Acting Chief Inspector of Criminal Justice Northern Ireland (CJI) Brendan McGuigan talks to Stephen Dineen about the need for political leadership and radical measures to reduce avoidable delays in justice.
Brendan McGuigan is clearly frustrated at delays in Northern Ireland’s criminal justice system. Inadequate progress has led him to again call for statutory time limits on cases.
Criminal Justice Inspection Northern Ireland (CJI) produced two inspections into the topic (in 2006 and 2010). In 2011, it did “a quick follow-up” to inform the Minister as to whether things were changing.
Addressing an eolas justice seminar, he explained that statistics show that cases in Northern Ireland take longer than those in England and Wales. Youth summons cases last 283 days compared with38 in England and Wales and only 12 per cent of cases are dealt with on first hearing, compared with 42 per cent in England and Wales.
In 2008, Northern Ireland saw, on average, 4.7 adjournments per case in the Youth Court compared with 1.3 in England and Wales. Eighty-five per cent of youth cases between 1 February and 23 April 2010 were adjourned because the case was not ready to proceed.
The 2011 report showed that delays in the criminal justice system were increasing. The average adult summons case took 220 days in 2009-2010, but had increased to 270 days in 2011-2012. In youth summons cases, the average length of case had risen from 256 days to 290 days over the same period. Cases in Belfast took even longer (12 months).
Crown court defendant cases, from charge to disposal, have increased from 406 days to 439 days.
The impact of these delays is personal, McGuigan states, as it affects people and their lives. It can prolong the agony of victims dreading the day of a court case. CJI’s recent report on the care and treatment of victims and witnesses found delays to be one of the single most common and unforgiving concerns raised by victims on their experience of the justice system.
Defendants also feel the impact, both those who are guilty and those found not guilty. The impact is particularly acute, the inspectorate has found, among those charged with rape and sexual offences.
“Avoidable delay, of course, has a real impact on public confidence,” he adds, giving the example of people reading newspaper reports of trials for crimes committed in 2009. “They’re saying: ‘Well what has happened in the in between? Where has it been with the justice organisations?’”
“Fundamental gaps” occur between the Public Prosecution Service (PPS) and the police. “There’s an onus on the Prosecution Service not to be asking for irrelevant and unnecessary further information which only delays the process,” McGuigan states. The PPS also need to “make their decisions quickly, and to transmit them through to court hearings.”
The former PSNI District Commander in Lisburn adds that other problems include the PSNI and the PPS criticising each other to third parties and delays in accessing third party information such as forensics. Governance arrangements within the system have been fractured and are sometimes unaccountable (e.g. the PPS), he tells eolas.
CJI inspections have called for better relationships between different organisations in the system and for an improvement at various stages of case processing.
Possible interventions include:
• quality control mechanisms on files prepared by the PSNI;
• better case management within the PPS;
• more efficient procedures for dealing with undelivered summons;
• improved victim and witness management, such as a one-stop shop to access information;
• challenging certain behaviours, such as late guilty pleases, that lead to adjournments; and
• ensuring effective judicial case management.
McGuigan is aware that commenting on judicial management is a sensitive topic. “It is not an attack on judicial independence to be making comments about the length of time that it’s taking to process cases through court.”
While judicial independence must be respected, “you need to be able to say something about how effectively it’s been managed within the court process.” He says that it is important to ask whether the judiciary has done everything that it can to expedite a case and hasn’t allowed adjournments because of witness availability and other reasons.
Despite various initiatives by the criminal justice system to eliminate avoidable delays (e.g. new governance arrangements), McGuigan says that the response has been slow and incremental.
A radical approach is needed. “In 2006, we recommended the imposition of statutory time limits.” He continues: “We drew back off it because the justice system believed that they could improve their performance without this sword of Damocles hanging over them.”
Despite recommending it again in 2010, the sector did not embrace it. “But actually, when you look at it, other jurisdictions have had it and have been managing it very well, particularly in Scotland.”
Statutory time limits would not be absolute, he points out. “If you have a good reason why you have not submitted your case file before that particular time, then you have to go before a judge and explain why,” he says, “and it will be for the judge to make a decision.”
Youth cases are a priority in McGuigan’s eyes because the cycle of crime by a child often remains unbroken until a trial. He is pleased, therefore, that Northern Ireland’s Justice Minister David Ford is introducing statutory time limits for cases before youth courts.
Reducing avoidable delay, according to McGuigan, will reduce the cost of justice and make processes more efficient. It requires leadership, he says. In the North, David Ford is “under pressure, both politically and publically, in terms of ensuring that the justice system steps up to the mark, that it reaches the standard of other public services.”
He adds: “It’s no longer acceptable that actually what goes on within the hallowed halls of the criminal courts actually is of little interest to members of the general public.”
The lesson from Northern Ireland is that political leadership is required to speed up justice. Political will must be “transferred and transmitted through the justice organisations to secure real improvement.”