File Quality, Disclosure and Case Progression and trial recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic

Publication: 05/06/23
Cover of File Quality, Disclosure and Case Progression and trial recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic inspection
‘Fundamental reset’ needed to improve quality of prosecution files and speed of NI case progression

The Chief Inspector of Criminal Justice in Northern Ireland, Jacqui Durkin has called for a ‘fundamental reset’ within the Police Service of Northern Ireland (Police Service) and the Public Prosecution Service for Northern Ireland (PPS) to improve the quality of prosecution files and speed of case progression.
Ms Durkin said clear objectives coupled with governance and accountability mechanisms at every level were needed to tackle delay within the criminal justice system and to improve outcomes for victims, witnesses and defendants.
“The foundations of a fair and effective criminal justice system are quality police investigations, robust prosecutorial decisions and effective disclosure. Getting this right can reduce delay and ensure a more efficient use of resources throughout the criminal justice system to deliver better outcomes for victims and witnesses,” said Ms Durkin.
“The swifter conclusion of court cases can mean convicted defendants can feel the consequences of their offending behaviour sooner and criminal justice organisations can meaningfully engage with them earlier to prevent further offending,” she said.
The inspection focused on developments since Criminal Justice Inspection Northern Ireland’s 2015 inspection of file quality, disclosure and case progression. 
“We found that despite agreed quality standards being set for the preparation of prosecution files by the Police Service and PPS as part of the Working Together project, a review of 100 police and 100 prosecution case files revealed the quality of criminal case files being prepared to be poor.
“In the police file review, Inspectors found 54% of Crown Court files did not meet or only partially met the file build standards, with this figure falling to 44% in the Magistrates’ Court files we examined.  When looking at the PPS files, 41% of Magistrates’ Court and 54% of Crown Court Cases did not meet or only partially met the required standard,” said Ms Durkin.
The Chief Inspector said improvements in key areas needed to be delivered by both organisations.
“For the Police Service following lines of enquiry is a fundamental part of any investigation.  Our examination of Magistrates’ Court files found that police needed to improve in this area.  We also found police case files were taking too long to prepare with more than three out of 10 Magistrates’ and Crown Court files not progressed in a timely way,” she said.
There were also issues around the level of supervision applied by police Supervisors to ensure both the quality and timely progression of case files identified by Inspectors.
Only 56% of Magistrates’ Court cases reviewed had appropriate levels of supervision recorded although this figure improved to 71% for Crown Court cases.  Police Supervisors and Officers also told Inspectors of their concerns around the competing demands on their time which meant they did not always have enough time to do everything expected of them.
Inspectors found that 96% of the prosecution files examined during the PPS file review met the PPS Code for Prosecution standard and that the timing of decision-making was relatively good.
But further improvement was required around the keeping of notes and the proportionate recording of prosecutors’ decisions on case files.
Inspectors have also called for further action to improve the progression of cases at court as the file review revealed only one in three Crown Court cases were progressed appropriately.

The handling of disclosure, where material is provided that may assist the defence or undermine a prosecution case, was found to be poor in both the police and prosecution files examined.
“This inspection shows each organisation needs to focus on getting the basics right at each stage of case progression.  Quality needs built in at every stage for each Police Officer and Prosecutor involved in a case so better outcomes can be delivered for victims and witnesses,” said Ms Durkin.
“The Police Service and the PPS need to understand their respective organisational needs and deliver against them. They need to show a real commitment to partnership working and a team approach to file quality, disclosure and case progression.
“In this inspection we have made one new strategic and one operational recommendation to deliver improvement and repeated all recommendations made in our 2015 inspection report.
“We have called on the Criminal Justice Board to jointly agree a criminal justice system vision and strategy to improve quality and reduce delay at each stage of file preparation and disclosure within the next six months.
“This will require the Police Service and PPS to have an effective partnership to deliver performance improvement and accountability at every stage and support the Criminal Justice Board and Judiciary to robustly monitor outcomes.
“Clear targets should be introduced that are reflected in the Corporate and Business Plan priorities of each organisation to address the issues evidenced in this report along with a Case Progression Commitment document for Northern Ireland, to set quality standards and meaningfully monitor system performance and agree improvements to support case progression,” said the Chief Inspector.
Ms Durkin said Inspectors had also recommended the Police Service provide a programme of enhanced training and ongoing support and supervision as part of new quality assurance measures to tackle quality and delay within the organisation in the next six months.
“We have also urged the Police Service and PPS to jointly review all previous recommendations made in our 2015 inspection report and provide a joint action plan for their completion by the end of September 2023,” she said.