"Alternatives to court prosecution valuable tools in tackling minor offences," says Inspectorate
The use of discretion by the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) to deliver a proportionate and swift response to minor offending has been examined in a new inspection report by Criminal Justice Inspection Northern Ireland (CJI).
The report, which is published today (28 January 2015) examined how the PSNI used discretionary disposals along with fixed penalty notices and penalty notices for disorder, to deal with less serious offences that did not have to be referred to the Public Prosecution Service for Northern Ireland (PPS) or the courts.
"Discretion is one of the most powerful tools available to police officers in Northern Ireland. It is commonplace in many jurisdictions and viewed as a valuable extension to the formal criminal justice system," said Brendan McGuigan, Chief Inspector of Criminal Justice in Northern Ireland.
"When used in a judicious manner, discretion is an important building block in establishing police legitimacy and assists in the delivery of faster, fairer, justice for victims and offenders while freeing the courts to focus on more serious matters.
"But with great power comes great responsibility. It is therefore imperative the PSNI works to ensure individual officers throughout Northern Ireland apply discretion in an equitable, consistent manner that is in keeping with the ethos and parameters of the initiative," said Mr McGuigan.
The inspection revealed that since discretionary disposals were introduced in 2010 as an alternative to prosecution, higher numbers of low level offences have been dealt with by this route than anticipated.
"The vast majority of these cases were appropriate but Inspectors identified a small number of occasions where the use of a discretionary disposal was beyond the scope that was intended," said the Chief Inspector.
In order to minimise this risk and potential for discretion to be applied inappropriately, Inspectors have made one strategic recommendation - that the PSNI together with the PPS, should review the governance and management of all non-PPS disposals which includes improvements in its governance and quality assurance arrangements.
"This report also calls for greater supervision to be applied where discretionary disposals or penalty notices for disorder are considered for use," said Mr McGuigan.
"It recommends clearer guidance for police officers should be developed in partnership with the PPS to ensure discretion is applied as consistently as possible. Inspectors would also concur with the findings of an internal PSNI report on the use of discretion which proposed the PSNI's discretionary disposal strategy be re-launched."
The Chief Inspector added that monitoring arrangements should also be put in place to prevent discretionary disposals being applied inappropriately or simply in the interest of expediency, by those officers who wish to avoid preparing a full prosecution file.
Mr McGuigan indicated the report had highlighted a decline in the number of fixed penalty notices issued by the police, but that this type of disposal would be subject to further examination in CJI's forthcoming report on road traffic legislation.
In conclusion Mr McGuigan said: "Getting the use of discretion right can reinforce the benefits of early intervention giving offenders, particularly children and young people, an alternative to premature criminalisation.
"Getting it wrong can have the opposite effect by alienating victims, encouraging further offending and bringing the criminal justice process and respect for the law into question."