NI legal backlog: Call for funding over 'unacceptable' delays

ni-legal-backlog:-call-for-funding-over-'unacceptable'-delays

Stephen HerronImage source, Public Prosecutions Service

By Julian O’Neill

BBC News NI crime and justice correspondent

Delays in the justice system are unacceptable and a budget increase is needed to address a backlog of cases, Northern Ireland’s director of public of prosecutions has said.

Stephen Herron said the situation is at tipping point, adding that victims of crime faced being let down.

He is head of the Public Prosecution Service (PPS), which brings most cases in Northern Ireland, including those investigated by the police.

He said it needs an extra £7m a year.

The PPS’s serious crime unit, which handles murder and sex offence cases, has seen a 30% increase in its workload over the past decade.

About 200 cases in the unit are awaiting assessment on whether there is enough evidence to bring them to court.

“Our budget has not kept pace with things,” Mr Herron told BBC News NI.

‘Victims will be let down’

It has fallen by 15% in real terms since 2015 and is currently about £39m a year.

He claimed the PPS is the only prosecuting authority across the UK and Ireland not to receive a significant uplift in finances in recognition of additional pressures.

He appealed to the executive to address the situation.

“Otherwise victims will be let down by delays there are in the system,” he said.

Image source, Getty/May Lim / 500px

Image caption,

The PPS’s serious crime unit, which handles murder and sex offence cases, has seen a 30% increase in its workload over the past decade

According to the latest PPS figures, the median time it takes to reach a prosecution decision in a sex offence case is 272 days – almost nine months.

Mr Herron said: “It is not acceptable.”

More lawyers

“The current timelines for decision-making needs to be improved, but we need the funding to do that,” he added.

He said he would ideally like to recruit up to 20 more lawyers to help tackle backlogs and put the PPS “in a more steady state” within the next 12 to 18 months.

About 120 of the PPS’s 480 staff are lawyers.

“Delays are not something the PPS can fix on its own,” Mr Herron added.

“All parts of the justice system need to be involved, but the most urgent need is additional prosecutors.”

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