Dr Michael Maguire, has found that progress has been slow in areas.
With cases taking on average twice as long to complete as in England and Wales, and more than seven-and-a-half times in certain youth prosecutions, the Chief Inspector of Criminal Justice in a follow-up report at the start of this year was disappointed at the lack of progress since he reported in June 2010.
“While considerable effort has been made to redress the problem, progress has been slow and indeed performance has got worse for Crown court cases and for magistrates’ court cases which commence through report and summons,” he said. This has been particularly problematic for youth cases as this group requires “an immediate and effective response in order to challenge offending behaviours and ensure they are dealt with effectively by the criminal justice system.”
The average of 289 days from being informed of a prosecution through to disposal by a court “is simply too long” and this is 30 days longer on average compared to 2010-2011. Whilst acknowledging that much good work has been done, there is still much to do and the report warns that new issues will emerge that will impact on avoidable delay within the system.
“A significant reduction in the end-to-end times for case progression requires a number of successful building blocks to be put in place. Put simply it requires desire, the right people making decisions, on-going monitoring, changes in behaviour and a flexibility in approach,” he added.
The report also recognises that no single agency within the justice system has the capability alone to reduce delay and that “for those outside the normal accountability arrangements of that system, like solicitors and barristers, a change in behaviour will be needed.”
It also highlights how delay is present in the justice system; the file quality of the PSNI needs to improve, case management and progression within the Public Prosecution Service could be better and the number of adjournments reduced from five per case in Northern Ireland to 1.3 in England and Wales.
The delays associated with the service of court summonses have significantly increased since the publication of the last report in 2010 and now requires an immediate response from the PSNI and other justice agencies.
Maguire recommends the phased introduction of statutory time limits starting with youth court cases within the next two years.
He also believes that the introduction of statutory time limits would not solve the broader problem immediately but would encourage other participants in the justice system to change the way they behave and act against a background of better performance management and greater accountability.
In a response to the report, Justice Minister David Ford announced on 6 February that he plans to introduce statutory time limits. Initially the limits will apply to cases before the youth court and will be operational within the mandate of the current Assembly.
Ford remarked: “A fundamental change on this scale cannot happen overnight and by committing to the introduction of statutory time limits within the lifetime of this Assembly, I am providing the necessary space for all organisations in the justice system to reform their case management processes.” Details of the scheme have yet to be developed and will be subject to a consultation process.
Report sponsored by G4S