved stubbornly resistant to meaningful change and reform and yet it is in urgent need of a major culture change."

In 2016, 40,000 defendants were dealt with in the Magistrates Court in Northern Ireland, with 2,000 more serious crimes heard in the Crown Court.

Today's report found that "the same persistent issues" have impacted on the delivery of justice. It flags up issues with the length of time it takes to complete the early stages of investigations. The report notes that, over the last decade, the PSNI has been subject to sustained criticism over the quality of evidence files it prepares and submits to the PPS.

Files often lack critical evidence, meaning the PPS cannot make a decision on whether to prosecute until further information is obtained.

In 2015 a detailed investigation of police file quality was carried out by the Criminal Justice Inspection Northern Ireland.

It found that the majority of Crown Court case files tested were either unsatisfactory - containing errors or omissions, meaning the PPS were unable to make a decision - or poor, with significant omissions in the core evidence.

The report cites research by the Department of Justice in 2012 which found the average Crown Court case was adjourned between six and seven times during its lifespan.

Auditors who reviewed a sample of 60 Crown Court cases for today's report identified a similar average number of adjournments.

The report cites a recent strategic review by the Department of Justice, which said it was "striking how many hearings are ineffective". It also refers to wasted police time.

In 2012 the PSNI estimated that, on average, officers were required to attend court more than 23,000 times, with an average attendance time of five hours.

About 75% of times, officers were not required to give evidence - a waste of 11,000 front line shifts.

The Department of Justice, PSNI, PPS and the Courts Service issued a joint response.

They said: "We acknowledge the challenges that the Northern Ireland Audit Office has raised in its report, and take this opportunity to reaffirm our collective commitment to speeding up justice in Northern Ireland.

"We have been working to address the specific issues raised by the Northern Ireland Audit Office and improvements are being delivered via a number of initiatives, based around law reform and an increased focus on performance.

"We also recognise that there is a need to deliver better value for money. A range of savings measures have already been put in train and this will be allied with the development of more robust information about costs.

"We will continue to work together to deliver a justice system which creates a safe community where we respect the law and each other. The NIAO report will be considered at the April meeting of the Criminal Justice Board."

Belfast Telegraph

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