Criminal cases in Northern Ireland last more than twice as long as those in England and Wales, a damning report has revealed.
Auditors have warned that the justice system is failing to deliver value for money, with the overall spend in the Province being significantly more than in Great Britain.
Crown Court cases in NI take an average of 515 days from the date a crime is reported to police until the trial is completed, according to new research.
In a stark report to the Assembly, the NI Audit Office found:
• more than one in 10 (12%) of Crown Court cases takes more than 1,000 days from police report to conclusion;
• the average case faces more than six adjournments;
• just over half of trials (57% in 2016) proceeded as planned on the first date they were listed;
• less than half of victims and witnesses (46%) surveyed by the Department of Justice felt the system was effective.
Auditors examined the performance of the four main justice organisations – the Police Service of Northern Ireland, the Public Prosecution Service, the Northern Ireland Courts and Tribunals Service and the Department of Justice.
The Audit Office said the total expenditure of those organisations in the last financial year was £819m – a 12% reduction compared to five years previously.
They found that weaknesses in the early stages of investigations, when the PSNI gathers evidence and the PPS makes a final decision as to whether to prosecute, are a key cause of delay.
Once cases reach court, auditors noted, progression is frequently punctuated by “ineffective and adjourned” court hearings.
Ineffective management of cases at court leads to victims, defendants, witnesses and staff from criminal justice organisations attending at court for a number of hours but with no actual progress being made on their case.
The report stated: “Any failure by the PSNI and the PPS to work together effectively can have a negative impact upon the later stages of cases.
“Poor evidence file quality, failing to ensure key evidence and witnesses are available, and failing to share evidence with the defence can all result in a need to adjourn hearings and trials at court.”
Auditor general Kieran Donnelly said the length cases took meant they cost significantly more than those in Great Britain, with no additional benefits.
“This has negative impacts on victims, defendants and witnesses,” he added.
“The only way to address these issues effectively is through developing true partnership working between the police, prosecution, courts and the judiciary within which specific reform projects can be pursued.”
The report, which contained a number of recommendations, found that the criminal justice system could not function effectively until the various justice organisations “work more closely together”.
This would mean establishing “clear lines of accountability” and “a transparent reporting framework”.
Auditors added that the system needed to demonstrate “substantial improvement” in the matter of avoidable delay, and said this should be subject to continuous review.
UUP justice spokesperson Doug Beattie MLA said the report provides evidence of a “system in crisis” and in need of a culture change as to how it operates.
He added: “It is indisputable that the justice system in Northern Ireland has proved stubbornly resistant to meaningful change and reform and yet it is in urgent need of a major culture change.
“We have had a number of reviews over the past decade, yet outcomes are not improving.
“The culture needs to change, the system needs to be streamlined, lessons learned from good practice elsewhere and then they must be driven through,” the Upper Bann MLA added.