Speeding up justice

lady justice Progress on tackling delay in court cases has been slow but the Justice Minister is still determined to see results. Michael McKernan writes.

It is believed that it was Gladstone who first uttered the frequently quoted aphorism: “Justice delayed is justice denied.” In Northern Ireland, justice delayed is a continuing cause of concern across the entire justice system but particularly with legal practitioners representing victims of injustice and, of course, the victims themselves. In some instances, what have appeared to be relatively straightforward cases have taken years to process with the victims still suffering in the absence of legal remedies.

Cutting the time it takes to get cases through the courts has been a high priority for the Justice Minister David Ford for a number of years. As he noted in June 2010, following a report from the Criminal Justice Inspectorate which criticised avoidable delays: “Speeding up justice is one of my top priorities and I am committed to driving forward work to eliminate unnecessary and wasteful delay. We have put in place a new comprehensive programme of work focusing on four key issues: case preparation, case management, youth cases and governance.”

Ford also pointed out that the desired step-change could only be achieved through a partnership involving all of the players, including in particular the PSNI, Public Prosecution Service and the judiciary.

The Minister followed this up with a second phase of work to introduce more changes to the criminal justice system which would target delays in the delivery of justice. These included reform of the process for committing cases to the Crown Court; developing alternatives to prosecution; incentivising early guilty pleas; reforming the summons process; faster turnaround in forensic services; and greater use of video links.

Progress on work related to speeding up justice has been steady, although evidence of actually eliminating unnecessary delay is still thin on the ground.

The latest waiting times data from the Department of Justice – where incidentally there have been unsatisfactory interruptions in the department’s statistical work – show that in the Crown Court the average time from committal to commencement of trial is 17 weeks and from conviction to disposal a further seven weeks. So an ordinary case can still take six months from when it arrives in court.

Although things may be slow to change significantly on the ground, Ford deserves credit for staying the course.

In 2012, he added new proposals to give judges more power to enforce rules around case management procedures, arguing: “Poorly prepared cases waste the court’s time. They waste the resources of the system and they waste the time of witnesses. I want to give the judiciary stronger powers to tackle this problem and to ensure that cases are entering court ready to go to trial.”

More recently, the Justice Minister has launched a consultation around proposals to introduce statutory time limits to the youth court.

On 3 December, Ford said: “Criminal cases involving young people take too long and I am determined to change this. We are all too aware of the damage which delay can do in youth cases, both to the victim and the perpetrator. Statutory time limits will tackle this by setting the minimum standard demanded of the justice agencies.”

The Minister has acknowledged the very challenging nature of securing a ‘step change’ in the performance of the courts. It requires streamlining of procedures, new technology, and importantly, culture change. And judges, among others, are unlikely to be unduly unsettled by politicians seeking faster turnarounds. Nonetheless, although it is taking time, considerable change is underway, and in the end it will speed up justice.

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