Terms of Reference published for Inspection of the Effectiveness of Criminal Court Administration

Criminal Justice Inspection Northern Ireland (CJI) proposes to undertake an inspection of the effectiveness of criminal Court administration by the Northern Ireland Courts and Tribunals Service Ireland (NICTS/’the Service’).  This will include case processing, preparation of cases for Court, allocation of resources to support criminal Court hearings and the Judiciary, pre, in and post Court administration including the recording and communicating Court decisions and the provision of facilities and equipment for hearings. 

The main organisation to be inspected will be the NICTS, however, other criminal justice system organisations that play an important role in the effective delivery of criminal justice, including the Police Service of Northern Ireland (Police Service), Public Prosecution Service for Northern Ireland (PPS), Probation Board for Northern Ireland (PBNI), Northern Ireland Prison Service (NIPS) and Youth Justice Agency (YJA) will be interviewed as part on this inspection. Representatives from the legal profession, voluntary and community sector organisations providing services for the criminal Courts and other key stakeholders will also be interviewed.
The NICTS is an agency within the Department of Justice (DoJ) sponsored by the Access to Justice Directorate.  The role of the NICTS includes, among other things, the provision of administrative support for Northern Ireland’s Courts and tribunals and supporting an independent Judiciary.
The NICTS have over 900 members of staff, support a Judicial complement of over 70 salaried and 600 fee paid Judicial office holders and in 2021-22 supported 72,000 criminal, civil, and family cases, 9,700 tribunal cases, 17 legacy inquest hearings and 70 Coroners’ inquest hearings.[1]
The focus of this inspection will be the effectiveness of the administration of criminal business by the NICTS across the Crown, Magistrates’ and Youth Courts.  In 2021-22, the Service received 39,974 criminal cases and supported the disposal of 38,754 criminal cases.
CJI does not inspect the Judiciary, therefore this inspection focuses on the administrative processes, systems and services that support Judicial decision making in the criminal Courts.
Impact of COVID-19 on the NICTS
In March 2020, due to the public health restrictions and lockdowns of the COVID-19 pandemic, the NICTS initially closed all but five of its courthouses and drastically reduced the number of physical hearings.  Most criminal Courts migrated to digital video links between police stations, prisons, courthouses and defence representatives which took time to stabilise.  From September 2020, criminal Courts had resumed sitting at most courthouses – albeit initially with reduced in person capacity due to the requirement for social distancing. 
A programme of work was initiated in April 2020 to manage criminal justice system recovery from the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.  It was overseen by the Criminal Justice Programme Delivery Group which reported to the Criminal Justice Board.
In April 2021 the Department of Finance provided additional funding to criminal justice organisations, including the NICTS, to facilitate an uplift in the disposal of cases through the criminal Courts over three years.  The NICTS funding was used to support the introduction of additional staff across a range of Court locations, costs associated with Deputy Judges, enhanced cleaning and security across the estate, Information and Communication Technology enhancements as well as meeting capital costs such as providing additional “Nightingale” Court facilities.  There was significant delay in recruiting Court Clerks which placed pressure on the NICTS. 
In August 2020, operational Crown Court jury trial courtrooms were increased to 15, enhanced multi-defendant facilities across all Crown Court venues were introduced, there was extensive use of remote hearing facilities enabled through information technology, mixed in person and video link hearings and an increase in sitting times across Magistrates’ and Crown Court.
In 2021-22, the average time taken for a case to be dealt with at the Crown Court and Magistrates’ Court had increased from average time taken in 2019-20.  For charge cases in the Crown Court it took, on average, 535 days (increase of 125 days) and for summons cases, 1029 days (increase of 168 days).  In the Magistrates’ Court it took on average 108 days (increase of 36 days) for a charge case and 288 days (increase of 110 days) for a summons case.[2]
‘Speeding up justice’ initiatives have been led by the DoJ through law reform and by criminal justice organisations through the implementation of administrative and practice improvements.  These are the subject of a recent CJI Inspection Report on File Quality, Disclosure and Case Progression and Trial Recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic, published on 5 June 2023.  The NICTS have an important role in ensuring that criminal Court business is progressed efficiently through effective administration and providing the Judiciary with the necessary support.
Moving forward
The NICTS 2022-23 Business Plan states that business recovery is the overriding priority:
‘COVID-19 required us to change the way in which many aspects of court and tribunal business are delivered, with an increasing reliance on the use of technology.  As we emerge from the pandemic, it will be important that we do not default to a pre-COVID model for court and tribunal business.’  
The Service will also continue with the delivery of their Vision 2030 Portfolio[3] which is focussed on digital modernisation[4], improved service design, the development of their workforce through their People Strategy[5] and the modernisation of their estate.
CJI have previously inspected specific areas of the NICTS including inspections on Management of Jurors published in April 2010,[6] with the follow-up review in 2014,[7] The accuracy of Court Orders, September 2013[8] and Effective Penalty Enforcement, July 2021.[9]
This inspection will examine the effectiveness of the administration of criminal business which includes the provision of facilities for giving and receiving evidence remotely to allow victims and witnesses to give their best evidence and the use of technology to effectively progress cases and make best use of resources.
Aims of the Inspection
The broad aims of the Inspection are to:
  • examine the effectiveness of the administration of criminal Court business in supporting the achievement of strategic business objectives, support to the Judiciary and improved service delivery;
  • review how operational delivery and staff resourcing is structured and organised to meet business needs, the needs and expectations of stakeholders and service users and assess effectiveness, continuous development and potential areas for improvement;
  • examine the utilisation of resources to include criminal Court capacity, the availability of Court rooms, particularly for Crown Court business, and the provision of facilities for giving and receiving evidence remotely;
  • examine the availability and use of technology to effectively progress criminal Court business;
  • examine the performance of the criminal justice organisations in facilitating criminal Court administration; and
  • examine how effective criminal Court administration is benchmarked against good practice in other jurisdictions; and
  • any other matters arising during the inspection if considered appropriate by CJI may be included. 
The review will be based on the CJI Inspection Framework, the three main elements of the inspection framework are:
  • Strategy and governance;
  • Delivery; and
  • Outcomes.
Design and Planning
Preliminary research
Data and initial information has been sought from the NICTS to inform the scope of this inspection.
Stakeholder consultation
Consultations have taken place with stakeholders to determine the scope of the inspection to include:
  • The Judiciary;
  • The National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NSPCC);
  • Victim Support NI; and
  • The Law Society of Northern Ireland.
A meeting with the Bar Council of Northern Ireland is also planned, if required these terms of reference will be revised.
CJI is cognisant of the current operational models of inspected organisations and this will inform fieldwork for this review (see below) and may impact timing. 
Benchmarking, research and data collection
Collection of benchmarking information and data and review of inspection and research reports will be undertaken.
Contact with organisations
Terms of reference will be shared with the NICTS, the NSPCC, the PPS, the Bar of Northern Ireland, the DoJ, the Lady Chief Justice’s Office, the Law Society of Northern Ireland, the NIPS, the PBNI, the Police Service, Victim Support NI and the YJA.  Liaison officers from the relevant organisations should be nominated for the purposes of the inspection.
Policies and procedures, management information, minutes of meetings and related documentation from the organisations will be requested and examined. 
Stakeholder consultation
The following stakeholder organisations will be consulted:
  • NSPCC;
  • PPS;
  • The Bar of Northern Ireland
  • The DoJ
  • The Lady Chief Justice’s Office;
  • The Law Society of Northern Ireland
  • The NIPS
  • The PBNI;
  • The Police Service;
  • Victim Support NI; and the
  • YJA.
Other stakeholders may be consulted as required.
The NICTS will be asked to undertake a self-assessment, which will be reviewed by CJI prior to the commencement of fieldwork.
Development of fieldwork plan
Interviews and focus groups will be conducted with the NICTS and other criminal justice agency staff, and relevant stakeholders to give an insight into the issues affecting the effectiveness of criminal Court administration.  Inspectors will also issue a questionnaire to all staff facilitating criminal business in the Crown, Magistrates’ and Youth Courts.
Fieldwork requiring face-to-face contact will be planned and risk assessed where necessary in line with public health advice.
Initial feedback to agency
On conclusion of the fieldwork the evidence will be collated, triangulated and analysed and emerging findings will be developed.  CJI will then present the findings to the NICTS and the DoJ.
Drafting of report
Following completion of the fieldwork and analysis of data, a draft report will be shared with the NICTS, the DoJ and any other relevant stakeholders for factual accuracy check.  The Chief Inspector will invite the NICTS, or other organisations where appropriate, to complete an action plan within two weeks to address the recommendations and if the plan has been agreed and is available, it will be published at the same time/alongside the final inspection report.  The review report will be shared, under embargo, in advance of the publication date with relevant bodies.
Publication and Closure
A report will be sent to the DoJ Permanent Secretary, in the absence of a Minister, for permission to publish.  When permission is received the report will be finalised for publication.  A press release will be drafted and shared with the NICTS, the DoJ and any other relevant stakeholders prior to publication and release.  A publication date will be agreed and the report will be issued.
Indicative Timetable
Scoping, research and self-assessment:
April-July 2023
August-November 2023
Draft report to the NICTS and other appropriate organisations for factual accuracy:
January 2024
Publication (subject to permission to publish) February/March 2024
The above timetable may be impacted by factors outside CJI’s control.  Organisations will be kept advised of any significant changes to the indicative timetable.
[1] Northern Ireland Courts and Tribunals Service, Business Plan 2022-23, available at https://www.justice-ni.gov.uk/sites/default/files/publications/justice/nicts-business-plan-2022-23.pdf
[2] Department of Justice key statistics summary updated November 2022 available at https://www.justice-ni.gov.uk/sites/default/files/publications/justice/doj%20key%20statistics%20summary.pdf.
[3] Vision 2030 is the NICTS portfolio of Modernisation Programmes.
[4] The Northern Ireland Courts and Tribunals Service Digital Strategy 2021-2026, available at https://www.justice-ni.gov.uk/sites/default/files/publications/justice/nicts-digital-strategy-2021-2026.pdf.
[5] The Northern Ireland Courts and Tribunals Service People Strategy 2022-2027, Year One Delivery Plan 2023 – 2024, internal document.
[6] CJI Inspection Report on the Management of Jurors, published April 2010, available at: PBNI Report (cjini.org).
[7] CJI Follow Up Review on the Management of Jurors, available at: Layout 1 (cjini.org).
[8] CJI Inspection Report on the accuracy of Court Orders, available at: www.cjini.org/getattachment/d1a6c000-9164-431c-8fdc-c9c137057bd6/report.aspx.