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Committee Finds That Inefficiency and Waste are Hampering the Swift Delivery of Justice

The Northern Ireland Public Accounts Committee has today published its Report on Speeding up the Justice System that examined structural issues within the justice system that contributes to a poor service in respect of Crown Court cases, and results in significant financial waste.

The report, which follows a 2018 report by the Comptroller and Auditor General, portrays a justice system that moves too slowly and is hampered by inefficiency and waste. Crown court cases take twice as long to complete in Northern Ireland as they do in England and Wales, at a much higher cost. One particular concern is the lack of effective partnership working among key organisations within the justice system, despite numerous attempts to remedy this.

Chairman of the Committee, William Humphrey MBE MLA said: “The Committee welcomes many of the initiatives that the justice system has introduced over the years to improve how the system delivers for citizens. However, it is critical that the PSNI, the Public Prosecution Service, the Courts and Tribunals Service, and the Department of Justice develop and publish a strategy for working together effectively, including long-term high-level performance standards.”

One of the issues that the report highlighted is the fact that Crown cases take twice as long to complete in contrast to similar cases in England and Wales, and at a much higher cost. According to the report, a number of factors contribute to this delay, including the high number and incidence of adjournments. In addition, the culture of preparing for every potential question that the prosecution can anticipate, rather than focusing on key contested matters, has inevitably led to delays.

Chairman Humphrey said:

“Another serious concern, which has been highlighted over many years, is that the courts, particularly the Crown Court, take too long to deliver the justice that we need.

“It may be a cliché to say that justice delayed is justice denied but it remains true that our courts should be working towards a more efficient and effective method of operation.”

 “In 2019-2020 the average processing time for Crown Court cases was 565 days, considerably longer than the 515 days reported by the Comptroller and Auditor General in his last report. Not only is this an issue of operational performance and efficiency, it also adversely affects both victims and witnesses.

“One of our most worrying findings is that there has been little apparent effort to establish the costs of processes within the justice system or the financial impact of delay and inefficiency. What we do know is that the justice systems in England and Wales are less expensive and it would appear that the endemic inefficiency in Northern Ireland contributes to these higher costs.”

The Committee’s report also recognises the impact that COVID-19 has had on the justice system, which has not only interrupted normal operations, but also has slowed the introduction of reform.

Mr Humphrey concluded:

“We know that COVID-19, and the restrictions brought in to minimise its effects, has had a real impact on how justice has been delivered in Northern Ireland. As we come out of the most serious restrictions, we now need a plan to clear the backlog of Crown Court cases, in particular.

“We welcome the increasing use of technology in delivering a justice system that is fit for purpose. We urge the Department of Justice to ensure that its digital strategy is continually benchmarked against other jurisdictions to take advantage of best practice elsewhere.

“Our citizens deserve a justice system that delivers for everyone, and does so quickly and effectively.”


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