Belfast Telegraph

Third of trials do not proceed

More than a third of the most serious criminal trials in Northern Ireland did not proceed last year, an inspection revealed.

Crown Court cases were halted because a defendant pleaded guilty to a charge or the prosecution offered no evidence, Criminal Justice Inspection Northern Ireland (CJINI) said.

Its report said: " The effect of this on victims and witnesses will often be stark."

Inefficiencies were also created in additional preparatory work for courts staff anticipating a full trial.

Last year 36% of Crown Court cases were "cracked", where a contest did not go ahead and the case was closed. A similar proportion of magistrates' court cases were also cracked along with 46% of youth court trials.

A total of 19% of Crown Court cases were delayed, with a corresponding proportion of other cases also affected. This was due to action or inaction by the prosecution, defence or the court, meaning a further listing for trial was required.

The inspectorate looked at reasons for adjournment at Derry courthouse. These included because more work was needed to determine the availability of witnesses, victims and legal representatives.

The inspectors' report said: "Cracked and ineffective trials represent noteworthy proportions of all cases in the courts. The effect of this on victims and witnesses will often be stark."

Inspectors also heard clearly from staff of the additional work and inefficiencies resulting, but the report said it is the consequences for victims and witnesses which cause most concern.

The review said: "The inefficiencies have wider effects too on other areas of the criminal justice system and in the effectiveness of the courts themselves."

The inspectorate found that three of six recommendations made previously about court attendance had been achieved and the remaining three partially achieved when inspectors returned to look at this topic last year.

Chief inspector of criminal justice Brendan McGuigan said: "This is a positive development, however we were disappointed much of the work to progress the inspection recommendations had only been recently undertaken.

"Inspectors were also concerned that the level of information obtained from a pilot scheme looking at the reasons for court adjournments was not sufficiently detailed to aid the NICTS (Northern Ireland Courts and Tribunals Service) to clearly identify where it should focus its efforts to reduce non-attendance and the number of court cases being adjourned."

The review noted progress on providing prosecution service staff with greater access to the PSNI's duty system to enable prosecutors to quickly establish the availability of officers to attend court.

Direct access to the system is expected to be expanded to all offices following the establishment of Victim and Witness Care Units (VWCU) jointly staffed by the PSNI and the Public Prosecution Service.

Mr McGuigan said: "The development of VWCU has the potential to change the experience of witnesses as cases progress through the criminal justice process.

"Inspectors note the significant effort being put into the establishment of VWCUs and would urge those involved in managing the transition to keep abreast of issues which could impact on victim and witness satisfaction or confidence.

"The absence of witness and other relevant parties continues to cause court cases to be delayed, which in turn creates inefficiency, increases costs and impacts negatively on victims.

"Focus on securing the attendance of those required to enable court cases to proceed at the earliest opportunity must therefore be maintained."

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