Northern Ireland news

Call for ‘fundamental reset' for police and prosecution to tackle justice delays

(Liam McBurney/PA)
Rebecca Black, PA

A call has been made for a “fundamental reset” within the police and prosecution service to tackle delays in the criminal justice system.

The Chief Inspector of Criminal Justice in Northern Ireland, Jacqui Durkin, called for improvements in the quality of prosecution files and the speed of case progression.

She said clear objectives coupled with governance and accountability mechanisms at every level are needed to tackle delays and improve outcomes for victims, witnesses and defendants.

The inspection report, published on Monday, said a review of 100 police and 100 prosecution case files revealed the quality of criminal case files was poor.

Ms Durkin said in the police file review, inspectors found 54% of crown court files did not meet or only partially met file build standards, falling to 44% in magistrates’ court files.

In Public Prosecution Service (PPS) files, Ms Durkin said 41% of magistrates’ court and 54% of crown court Cases did not meet or only partially met the required standard.

The report also found that police case files were taking too long to prepare, with more than three out of 10 court files not progressed in a timely way.

The chief inspector said improvements in key areas needed to be delivered by both organisations.

“The foundations of a fair and effective criminal justice system are quality police investigations, robust prosecutorial decisions and effective disclosure. Getting this right can reduce delay and ensure a more efficient use of resources throughout the criminal justice system to deliver better outcomes for victims and witnesses,” she said.

“The swifter conclusion of court cases can mean convicted defendants can feel the consequences of their offending behaviour sooner and criminal justice organisations can meaningfully engage with them earlier to prevent further offending.”

Meanwhile, the handling of disclosure, where material is provided that may assist the defence or undermine a prosecution case, was found to be poor in police and prosecution files.

Ms Durkin said each organisation “needs to focus on getting the basics right at each stage of case progression”.

“Quality needs (to be) built in at every stage for each police officer and prosecutor involved in a case so better outcomes can be delivered for victims and witnesses,” she said.

Jacqui Durkin
Jacqui Durkin (Aaron McCracken/PA)

She said one strategic and one operational recommendation were made in the latest report, while recommendations from the 2015 inspection report were repeated.

“We have called on the Criminal Justice Board to jointly agree a criminal justice system vision and strategy to improve quality and reduce delay at each stage of file preparation and disclosure within the next six months,” she said.

“This will require the Police Service and PPS to have an effective partnership to deliver performance improvement and accountability at every stage and support the Criminal Justice Board and judiciary to robustly monitor outcomes.

“Clear targets should be introduced that are reflected in the corporate and business plan priorities of each organisation to address the issues evidenced in this report, along with a case progression commitment document for Northern Ireland, to set quality standards and meaningfully monitor system performance and agree improvements to support case progression.”

Ms Durkin said inspectors also recommended that police provide a programme of enhanced training and ongoing support and supervision as part of new quality assurance measures to tackle quality and delay within the organisation in the next six months.

“We have also urged the Police Service and PPS to jointly review all previous recommendations made in our 2015 inspection report and provide a joint action plan for their completion by the end of September 2023,” she added.

The PPS acknowledged that delay is “one of the biggest challenges” facing the criminal justice system.

Deputy director Michael Agnew said delays have been exacerbated by Covid-19 and funding pressures on criminal justice agencies, adding that case work is becoming more complex with vastly increasing digital material.

“We are acutely aware of the impact delay has on all those who participate in the criminal justice process,” he said.

“We have made significant efforts to improve timeliness in recent years and we are working with all our criminal justice partners on how further progress can best be delivered.

“While challenges remain, we are pleased to see that this report has acknowledged some of the positive work being done by the PPS, including the finding that the test for prosecution was correctly applied in 96% of the files examined.”

Mr Agnew said that while the PPS is committed to doing all it can to improve the speed and efficiency of every stage of the process, a high-level strategic approach is needed to achieve substantial and long-lasting change across the system.

“The PPS agrees that a longer-term resolution needs to be found at a strategic level,” he said.

“We believe that reform of the criminal justice system, including investment and modernisation, is needed to tackle issues such as delay and improve the way the system serves victims, witnesses, defendants and wider society.”

Northern Ireland news