Committee Finds That Inefficiency and Waste are Hampering the Swift Delivery of Justice
Session: Session currently unavailable
Date: 21 October 2021
Reference: PAC 02/21/22
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.”
Notes to Editors
The Committee’s recommendations from the Report are:
The development of a strategic vision, including defining what success looks like, is an important part of effective change management. It also serves in communicating to stakeholders and to the public a clear idea of what they should expect from the justice system and in providing a means to assess its performance against the standards set. The absence of a proper strategy to date is indicative of the lack of appetite and ambition to confront the endemic delays that have plagued the system for decades.
The Committee recommends that justice organisations work together to develop and publish a strategy, including long-term high-level performance standards, for improving Crown Court case timeliness and quality.
Covid-19 has had a substantial impact on how the justice system has been able to operate over the last 18 months. Compliance with government regulations has impacted how justice organisations have worked and has affected the normal flow of cases from the Magistrates’ Court to the Crown Court. As a result, a backlog of cases has grown, and witnesses reported that they expect it will take two years to return to where the system was prior to Covid-19.
The Committee recommends that the justice system establishes a clear plan for clearing the backlog of cases in the Crown Court. The system will also need to move at pace to deliver the strategy outlined in the previous recommendation once this is achieved.
The C&AG’s report highlighted the significantly higher costs of delivering justice in Northern Ireland compared to England and Wales. Part of the reason for this is undoubtedly the unique justice and security issues that exist in Northern Ireland. However, it is also highly likely that the endemic inefficiency within the system in Northern Ireland contributes to higher costs.
The Committee recommends that the Department and other justice organisations develop a proportionate methodology to quantify the financial impact of avoidable delay and track over time the financial savings that are achieved as a result of the improvements they are striving to deliver.
Adjournments are a complex, but vital issue affecting the justice system. It is important that the justice system is able to reliably measure the extent to which the adjournments, which do occur, are avoidable or unavoidable, and to record, over time, the causes of avoidable adjournments.
The Committee recommends that the Department and justice organisations establish a robust system to record and report adjournments and their causes and to identify the extent to which adjournments are avoidable.
Addressing the underlying issues that contribute to avoidable adjournments at court should deliver efficiency savings for justice organisations and result in a better service being delivered to the public. Whilst there are a range of initiatives ongoing that should contribute towards this goal, the most important cultural issue that must be overcome is how current case management processes can act as a barrier to swift and efficient justice.
The Committee recommends that the Department should, as a priority, introduce a legislative requirement for a general duty of engagement and prehearing communication between the prosecution and defence in all Crown Court cases.
There is a perception that the justice system has been slow to exploit the potential benefits offered by technological advances in recent decades. The Committee is encouraged that it appears the system has been increasingly utilising technology in recent years, and that a strategy is in place to set high level priorities for the justice system’s advancement of its digital approach.
The Committee recommends that the digital strategy is a live document that contains specific and measureable objectives for the improved utilisation of technology across the justice system. The justice system should regularly benchmark its utilisation of technology with other jurisdictions to ensure that it continuously tests its practices against best practice elsewhere.
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