Justice system failing to deliver value for money, auditors say

Northern Ireland's justice system is failing to deliver value for money, with criminal cases consistently lasting twice as long as those in England and Wales, auditors have said.

It takes an average of 515 days from the date a crime is reported to police until the completion of the related Crown Court trial, the Northern Ireland Audit Office said.

More than one in 10 (12%) of Crown Court cases takes more than 1,000 days from police report to conclusion, and the average case is hit by more than six adjournments as it progresses through the system.

Just over half of trials (56%) proceeded as planned on the first date they were listed, the NIAO found.

Fewer than half of victims and witnesses (46%) surveyed by the Department of Justice felt the system was effective, the auditors noted.

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 spend of those organisations in the last financial year was £819 million - a 12% reduction in the outlay five years previously.

Auditors noted that efforts have been undertaken in the last two years to tackle delays, but they highlighted that the issues have been known about for more than a decade and are not insurmountable.

They said a key cause of the delays was due to weaknesses in the early stages of investigations, when the PSNI gathers evidence and the PPS makes a final decision as to whether to prosecute.

Publishing the report on avoidable delay within the justice system, auditor general Kieran Donnelly said the length cases took meant they cost significantly more than those in Britain, with no additional benefits.

"Currently the criminal justice system in Northern Ireland does not deliver value for money," he said.

"The cost of criminal justice is significantly higher than in England and Wales and cases take considerably longer to complete.

"This has negative impacts on victims, defendants and witnesses.

"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."

In a joint statement, the Department of Justice, the Police Service of Northern Ireland, the Public Prosecution Service and the Northern Ireland Courts and Tribunals Service welcomed the audit report.

"We acknowledge the challenges that the Northern Ireland Audit Office has raised in its report, and take this opportunity to reaffirm our collective commitment to speeding up justice in Northern Ireland," they said.

"We have been working to address the specific issues raised by the Northern Ireland Audit Office and improvements are being delivered via a number of initiatives, based around law reform and an increased focus on performance.

"We also recognise that there is a need to deliver better value for money. A range of savings measures have already been put in train and this will be allied with the development of more robust information about costs.

"We will continue to work together to deliver a justice system which creates a safe community where we respect the law and each other. The NIAO report will be considered at the April meeting of the Criminal Justice Board."

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