"Substantial change by police and prosecution needed to address case file and disclosure failings," says Chief Inspector
Northern Ireland's Chief Inspector of Criminal Justice has called for greater collaboration between the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) and the Public Prosecution Service for Northern Ireland (PPS), to address significant failings in the preparation of case files and the standards applied around disclosure.
Chief Inspector Brendan McGuigan recommended the police and prosecution should immediately establish a joint Prosecution Team to address poor practice and deliver change following the publication today (26 November 2015) of Criminal Justice Inspection Northern Ireland's (CJI's) latest report.
"With over 45,500 case files submitted by police officers to prosecutors in 2013-14, putting together a timely case file that is of sufficient quality to be considered for prosecution, and used to present evidence in court, is a fundamental strand of an efficient criminal justice system," said Mr McGuigan.
"When an incomplete file is submitted by the police because evidence has not been recorded or presented in a coherent way to meet the required standard, or problems arise when information is electronically transferred to prosecutors, it is the victims of crime and those people facing possible prosecution, who suffer as a result.
"Poor quality files lead to increased costs, court adjournments, avoidable delay and in the worst cases, prosecutions being discontinued, all of which weakens public confidence in the justice system," he said.
"This inspection found one third of case files were either of an unsatisfactory or poor standard. We recommend a Prosecution Team, made up of representatives from both organisations, should deal with issues such as investigative standards, bail management and forensic strategy, case management and disclosure," Mr McGuigan said, adding responsibility for overseeing the work should rest with a PSNI Assistant Chief Constable and a senior PPS Director.
"This approach will clarify for police officers what information and evidence should be included in a case file and help set clear standards around file quality. It will also assist prosecutors to develop a consistent, proportional approach around the level of detail required to decide whether or not a case should be taken forward for prosecution."
Mr McGuigan revealed the inspection had identified weaknesses in the supervision of case files within the PSNI and problems in sending electronic case files from the PSNI to the PPS that needed to be addressed.
"Responsibility for quality assuring case files rests primarily with operational Sergeants working in local policing Districts. These officers need to be given the necessary time and support to give this task the attention it deserves.
"Similarly, it is vitally important that information sent electronically by police Occurrence Case Management Teams to the PPS, is successfully transmitted and the frustration created for both police officers and prosecutors when information is lost from a file, the document is corrupted or becomes confusing as a result of this process, is brought to an end.
"These technical problems must be tackled to address unnecessary delays, inefficiency and increased costs," he stated.
Mr McGuigan indicated Inspectors had also identified serious concerns around disclosure processes where information is shared with defence legal teams.
"A file review carried out as part of this inspection revealed that disclosure was dealt with satisfactorily by police in only 23% of Crown Court cases. This is unacceptable.
"Disclosure is an integral part of the criminal justice process and when statutory obligations are not met, it can lead to a number of potentially damaging outcomes including abuse of process arguments at trial and the acquittal of an accused person.
"Information provided by police officers to prosecutors around the unused material available must be clear and sufficiently detailed, so that a decision can be made by the prosecution about whether or not the information should be disclosed," Mr McGuigan said.
He continued: "We have recommended that in order to tackle current problems and raise disclosure standards, a new central Disclosure Unit should be created within the PSNI. It will help improve oversight in this area and address knowledge gaps around disclosure by enhancing the skills of police officers. In addition, the PPS should provide the police with greater support and guidance to ensure statutory obligations around disclosure are met."
The Chief Inspector said the report had the potential to lead to transformational change and greater cooperation between both organisations that would address the issues raised in the inspection.
"The leadership of both the PSNI and the PPS have accepted the inspection findings. They have given a commitment to work in co-operation to improve file quality standards and compliance around their disclosure duties. I am heartened by the steps already taken by both organisations, to establish the Prosecution Team and achieve the six strategic recommendations made in this report.
"CJI will work with the Project Board established by the PPS and the PSNI to monitor and advise on the improvements we have called for and ensure the importance of improving file quality and disclosure, remains a priority," he concluded.