Belfast Telegraph

Editor's Viewpoint: A damning verdict on Northern Ireland justice system

Editor's Viewpoint

The wheels of justice, according to the old adage, turn slowly, but it was never envisaged that they would turn as slowly as they do in Northern Ireland.

The NI Audit Office examination of the justice system here makes very uncomfortable reading. Crown Court cases take twice as long as in England and Wales, typically racking up 500 days from reporting of a crime until a verdict is reached. One in eight cases takes twice that time.

Other faults found included the cost of criminal justice here being significantly higher than in England and Wales, weaknesses in the early stages of investigations leading to delays in cases going to court, and ineffective and adjourned hearings causing more delays.

The net result is a slow, costly and inefficient system which lets down those seeking justice, with defendants and witnesses who waste a lot of time turning up for hearings without being called.

But none of these problems are new. A 2015 report from the Criminal Justice Inspection NI made similarly scathing findings. It found that one third of case files submitted by police to the Public Prosecution Service (PPS) were either of an unsatisfactory or a poor standard.

The Chief Inspector Brendan McGuigan pointed out that poor-standard files lead to increased costs, court adjournments, avoidable delay and, in the worst case, prosecutions being discontinued, all weakening public confidence in the justice system. Yet the same issues still rear their heads.

And the report, by implication, says that delays in bringing cases to a conclusion also impact on the fight against crime. Police witnesses spend a lot of time in court only for hearings to be adjourned, or else they are not called. In all those instances they could be investigating new crimes.

The Department of Justice, PSNI, PPS and the Courts Service in a joint response say they are committed to speeding up the justice system; a range of savings measures have been put in place and improvements to the system are being delivered via a number of initiatives based around law reform and an increased focus on performance.

There is no reason to doubt what these bodies say but fine words are just that unless backed up by visible results, and those have yet to be delivered. The Audit Office report talks of the same persistent issues impacting on the delivery of justice. Yet who will drive the required changes as long as Stormont stays empty?

Belfast Telegraph

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