Magistrates court backlog set to continue for another eight weeks

Laganside courthouse in Belfast.
Laganside courthouse in Belfast. Laganside courthouse in Belfast.

THE Public Prosecution Service (PPS) has said it is not currently considering disposing with petty crimes in the magistrates' court system - which is facing a major backlog as a result of coronavirus - by reassessing the public interest element of the prosecutions.

It comes as Lord Chief Justice (LCJ) Sir Declan Morgan said that only urgent matters should be dealt with by the courts for an extended period of eight weeks.

The LCJ's office issued the updated guidance to legal professionals following the announcement by Boris Johnson on Monday that the UK is now in a period of temporary lockdown for at least the next three weeks.

"All legal matters apart from the most urgent are to be administratively adjourned by a judge, without a hearing for an appropriate period", the LCJ statement said.

"Where there is an urgent matter listed before the Easter break that falls into the exceptional category, it should be highlighted to the relevant court office as soon as possible so that arrangements can be made to facilitate a hearing.

"We are working with NICTS (NI Courts and Tribunals Service) to increase the amount of business that can be dealt with by way of live link, skype or telephone conference and we hope to have more information in that regard shortly.

"Neither members of the profession or public should attend court if they are not pursuing a priority matter."

The disruption to the already backlogged courts service is expected to cause even further delays when the courts resume normal business, which could be as late as the autumn of this year.

A senior legal source told The Irish News one method under consideration in order to clear the backlog in the system would be to offer diversionary disposal on some minor cases and to reassess the public interest to prosecute in hundreds of others.

This would exclude all violent, sexual and domestic abuse cases.

A PPS spokesperson said: "There are no plans to reassess the 'public interest' test on any charges currently proceeding though the courts system.

"All PPS decision-making is set out clearly by the code for prosecutors. The public interest test case remains the same, regardless of challenges being felt by the wider criminal justice system during the coronavirus pandemic.

"We will continue to work in c-ooperation with the wider criminal justice system to help find solutions to any backlogs caused by the disruption to court business".