A drive to improve the accuracy of judge-issued orders in Northern Ireland could force under-pressure court clerks to seek work elsewhere, inspectors have warned.
Chief Inspector of Criminal Justice Brendan McGuigan hailed the efforts to reduce the number of errors made in producing court orders, but he said the staff who had worked hard to improve the Court Service’s performance figures needed to be supported.
The Criminal Justice Inspectorate found a 99.2% accuracy rate among the almost 360,000 court orders issued last year.
The review examined changes that have be introduced in the wake of a number of incidents where erroneous details on court orders had public safety implications, such as offenders being wrongly released from custody.
In a high-profile case, a supervision order issued to two alleged sex abusers - brothers Owen Roe and James McDermott, from Donagh in Co Fermanagh - was found to be at variance from the actual instructions issued by the judge, although the mistakes ultimately had no significant impact on the disposal of the case.
Following that incident in 2010, a review of Sexual Offences Prevention Orders (Sopos) issued in Northern Ireland between 1997 and 2011 found an error rate of 18.4%.
The latest inspection by the CJI found that the error rate in regard to sexual offence cases now stands at 3.8%. All of the mistakes were identified before they had any impact.
Mr McGuigan, who said many of the incidents could be put down to human error, such as mishearing a judge in a noisy court room, said safeguards and review systems had delivered real improvements in accuracy.
“The Court Service together with the office of the Lord Chief Justice have worked very hard at this and have significantly improved and reduced the level of errors in court orders to the extent that actually out of the cases reviewed there was an accuracy level of 99.2%,” he said.
“That still left an error rate of 0.8%. I am saying to them ‘really you should be striving for the 100%’ but I am recognising the efforts that they have made in doing this and indeed the stresses and strains that are on both staff and the existing processes to ensure those accuracy levels.”
The chief inspector noted that since the devolution of justice functions to Stormont from Westminster, Court Service staff had greater ability to transfer to other posts within the Northern Ireland Civil Service.
He said there was a fear experienced staff could opt to move as a result of the pressures to improve accuracy.
“Since devolution and since the Court Service now has agency status the ability of court clerks to transfer into other areas of the civil service where they might not be under the same level of pressure is increasing,” he said.
“I think there is a need for staff support and I recognise once again that the Court Service do look after their own people. But this does put an additional pressure on them.”
He said there was a need to devise ways to “take some of the pressure off the already burdened court clerks”.
Mr McGuigan said improved accuracy delivered improved safety for the public.
“Accuracy means that overall it will improve public protection because at the end of the day you won’t have people released back into the community without the necessary level of constraints,” he said.
“You won’t have people being released from prison when they are already subject to very serious charges. We had that situation - erroneous releases - a few years ago, so it’s really important that actually these orders are as accurate as possible. It keeps the public safe.”
Justice minister David Ford welcomed the report’s findings.
“This is an encouraging report which recognises the positive efforts made by the Northern Ireland Courts and Tribunals Service in improving the accuracy of recording court orders,” he said.
Mr Ford added: “An earlier Criminal Justice Inspection report in 2010 exposed a number of weaknesses in the administrative processes for recording court orders in serious sexual abuse cases and as a result NICTS (Northern Ireland Courts and Tribunals Service) introduced a range of measures aimed at increasing the accurate recording of all criminal court orders.
“It is important that the public and all users of the criminal justice system have confidence that court orders are accurately recorded and effectively communicated.
“I am pleased that the inspectors have recognised the significant improvement NICTS has made in strengthening the administrative arrangements for court order recording. An accuracy level of 99.2% is significant and continued work will be done to maintain and improve on this.”