Problem Solving Justice

Problem Solving Justice comes under Strategic Priority 3 of PBNI’s Corporate Plan 2017-20: ‘Promoting an innovative and problem solving approach to reducing re-offending’

Probation is committed to developing and delivering innovative work. This includes playing a key role in the development and delivery of problem solving courts as a means of dealing more effectively with the root causes of offending behaviour, in a range of areas including mental health, domestic abuse and substance misuse.


Substance Misuse Court

The new pilot programme – a ‘Substance Misuse Court’ – which challenges offenders to tackle their drug and alcohol misuse was launched at Belfast Magistrates’ Court in April 2018.

The Substance Misuse Court (SMC) pilot will adopt an alternative approach to tackle the root causes of offending behaviour and is based on the positive experiences of Drugs Courts in other countries. The primary aims of the SMC are to reduce reoffending and substance misuse among participants and to facilitate their rehabilitation.  A multi-agency Supervision and Assessment Team (SAT) will deliver medical and other services as part of an individually tailored intervention package. The SAT comprise of Probation and Addiction NI staff. Work carried out will include detailed assessment, motivational work and Assessment Report preparation. There will be up to 18 weeks for integrated case management, therapeutic intervention and social supports, with 12 weeks in the social support transition phase.  The participant’s progress and any risks they pose to the public will be monitored and reported back to the court. Up to 50 participants will undertake in the pilot which is expected to run for approximately nine months. Participants will remain under the supervision of a judge throughout the entire process.

More information and guidance on the Substance Misuse Court process can be found via the following leaflet: Problem Solving Justice – Substance Misuse Court leaflet (PDF)


Domestic Abuse

Probation is centrally involved with two multi agency Domestic Violence and Abuse projects to deliver Problem Solving Justice and provide early intervention in tackling the underlying causes of offending behaviour. Both projects are funded by the Department of Justice and link to Indicator 1 (reduce crime) under the Programme for Government, which recognises the need to reduce crime by addressing its causative factors through prevention and detection.

The projects are the pilot of the Domestic Violence Perpetrator Programme (DVVP) and the Unadjudicated Domestic Abuse Programme, for more information on these projects please visit the Programmes section.


Enhanced Combination Orders

Research shows that short-term prison sentences are less effective in addressing offending behaviours than community-based disposals and that more than 50% of offenders sentenced to a short prison term will re-offend. The Lord Chief Justice therefore requested that the Probation Board for Northern Ireland (PBNI), develop a demanding community sentence as an alternative to the high number (88% at May 2015) of prison sentences lasting less than 12 months. Based on existing legislation and known as the Enhanced Combination Order (ECO), ECOs offered Judges a community option in a more intensive format.

Piloted in the Ards and Armagh & South Down Court divisions since 1st October 2015 and extended to the North West in October 2018, ECOs focussed on restorative practice, desistance and victims, with service users also required to complete unpaid work within their local communities. Those with mental health issues were assessed by PBNI psychologists, with a treatment plan or referral to an appropriate health providerthen forming part of the intervention. Where appropriate parenting/family support work and accredited programmes were also part of the order.

In June 2017, the Northern Ireland Statistics & Research Agency (NISRA) published its evaluation of the ECO pilot.     The evaluation focussed on the period up to March 2017 during which 136 offenders had been made subject to ECOs. The evaluation concluded that the qualitative and quantitative evidence showed that the initiative had been successful in achieving its aims.

NISRA have now published a follow on evaluation, which is based on work up to the end of November 2018, which encompasses 295 people who have been made subject to an ECO. This evaluation is similarly positive.

The full Evaluation report can be viewed via the following link: Enhanced Combination Order Pilot Evaluation Report 2019 (PDF)

The Department of Justice also commissioned an independent Economic Appraisal of ECO from the Ulster University Policy Centre. In May 2019, they published “Problem Solving Justice – The Economic Impact of Enhanced Combination Orders (ECOs)“. The researchers concluded that “the economic impact of ECOs and the net economic benefit if they were to be rolled out to all court districts in NI. In summary, this impact assessment identifies an expected net benefit of £5.7m to £8.3m per year in the event of rollout.”

In addition to the economic benefits the Appraisal Report also said “ECOs may be expected to transform the lives of offenders’ families and, in particular, the life-chances of their children via reduced probabilities of entering poverty and intergenerational offending cycles.” and that “the wider community may experience benefits as a result of improvements to the local environment as integral elements of ECOs, or over the longer term through reduced propensity for anti-social behaviour.”

Useful links:
Problem Solving Justice – NI Direct website