§ Mr. Wood
asked the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland if, pursuant to the answer given on 27 November, Official Report, columns 420–21, by the hon. Member for Chelsea (Mr. Scott) to the hon. Member for Hammersmith (Mr. Soley) he will list the measures which have been introduced to eliminate avoidable delays between first remand and trial in Northern Ireland.
§ Mr. Scott
The Government are conscious of the importance of public confidence in all aspects of the administration of justice, and accordingly the position is monitored on a regular basis by all the agencies involved. Particular attention has been paid to measures to help reduce the average period between first remand and trial. Within the past two years these have included:
- (a) a review of organisation and staffing levels in the Royal Ulster Constabulary and the Director of Public Prosecution's office, with a view to improving the work of file preparation and direction. A number of changes have been made as a result, including an increase in the number of professional staff assigned to the DPP's office;
- (b) the Director of Public Prosecutions is shortly to reorganise his Department so that each professional member of staff preparing a case combines both directing and editing functions. This should increase the speed with which committal papers are despatched to the RUC for signature by the witnesses and service upon the defendant;
- (c) the RUC and DPP are giving sustained priority to major complex cases;
- (d) pro forma reporting has been introduced into the RUC for straightforward cases, with the aim of reducing the time taken to submit police case files to the DPP's office;
- (e) a "fast stream" system has been established by the DPP to identify and take forward cases which could be brought to trial relatively quickly;
- (f) the types of case which may be reported directly from the RUC sub-divisional level to the circuit Assistant Director of Public Prosecutions have been extended;
- (g) a provisional committal date will be set when the committal papers are sent from the DPP's office to RUC headquarters rather than when they have been returned duly signed;
- (h) a presiding judge has been appointed at Belfast Crown court to oversee the listing of cases, thus discouraging unnecessary delay between committal and trial;
- (i) two additional High Court judges and an additional county court judge have been appointed;
- (j) twelve additional Queen's Counsel have been appointed, thus significantly increasing the number of senior counsel available for criminal cases;
- (k) courtroom accommodation is being used more intensively, through increased sittings and reduced vacations;
- (l) in addition, the Government have proposed an amendment to the Northern Ireland (Emergency Provisions) Act 1978 which would allow scheduled cases to be heard other than at Belfast Crown court, thus potentially reducing the pressure on court room accommodation;
- (m) the Government have also proposed that the maximum remand interval in scheduled cases should be increased to 28 days, thus further reducing the pressure on court accommodation.
The Government will monitor the effects of these measures to see whether further changes are necessary.