Avoidable delay

Avoidable delay Delays in the criminal justice system are adding extra pressure to victims, witnesses and defendants. agendaNi analyses the extent of the problem and how it can be resolved.

Despite major efforts to tackle avoidable delay, the length of time it takes the justice system to process people through court here is still considerably longer than that of England and Wales, according to a report on the subject.

Statistics from the Public Prosecution Service show that in 2009-2010, out of a possible 75,887 cases, 21,654 ended with no prosecution. Some 20,059 of these did not proceed because they did not pass the evidential test, while 1,595 did not pass the public interest test.

The Criminal Justice Inspection (CJI) Northern Ireland report revealed last year that current timescales within the system were too long. It found that on average it took 10 months for a young person on a summons case to pass through the criminal justice system in 2009-2010.

The report focuses on avoidable or unnecessary delay, when cases are “stalled by bureaucratic inefficiencies, outdated practices and wasted effort”.

Chief Inspector Dr Michael Maguire called for immediate improvements in the system: “Delays continue to occur at each stage of the criminal justice process, which negatively impacts on victims, witnesses and defendants and undermines their confidence in the criminal justice system.”

He said that the quality and timelines of files being submitted by the PSNI to the Public Prosecution Service (PPS) needed to improve. The PSNI would also need to improve overall case timescales, aid PPS decision-making and help tackle the causes of court adjournments, he stated.

Maguire advised that all the agencies within the criminal justice system should “work more collaboratively with each other to ensure cases reach court more quickly and are ready to proceed when they get there”.

Law Society Chief Executive Alan Hunter says that delay in the system is a problem. However, he claims that there are already some signs of improvement: “I think the organisations which administer the criminal justice system are now talking to each other and working to find out what the problems are and how to overcome those problems.”

Hunter sees a particular difficulty with delays in the youth justice system and argues that it is “in everyone’s interest that those issues are brought to a conclusion as soon as possible.”

In terms of youth justice, there are several agencies involved and “more options open” so the process itself “naturally takes longer”. In general, factors such as the unavailability of witnesses, further information being required, or evidence emerging “quite late in the day” all add to the problem.

He claims that in certain cases “the criminal justice agencies could make evidence and information available at an earlier stage than perhaps happens”.

ConsequencesAvoidable delay

The CJI report identified that the impact of delay can be “severe for victims and witnesses and can undermine the quality of justice”. The quality of evidence can also decline over time, it states, which could also put victims and witnesses “under additional pressure in court”.

Hunter comments that there is a more personal impact of delay: “For the victim, it prolongs the issue. They can’t get closure on it and there’s always uncertainty and a degree of stress that comes with something taking longer than it might”. He highlights that the defendant’s life is also put on hold for a period of time.

The financial cost of avoidable delay is also considered to be substantial but so far a detailed examination has not been carried out.

In order to speed up the system, Hunter says several options should be considered. A fee regime for payments in court cases could be an option. This would mean that there would be an “all-in fee” for dealing with cases and, irrespective of the reasons for delay, the solicitor would get the same fee. “That essentially means there’s every incentive from a financial point of view to get the case progressed quickly,” he comments.

The introduction of statutory time limits is also something which is being considered, says Hunter. At present, there are no legal time limits in place as to when a court case has to be carried out. If implemented, this would mean that there would be a legally binding timeframe set out.

He sees this as a positive step which would “recognise the human rights of the defendants” as well as “giving the victim the reassurance of a timeline”. There are already statutory time limits in place in Scotland and Wales. However, Hunter argues that if the process were implemented “it would be important that it is tailored to this jurisdiction”.

The CJI report advises that the desired outcome of any improvements to the system is not necessarily speed, it is “improved justice”.

Reason for no prosecution in court cases

Year Did not pass evidential test Did not pass public interest test Number of prosecution decisions All prosecutorial decisions
2009/2010 20,059 1,595 21,654 75,887
2008/2009 16,561 1,749 18,310 67,485
2007/2008 16,929 1,619 18,548 67,796
2006/2007 10,299 927 11,226 43,668
2005/2006 5,601 561 6,162 28,560

Source: Public Prosecution Service

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