Efforts underway to address lengthy delays in criminal trials

A shortage of judges is partly to blame, but a rise in complex cases, such as the Anglo trial, is also a factor

Mon, Apr 28, 2014, 01:10

Lengthy delays in criminal cases continue to be a problem for the legal system despite a huge drop in the amount of cases coming before the courts.

Take the following case: a 75-year-old man who was accused of abusing his two daughters in the late 1960s and early 1970s. The case first appeared in the lists of the Central Criminal Court in June 2011. It will not be finalised until February 2015 at the very earliest.

It is a slightly extreme example, but in most serious cases, well over a year elapses between the first court date and finalisation.

The consequences of such delays are obvious. Complainants face an agonising wait for closure while defendants, who are innocent until proven guilty, may have to spend that time languishing in a prison cell.

Cases before the Circuit Criminal Court, which deals with the vast majority of non-minor offending, have fallen by 35 per cent over the past three years. So why do such unacceptable delays continue?

The main reason is a lack of judges. Despite recent recruitments, the number of judges per head of population in Ireland remains one of the lowest in the EU.

Complex cases
Added to this is the rise in cases that tend to take up a large amount of court time.

The average criminal trial before the circuit courts takes about three days. However, cases involving white-collar crime or tiger kidnapping tend to be complex and multilayered, the recent Anglo Irish Bank trial being a prime example.

Such trials can last well over a month, meaning that a judge is taken out of circulation for the entirety of that period.

Another big reason for delays is the defendants. The accused will often drag their heels as much as possible in the knowledge that they are destined to be convicted and jailed.

However, there are often more understandable reasons an accused might delay their case. It is an unavoidable fact that many before the courts suffer from mental illness or addiction. Their condition means they are often unable to give clear instructions to their counsel.

Often defendants who are pleading guilty will seek to adjourn a sentence date so they can become drug-free in the hope this will result in a reduced punishment.

Some of the blame also lies with inefficient disclosure procedures. A common refrain during hearings is that the defence has not received all the evidence or has been served with last-minute additional evidence which they require time to analyse.

One of the most frustrating causes of adjournments and delays is legal argument, which can take up days of a trial before leading to its collapse and rescheduling.

Efforts are underway to address at least some of these issues. Earlier this month Minister for Justice Alan Shatter announced a new Criminal Procedure Bill which will introduce statutory pre-trial hearings.

It is envisaged these hearings will deal will all contentious legal matters, such as the admissibility of evidence, before a jury is empanelled. This will allow the trial itself to proceed with little or no interruption.

It is hoped the hearings will also show when there is not enough evidence for a case to proceed, saving the need for parties to endure the stress of a trial that is destined to collapse.

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