Criminal Justice: Victims and Witnesses of Crime
William Hay (DUP)
The Business Committee has agreed to allow up to one hour and 30 minutes for this debate. The proposer will have 15 minutes to propose the motion and 15 minutes in which to make a winding-up speech. All other Members who wish to speak will have five minutes.
Paul Givan (DUP)
I beg to move
That this Assembly approves the Report of the Committee for Justice (NIA 31/11-15) on its Inquiry into the Criminal Justice Services available to Victims and Witnesses of Crime; and calls on the Minister of Justice to implement the recommendations contained in the Report as part of the new 5-year strategy for victims and witnesses of crime.
As Chairperson of the Committee for Justice, I am very pleased to present this report today for the Assembly’s endorsement. It represents a very important piece of work undertaken by the Committee and aims to reform the services provided to and the treatment of victims and witnesses of crime.
I want to thank the members of the Committee for the detailed work that they undertook in relation to this inquiry and their contributions to it. I also want to thank the Committee staff for the work that they did to produce the report. In particular, I want to mention the Committee Clerk, Christine Darrah, and the Assistant Committee Clerk, Roisin Donnelly, who have spent weeks working on the report. It is a tribute to the work that they have put in that we have been able, finally, having launched the inquiry at the start of this Assembly session, to bring it to a conclusion. Christine and Roisin can, rightly, be proud of the work that they have done.
The Committee recognises the crucial role that witnesses, many of whom are also victims of crime, play in the criminal justice system. Their willingness to give evidence is vital to achieving convictions and ensuring that justice is seen to be done.
Although work has been taken forward in recent years aimed at improving the services to and the experience of victims and witnesses who encounter the criminal justice system, including the introduction of a code of practice for victims of crime, revised guidance on achieving best evidence in criminal proceedings and additional provisions for the use of special measures for vulnerable and intimidated witnesses in the Justice Act (Northern Ireland) 2011, it was clear to Committee members that fundamental issues and problems still existed.
The Committee, therefore, decided to conduct the inquiry which has resulted in the report before the Assembly today and in which the Committee makes 30 recommendations. The development of a new five-year strategy for victims and witnesses by the Department provides the opportunity to take forward the Committee’s recommendations and make the substantive changes that are undoubtedly required in the criminal justice system.
During the inquiry the Committee heard from and spoke to a wide range of advocacy and victims’ representative groups and the main criminal justice organisations. We also spoke directly to individuals and families who have had first-hand experience of the criminal justice system. In addition, the Committee took account of existing relevant reports and research papers and commissioned research from the Assembly Research and Information Service on particular aspects of the services that are provided to victims and witnesses in order to inform its deliberations.
Committee members visited a number of courthouses across Northern Ireland to view the facilities that are available to victims and witnesses. We also visited the West Yorkshire witness care unit to see the services that such units currently provide in England and Wales.
I want to put on record the Committee’s thanks to all those who participated in the inquiry through the provision of written and oral evidence and the hosting of visits. In particular, the Committee wishes to acknowledge the invaluable contribution that was made by individuals, including victims of crime, family members of victims of crime and bereaved families, who agreed to take part in the process. The evidence that we received brought home to us the extremely difficult experiences of those who, under very unfortunate and sad circumstances, found themselves gaining direct experience of the criminal justice system in Northern Ireland. Members very much appreciated the fact that individuals were willing to recount their experiences for the benefit of the inquiry, even though it was often distressing for them to do so. There is no doubt that hearing statements such as:
“People are misinformed, ill-informed or not informed at all”
“The trauma suffered by families can often be exacerbated by the criminal justice system”
made the Committee determined to ensure that changes will take place.
The Committee recognises and values the crucial contribution that is made by Victim Support NI, the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NSPCC) young witness service and other voluntary sector organisations in steering victims and witnesses through the system and providing support and assistance when it is most needed. The collaborative approach that those organisations adopt with the statutory criminal justice agencies is excellent. The system would be a much colder place for victims and witnesses without them. However, despite assistance from voluntary organisations, victims and witnesses, particularly bereaved families, face significant difficulties with the criminal justice system and the criminal justice agencies. As is highlighted in the report, their experience of the process is often frustrating, demoralising and, on occasions, devastating.
The inquiry identified a number of key issues that clearly impact on victims and witnesses. They include: the lack of status that victims and witnesses have in the criminal justice process, with little or no input or rights; the lack of dignity and respect that is shown to victims and witnesses during the process; difficulties for victims, witnesses and families in understanding the process; difficulties in obtaining information about their case; feeling unprepared for what lies ahead; the lack of support that is required to give evidence; the lack of emotional and psychological support services and practical assistance; the lack of a joined-up approach among criminal justice agencies; the lack of continuity of service in criminal justice agencies; poor facilities in courthouses; and the length of time that cases take to reach a conclusion, during which victims and victims’ families lives are put on hold.
The Committee agrees with the view that was expressed by one individual:
“there is an imbalance of resources. The defendant has rights and that is how it should be. The defendant has a right to a fair trial and I am fully in favour of the rights of defendants but that should not entirely exclude some rights for victims and the families of victims. That is really important. It is not an either/or, it is a both.”
Much more needs to be done to redress the balance in the criminal justice system and ensure that the services that are provided to victims and witnesses and their experience of the criminal justice system are improved.
As I said, the Committee has made 30 recommendations that are intended to deliver the radical changes that we think are necessary. In the time that remains, I want to highlight a number of key recommendations. Engaging with the criminal justice system as a victim or witness or as a bereaved family is a daunting experience. When appearing before the Committee, the criminal justice organisations stated the importance of victims and witnesses and outlined the information and services that are provided for them. However, the rhetoric clearly does not match the actual experience of many victims and witnesses, as is illustrated by the evidence that we received from the advocacy and victim support groups and individuals.
The Committee recognises the fact that victims and witnesses have individual needs and that some will require much more support and information than others. However, fundamentally, all victims and witnesses are entitled to be treated with dignity and respect and to be provided with the appropriate level of information in a timely manner. As the criminal justice agencies have been unable to achieve that to date, the Committee wants a victim and witness charter that provides statutory entitlements to information provision and treatment to be introduced in the next available justice Bill, and we have set out the minimum entitlements that it should cover. We also recommend that the same statutory entitlements be afforded to bereaved families.
These recommendations should assist to redress the balance in the system and ensure that the criminal justice agencies place appropriate priority on providing the services that victims and witnesses require and should be entitled to receive.
There is also a need for all staff in each criminal justice organisation who interact with victims and witnesses to clearly understand the impact that crime and the criminal justice system can have on them and to develop the skills and abilities to deal with them in an appropriate manner. We have, therefore, recommended mandatory training in the care and treatment of victims and witnesses for such staff. This is particularly necessary in the Public Prosecution Service, which, based on the evidence presented to us, in our view, requires fundamental cultural reform.
I now move to witness care units. The Committee members who visited the West Yorkshire witness care unit were very impressed with the approach adopted by staff in that unit and the resultant improved experience of witnesses. The Committee fully supports the introduction of witness care units in Northern Ireland, viewing them as an opportunity to provide a single point of contact for victims and witnesses in relation to their case, including co-ordination of support and services and the provision of timely information, which should greatly improve their experience of the criminal justice system.
While welcoming the Minister’s commitment to establishing these units in Northern Ireland, the Committee has concerns about the proposed timescale and believes that it should be reviewed. The Committee does not want to see any delay or inertia, particularly by the PPS, which has the lead in implementing the units. The Committee has, therefore, recommended that witness care units covering all the court regions should be established by December 2013. The Committee also believes that witness care units should provide the single point of contact for as much of the process as possible. Consideration needs to be given to how provision can be extended from before the point of a decision being taken to prosecute to beyond the conclusion of the court case to include appeal and post-conviction information and support.
One of the major concerns that recurred throughout the inquiry was about how the criminal justice organisations communicated with victims and witnesses and about the quality and timeliness of the information provided in individual cases. The Committee heard many examples of failure in communications, with victims and witnesses left feeling confused, frustrated and ill-informed or not informed at all about the process in general and their particular case. The manner of some of the written and verbal communication that did take place resulted in victims and witnesses feeling undervalued, sidelined and an inconvenience to the process. This is simply not good enough. The Committee has, therefore, recommended the establishment of clearly defined communication procedures for each criminal justice organisation that set out the information that must be provided to victims and witnesses and the timescales for the provision of it. Key to this is the requirement for the organisations to adopt a proactive approach to the provision of the information; tailor the information to meet the needs of individuals; and provide opportunities for individuals to seek clarification and further information throughout the process.
The Committee is also determined that each criminal justice organisation accounts for the delivery of the services that they are required to provide, which is currently lacking. For this reason, the Committee has recommended that corporate and business plans should reflect the organisations’ commitment to, and actions for, improving the services provided to victims and witnesses. Measurable standards and mechanisms to monitor and assess delivery and satisfaction levels on an annual basis need to be introduced.
I now turn to the facilities for victims and witnesses in court. It is clear from both the evidence we received and our observations when we visited various courthouses that many of the court buildings are not conducive to the needs of victims and witnesses. Difficulties faced include lack of facilities; lack of privacy; proximity to the defendant and/or their supporters; in some courts, overcrowding due to the volume of business being conducted; and the lack of a proper system for scheduling the timing of witness attendance.
While we recognise that there is unlikely to be large amounts of capital funding available to deliver wholesale physical changes to courthouse layouts or to build brand new buildings, the Committee believes that improvements can be made to the facilities and rooms provided for victims and witnesses. Clearly, improvements can also be made to the scheduling of witness attendance. We have, therefore, recommended that an evaluation of the facilities currently provided for victims and witnesses in all courthouses is carried out as part of the review of the courts estate, which was recently commissioned by the Minister, with the aim of identifying specific improvements that can be made to provide comfortable and fit-for-purpose facilities.
We also want to see the introduction of a maximum waiting time for witnesses; the undertaking of an examination of the current management of the facilities; whether the dependence on volunteers is appropriate and properly funded; and how a collaborative approach with the witness care units can be developed.
The adverse impact that the length of time that it takes for cases to go through the criminal justice system has on victims, witnesses and bereaved families, many of whom are unable to move on while they wait for the criminal justice process to be completed, was an issue that was consistently highlighted. Although delay is a common complaint about the entire criminal justice system process, one of the key frustrations for victims and witnesses is the length of time that court cases take and the number of postponements or adjournments that frequently occur. The Committee shares that frustration and believes that the implementation of our recommendation that case management be placed on a statutory footing in the next available justice Bill will assist the judiciary in ensuring that cases are effectively progressed and will have a positive effect on addressing delay and, ultimately, on the experiences of victims and witnesses.
The Committee disagrees with the Department’s approach of waiting to assess the impact of the Lord Chief Justice’s practice direction for case management in the Crown Court before considering the option of legislating. Delay has been ongoing for much too long, and substantive action is required now. There is no excuse for the example that we heard from a bereaved family, where it took two years and 10 months for the verdict in the case of the murder of their mother to be delivered. On the same day in England, the verdict was given in a murder case that had occurred 10 months previously. I hope that the Minister will support that recommendation.
Sean Lynch (Sinn Féin)
Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. If the Chair gives me his notes, I will use them.
As a member of the Committee, I support the report. I thank all those who participated, particularly the victims and the representatives of victims. For some of them, it was not easy to take part in the process, and I put on record my and my party’s thanks for that. I also thank the other Committee members and the officials, who put together a fairly heavy programme of work, with events and meetings over a short period. I thank them for putting together a fairly comprehensive and well-done report. From a personal perspective, it was one of the best pieces of work that I have been involved in since coming to the Assembly 14 months ago. The inquiry was a real eye-opener, and it brought home to me the experiences of victims and witnesses of crime, and it showed the imbalance that there is between one side and those people who have been affected by crime.
One statement resonates with me, and it goes back to the first meeting that we had with a family whose mother was murdered slightly before Christmas. The family had been told that they had no role to play in the justice process. We could have written the complete report based on the two hours that we spent talking to that family. All that is wrong with the justice system for victims and witnesses of crime came out in that meeting. We heard that there was no communication, that a lack of dignity and respect was shown and that the different agencies had a silo mentality. We heard of badly laid-out court buildings and of delays in the case. That family found out information only because they were persistent and would not say no. They got quite a bit of information because they built relationships with particular people, and some people in the justice system felt compelled to give them some information. Families and victims of crime should not have to do that.
The system should support families. In many cases, their experiences and traumas were compounded by what happened when they were confronted with the justice system. It was very unfortunate that most of them found themselves in that position. Those were sad circumstances; it was only when the reality came that they realised the difficulties.
I support most of what the Chair has said about the report and its recommendations. I support the introduction of a charter for witnesses and victims, which needs to be given a statutory footing.
I went over to Bradford with the Chair and other members to see the work of one of the witness care units. I came back with the view that it is essential that witness care units be established soon. I know that the Minister has given a commitment, but he needs to move immediately and implement those units.
We visited Laganside Court, which is a new building, but it is badly laid out. We were not there when court proceedings were going on, but somebody said that it was like a cattle mart.
With regard to delays in the justice system, that particular family could not understand how, in the case of Joanna Yeates in England, within 10 months of the crime happening, the person had been convicted and sentenced and the case was over. Over here, it took two and a half times that. One of the big difficulties that we find in the criminal justice system in the North of Ireland is delay. One reason for that is the silo thinking between the different agencies. I ask the Minister and his Department to take a hands-on approach and bring about —
Ross Hussey (UUP)
I am pleased to speak on the last piece of business of the Assembly before the summer recess. My colleagues Basil McCrea and Tom Elliott have been involved in the progression of the Justice Committee’s important inquiry into criminal justice services available to victims and witnesses of crime in Northern Ireland, and it is my intention to draw out some of the points highlighted in the report. Before doing so, I commend the Committee and the officials, as well as the numerous organisations and individuals who contributed to the production of such a detailed piece of work.
I firmly believe that our criminal justice system should adopt a victim-centred approach from the time a crime is reported, through the court process, and beyond. To that end, I am pleased to note that much work is being undertaken to ensure that victims and witnesses of crime are given sufficient help and support while they are involved with the criminal justice system.
The work of Victim Support Northern Ireland should be highlighted, given the high level of assistance that it provides to victims and witnesses. That charity offers a free, confidential and independent service to approximately 30,000 people affected by crime every year. The breadth of service offered by Victim Support Northern Ireland should not be underestimated, as it deals with victims by offering emotional support, information or practical help. It also helps victims who are going through the stressful experience of court.
A positive development is the code of practice for victims of crime, which was introduced in 2010 following a consultation by the Department of Justice. It is important that the various criminal justice agencies and organisations have minimum standards to comply with, which means that victims and witnesses can have reasonable and informed expectations of the criminal justice system.
Revised guidance has been issued on achieving best evidence in criminal proceedings. That ensures that, for example, police officers, social care workers, legal representatives and therapists have the appropriate support and comprehensive guidance so that they achieve best practice within the context of criminal proceedings.
The Justice Bill, which was passed towards the end of the previous Assembly mandate, included a number of measures for victims and witnesses, such as the introduction of an offender levy to resource a victims’ fund to be used exclusively for funding services for victims of crime, as well as extending a number of special measures for the giving of evidence by vulnerable and intimidated witnesses.
Despite some of the obvious good work that is being done, the report also highlights a number of areas where change is necessary. The main area that I want to comment on is the delay within the criminal justice system. The report clearly recognises the major impact that that has on victims and witnesses, and the Justice Committee is of the view that any avoidable delay between an incident occurring and the conclusion of a case must be tackled as a matter of urgency.
A statutory case management scheme was mentioned in the report as a potential remedy to that problem. However, I note that the Committee expressed its disappointment in the report that the Department of Justice has declined to accept that. Perhaps the Minister will use the opportunity today to explain the rationale behind his decision.
Provisions in the courtroom setting also play an important part in ensuring that victims’ and witnesses’ needs are met. One of the issues raised in the report was the fact that court buildings are not up to an adequate standard, and, given the difficult economic climate, that is a challenging situation for the Minister to deal with. However, I ask him to outline what his plans are to address that lack of facilities.
In conclusion, it is difficult to set out all the issues contained in the report in such a limited time. However, again, I commend the Committee for its work.
I commend the report to the House. I thank the Chairperson for his leadership in relation to this report. He gave a particular drive to the inquiry, and it is important to note that. I also thank the Committee staff, and, in particular, the Clerk, for her Trojan work in relation to the report. Besides this report, the Committee also produced a mini report in relation to the Northern Ireland Judicial Appointments Commission and a formidable amount of work in ordinary session. Therefore, the Justice Committee did a tremendous amount of work. The Justice Committee is an outstanding Committee in this House, second only to the Enterprise, Trade and Investment Committee, [Laughter.] which, as you know, Mr Speaker, is the best Committee in the House.
Much of the evidence gathered by the Committee was moving and, at times, heart-rending. It was reflective of the experience of victims of crime, who were bewildered by the system or were lost in the system, and, if you read the report carefully, you can see that.
This is a very important report, and I say that as an ex-practitioner in the criminal courts. I think that the problem is — or was, because I think that the circumstances have changed now — that victims were not seen as central to court proceedings. They were seen as being “over there”. They were mentioned, but there was no real focus on them. This very fine report puts a focus on the victim and witnesses, but, in particular, the victim. It is a very important report from that point of view. Many of the recommendations are common sense and are not particularly radical or novel, but the genius of the report is that all the information has been gathered together, the experiences of witnesses and victims have been collated into one document, and the recommendations have been consolidated so that we have a very clear narrative of what needs to be done to assist victims and witnesses in our court system.
Victims and witnesses will never be central to the administration of justice, because it is an adversarial system where you have the state, the prosecution and the defendant. Of course, the defendant’s rights must be protected, and the rights of society must be protected in respect of the prosecution, and so forth. However, victims have a very important role within that system.
What the report does is emphasise the importance of recognising victims in the system. It has to be said that the central proposition here is a statutory charter for victims. It is important that the various elements in the charter be recognised, because they are very important. One is dignity, and another is receiving information. That is hardly earth-shattering, but people were not getting information. I think that things have changed, and the PPS and other agencies have recognised that in recent years. I do not think that it is just a rhetorical commitment to helping victims and witnesses. I think that they really intend to do that.
What the report does is very sensibly outline the things that need to be provided, such as the single point of contact, which Mr Lynch referred to; timescales for information; special measures; flow charts; and facilities in courthouses. I have to say to the Minister in particular that I am unconvinced that we really have the capacity for all those things.
Stewart Dickson (Alliance)
Like others, I begin by thanking the Committee Chair, the Deputy Chair, the Clerk, the staff and those in the Research and Information Service for the hard work that went into making the report possible. Without that support, it would not have happened, and we would not be here with the report tonight. We are also grateful to everyone who came and gave evidence, who wrote to us and who hosted our visits.
It is certainly clear from the various evidence sessions that there is a lot of good work and good practice by voluntary sector organisations such as Victim Support, by statutory agencies and by individuals in both those groups who often go above and beyond the call of duty. The progress of recent years was also apparent. This report in no way denies or denigrates the positive changes that have already taken place. However, what was clear is that our criminal justice system remains a very difficult place for victims and witnesses.
As is mentioned in the report, it was sad to hear that the trauma of being in court for whatever reason is often exacerbated by the system. The system should be regarded as a place of refuge for victims of and/or witnesses to crime. It should be a place where they are shown dignity and respect, kept well-informed, given appropriate levels of support and, at all times, made to feel comfortable. There are obviously many points that I could touch on this evening but, as time is restricted, I will just mention a few.
I am delighted at the first recommendation to have a victim and witness charter with statutory elements that will provide certain rights. That will, hopefully, improve experiences of the system in the future. I have advocated a statutory charter. It is something that I have been working for and championing during my time on the Justice Committee. I look forward to seeing further progress on that recommendation.
Secondly, I want to welcome the recommendations with regard to delay in the criminal justice system. During the inquiry, it became apparent that there were many instances of avoidable delay that had a negative and devastating impact on victims and witnesses. I know that the Minister is keen to see that problem remedied as part of his wider objective of speeding up the justice system, in aid of which he has already taken a number of very positive steps.
I would like to make a final point about one of the recommendations in respect of the provision at courthouses. A few months ago, while accompanying a witness to court, I experienced at first hand some of the problems that exist in our newest courthouse at Laganside, where it was difficult to separate the witness from the accused. It was also virtually impossible to leave the court by a separate entrance. All of that happened in a new building that was designed to be a modern courthouse in Northern Ireland. How much more difficult is it for victims and witnesses who attend some of our older courthouses?I once again want to thank all those who were involved in putting this report together. It was a pleasure, and also a deeply moving experience, to meet many of them as they spoke to us and told us their stories. I was delighted to meet a number of them again this afternoon.
Jim Wells (DUP)
It always very useful to follow Mr Dickson because he has the ear of the Minister, and therefore you get a very clear indication of how the Minister is going to react, because Mr Dickson tends to be the warm-up act. So, I suspect that the Minister will enthusiastically accept the report, and we have had an indication of what is coming.
The judicial system needs witnesses. Without them, it would collapse. There is very little prospect of prosecutions in many cases without witnesses being prepared to come forward and be helpful to the Police Service and the judiciary. Victims and witnesses must be treated with dignity and respect. I suppose that I have had the unique experience of being someone who has been prosecuted, prosecuted someone else, and also, on other occasions, been a witness. Therefore, I have had very direct involvement in the court process. I have to say that, even with my background, I found the whole process extremely intimidating. Now, if it is intimidating for me — and, I suppose, even my worst enemy would not call me a shrinking violet — what must it be like for a younger person or an elderly gent or lady who has been asked to give evidence in a court case? It must be absolutely terrifying, and therefore we must have a system that puts witnesses at their ease and encourages them to come forward, rather than the normal process whereby they have to be dragged, screaming and kicking, to the court case.
Paul Girvan (DUP)
I thank the Member for giving way. The area that he now speaks about concerns the final point that I wanted to raise. The Committee made six recommendations around that area, and I know that the Member is aware of that. They include the introduction of: “a comprehensive formal assessment process ... to identify the needs of individual victims and witnesses in relation to special measures and other support requirements at the earliest stage and the assessment revisited and revised as necessary as the case progresses.”
Another recommendation was:
“In relation to serious crimes resources should be provided for practical support services including trauma counselling. These should be available from the crime occurs, throughout the process and beyond if necessary.”
The types of measures that we recommend will ensure that witnesses can give their best evidence and also that victims will get support throughout the process. So, those recommendations, in conjunction with all our other recommendations, will go a long way to ensuring that we have a new system that will support victims and witnesses. I am grateful to the Member for giving way.
Jim Wells (DUP)
Mr Speaker, there is nothing to beat a spontaneous interjection during my speech.
Witnesses and victims should clearly know what is happening. They cannot be left out on a limb or sidelined. Like other members of the Committee, I visited Bradford to see how the West Yorkshire Police dealt with that issue. I must say, we all came away extremely impressed with the witness care unit that we saw in action. We could see that they had taken things to a totally different level compared with this part of the United Kingdom. We could learn from that best practice. I would like the Minister to indicate that he is prepared to go down that line. In fact, I know that is coming, because I have heard it from Mr Dickson already.
I also agree with Mr Dickson, on this occasion, about courthouse architecture. Most of our courts were built at a time when the needs of victims and witnesses were at the very bottom of the ladder. Some of the older buildings, like that at Downpatrick, simply do not lend themselves to good treatment of witnesses. It is regrettable, and I agree with Mr Dickson, that the state-of-the-art, multi-million pound facility in Chichester Street in Belfast seems to have been built, at vast expense, with absolutely no regard whatsoever for the needs of witnesses. I have been in that court on several occasions, and I must say that it is like a Turkish bazaar, with witnesses and those who are being prosecuted milling around. And, of course, in that situation, there is often a large retinue of supporters of the criminal in court, and that can cause great problems for witnesses who feel desperately intimidated by what is happening.
I support entirely the proposal for a statutory framework for case management and a charter for witnesses and victims.
I would like to think that, by the time that this process is finished, someone will feel that there is no impediment whatsoever to their coming forward and giving evidence and that they will feel relaxed, informed and valued. The result of that will be that more criminals will be put behind bars, because people will feel free to come forward.
I have experience in my constituency of constantly trying to get people to come forward to give evidence. They have heard all the horror stories of people being confronted by witnesses from the other side and by supporters of the person who has been charged. We need to put that situation to rest. We need a modern system where people feel valued in the court system.
I am sure that the Minister will be impressed by the unanimity of the report. I should add that I am on the Committee, but you may notice that I am not listed in the report as being on it. That may suggest a prophesy that I am about to be removed from the Committee, but I assure him that I am on it, and that, like every other member, I support the report.
Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. I was one of those members who, unfortunately, came to the Committee rather late. However, I have incorporated some of my thoughts into the observations that I will make today. Obviously, my colleague articulated his view of how well and thoroughly the Chairperson chaired the Committee, and I thank him for that.
The Justice Committee’s report on the inquiry into the criminal justice services that are available to victims and witnesses of crime in Northern Ireland may have just missed the opportunity that the most recent Justice Bill has provided. The inquiry’s first recommendation, which is for a victim and witness charter, should be progressed as soon as possible. The practical measures that the report recommends to ensure that that charter is followed are sensible and thorough. The aim of the Committee’s inquiry was:
“to identify the outcomes that the Department of Justice’s proposed new strategy for victims and witnesses of crime should deliver and make recommendations on the priorities and actions that need to be included in the plan to achieve these.”
I believe that the Committee has been successful in that aim. It should be noted that the Committee recognised the valuable work that has been done by Victim Support NI, the NSPCC young witness service, as well as other voluntary sector organisations, in steering victims and witnesses through the system. Despite those organisations’ best efforts, the issues that the Committee identified on the status and treatment of victims and witnesses are, and remain, of serious concern.
That victims of crimes and their families felt like by-products of the system is a damning indictment of the criminal justice services. That is perhaps the core message of the report, and, in reforming and modernising the criminal justice services, we need to focus our attention on that area. One individual who is quoted in the Committee’s report said:
“The defendant has rights, and that is how it should be. The defendant has a right to a fair trial, and I am fully in favour of the rights of defendants, but that should not entirely exclude some rights for victims and the families of victims. That is really important. It is not an either/or, it is a both.”
As Victim Support NI told the Committee, the organisations that are involved need to demonstrate more emotional intelligence when dealing with victims and witnesses. That means treating victims and witnesses with dignity and respect, maintaining consistent levels of contact and communication, and providing timely and appropriate information through the process of investigating and prosecuting a case. It also means identifying the needs of, and providing the appropriate support for, individual victims and witnesses of crimes. It seems clear from the Committee’s work that a system has been allowed to develop in which the detail and quality of the information that is provided to victims and witnesses is inconsistent and ad hoc across the organisations that are involved. Indeed, I experienced that very recently through a constituent.
There is also confusion over responsibility for communicating that information. As the report states:
“it is apparent that there is no clear understanding of the level of service that victims and witnesses are entitled to and who has responsibility for delivery.”
That needs to change.
One worrying aspect of the criminal justice services that the inquiry uncovered concerned the provision of witness care units. It was generally acknowledged to the Committee that those one-stop shops will be key in managing the early identification of vulnerable and intimidated witnesses, securing appropriate support services and ensuring that information is communicated more effectively to victims and witnesses, thus improving the services that are provided.In fact, Criminal Justice Inspection recommended just such an initiative in its 2005 report ‘Improving the Provision of Care for Victims and Witnesses within the Criminal Justice System’. As the Committee’s report notes, it was to be:
“a single point of contact to the criminal justice system to assist victims and witnesses with information on progress of cases and referrals to bodies for specialised support.”
By December 2011, despite the recommendations being accepted and included in strategic action plans, the initiative had still not been progressed.
The Minister of Justice has now committed to taking forward the work on establishing witness care units. That is to be welcomed. However, despite that commitment, a pilot scheme for a witness care unit to deal with Magistrates’ Courts, youth courts and County Courts in the Belfast region will not be commenced until autumn this year. Rolling that scheme out for the Crown Court Belfast region will take until March 2013. Surely that timescale needs to be reviewed.
Peter Weir (DUP)
I join others in welcoming the report. First, I add my congratulations and thanks to both the Chair of the Committee and the Committee staff. Perhaps the only criticism I could make is that, as highlighted earlier, through some collective amnesia, the Committee seems to have omitted Jim Wells’s name from the foreword to the report. I had a fear when that was pointed out that Jim had somehow joined a witness protection programme, but, obviously, his presence today shows that it is a mere clerical error and that Jim is alive and well and with us in full body and spirit.
The report is very extensive. I urge Members not simply to read the report but to read the background evidence as well. It shows how far we have come within the justice system and a lot of the good work that is being done. It also highlights a range of areas in which there is further progress to be made. Above all, it highlights the advantage of having a Department of Justice in local hands, because the opportunity to have a debate like this, to have a Committee scrutinising this, and to have a Minister responding on it, and, indeed, to progress and implement many of the recommendations, simply would have been lacking a number of years ago, when, essentially, we would simply be a discordant voice crying towards a direct rule Minister. That highlights the significance of this.
I am the first to acknowledge that there has been a lot of progress in the right direction as regards changes. I take on board what Mr Maginness said earlier: that, given the nature of our adversarial situation — like Mr Maginness, I am also a former barrister — it is impossible in many ways to put the victim absolutely at the centre of the legal judicial system. The key message coming from the report is that we need to be much more sensitive to victims’ needs.
As was stated earlier, I doubt whether anybody will find anything in the recommendations that is rocket science, or anything that will startle people from outside. However, there is a large pool of common sense within the report. The one thing that cries out from it is that we are hearing the authentic voice of the experience of the victims. The Committee took a long period and many opportunities to hear directly from victims about their personal experience. In the many years that I have been involved with the Assembly, I cannot think of a report that so authentically reflects the voice of people at the front line, which is what this does.
Turning to a few of the recommendations and highlighting the needs of victims, placing a victims’ charter on a statutory basis was welcomed across the Committee, and that can, hopefully, place the needs of victims at a higher level. Similarly, one of the first sessions that we had, which struck me, was on the issue of delay in the criminal justice system. We met relatives of a murder victim. It was a very telling statistic that their case had been brought to a conclusion on the same day as another high profile case in England. The difference was that the dates of the murders were exactly two years apart, with the case in Northern Ireland obviously taking a lot longer. I know that considerable work has started by the Department of Justice to try to speed up the process.
I urge the Minister to look at the recommendation made by the Committee and the CJI that, if we are going to consider statutory time limits, albeit with protections for the criminal justice system, a case management system should also be placed on a statutory footing because the two go hand in hand. It is important to provide justice in an appropriate timescale.
The Committee also felt that greater clarity and certainty is needed around participation, and the Department of Justice has embraced that. The victim impact statements and reports that have been developed in recent years have been quite useful. However, there is a feeling that they need to be more clearly focused in the future. That is one example of an area in which there has been good progress, but further work remains to be done. Above all, we must ensure that there is a flow of information to victims. They must not be seen as secondary or superfluous to the overall system but kept well informed. That was a consistent criticism —
David Ford (Alliance)
Thank you, Mr Speaker, although I suspect that at this late hour, it would be appreciated it if I did not take the entire 15 minutes. I welcomed the decision by the Justice Committee to conduct the inquiry into the services for victims and witnesses of crime, and I was pleased to take receipt of the Committee’s report on what is clearly an extremely important piece of work, as shown by the attendance in the Chamber even at this hour of our last sitting day. The issue resonates with all parts of our society. How we treat those who have been harmed by crime is the ultimate test of a criminal justice system, and I commend the Committee’s thorough approach to its work.
The Committee consulted widely and looked carefully at all available evidence in developing its conclusions. Its work has been informed by the thematic inspections undertaken by the Criminal Justice Inspection while the inquiry was under way, as well as research that was originally commissioned by my Department. The report quite rightly acknowledges the invaluable contribution made by those individuals who talked about their personal experiences, some of whom, as we heard, endured absolutely traumatic and difficult circumstances. I also thank all those who gave evidence and told their stories to the Committee, because those personal testimonies will be vital as we look to improve the services available to all victims and witnesses.
Prior to the Committee’s decision to undertake the inquiry, my Department had started work on a new strategy for victims and witnesses. I asked for that work to be put on hold while the Committee completed its inquiry, and I gave a commitment that the Committee would help to shape the new strategy for the Department. I am pleased to see that the main themes in the Committee’s report are very close to the preliminary work that had been done in the Department. Of course, that should not come as any great surprise to us, since we have been drawing on the same evidence base and meeting the same stakeholders. I have also received many letters from victims of crime and have met some of them personally, but it is reassuring to know that the wider exercise carried out by the Committee has shown that the work done in the Department to date is focusing on the right issues for all of us.
The clear message from the report is that all victims of crime need to be treated with dignity and respect. I absolutely agree. That should be part of the normal business of all front line agencies; it should not be something that is merely tacked on to the existing job of another member of staff. Another strong theme was the need for better communication with victims and witnesses. Again, I entirely agree. I want a seamless criminal justice system in which all victims and witnesses get the information that they need when they need it and in which they are able to participate as fully as possible in criminal proceedings. That must include, in particular, those who have been bereaved through crime. No one chooses to become a victim of crime. For many, the experience can be difficult; for some, it can be absolutely traumatic. Engaging with the criminal justice system should not add to their distress unnecessarily.
I welcome the fact that the report makes a number of recommendations on how those and other important issues should be addressed. In the time available since the report was passed to me, I have not been able to reach firm views on all its specifics. The Committee has packed a lot into the report’s 54 pages, and I have not been near the CD yet to read the supplementary evidence and the 30 recommendations.
Many of the ideas put forward will need to be discussed with delivery partners in every part of the criminal justice sector, but I am certainly happy to give an undertaking of my support for the general thrust of the report.
I am also happy to honour the commitment that I gave previously that the report will be used substantially to inform our new strategy for victims and witnesses of crime. Indeed, some of that work is already under way. Preliminary work on establishing witness care units, improving the use of victim impact statements and reports and enhancing the support available to vulnerable victims and witnesses, for instance, is under way. I believe that we have made a good start since devolution, but it is absolutely the case in this area that we can always do more.
I will turn briefly to some of the points that were made. You will be pleased to know that I will not go through all 30 recommendations. Recommendation 1 called for the establishment of a charter for victims and witnesses on a statutory basis. I can certainly accept that in principle because I think that that fundamentally underpins every other part of the report. However, with the forthcoming EU directive on the rights of victims, we will need to be careful that we ensure that we have something that carries through properly. In the context of being held to task by Stewart Dickson and Jim Wells, it is absolutely essential that I should give the commitment to recognise that.
I can sympathise with what was said by those who have experience of courts, from my professional background as a social worker and my experience of giving evidence as a witness. It can be extremely traumatic for anyone, even when you are simply involved in a civil case. We need to ensure that we provide the best possible experience. Remember the point that was made by Alban Maginness and echoed by others: in a criminal prosecution, the victim can never be entirely central to the process. However, we must ensure that the victim is as near to the centre as can possibly be arranged, and we must ensure that the victim is treated much better than has been the case so often in the past. That will involve such things as the single point of contact, which Seán Lynch mentioned, and the provision of witness care units to ensure that we maximise the value of what is being done there.
We also need to ensure that the needs of victims are taken into account in the points highlighted initially by the Chair, in particular, and then by other Members, around the court estate, the difficulties that we have there and the wider strategy that we are currently working on to develop the court estate. We also need to recognise that we are working at a time of extreme financial stringency and that we cannot wave a magic wand and provide all the facilities that we want in every courthouse in Northern Ireland. So, we will need to ensure that we do what we can do as fast as possible and as well as possible. I think that that is another example of where opportunities are arising.
Ross Hussey mentioned, and the Chair highlighted, statutory case management. I want to put on record that I have not rejected the concept of statutory case management. The reality is that that came up in a thematic report from CJINI in December of last year, just at the point when the Lord Chief Justice had announced his own initiative. At that stage, when we had no legislative vehicle to look to statutory case management in the immediate future and when there was an initiative under way involving the judiciary, it would have been rather dubious to suggest that we were embarking immediately down the statutory route. I have, however, continued to discuss the issue of statutory case management with the Lord Chief Justice, and I discussed it earlier today with the director of access to justice. We are looking at how that might work in conjunction with the work already being done by the Lord Chief Justice. It is, therefore, certainly not an issue that has gone away; it is certainly not an issue that I have rejected. I think that that is an example of the kind of partnership we need around these issues.
I believe that we have seen very significant progress over the past couple of years. There is clearly much more to be done on the sort of issues that people have highlighted about speeding up the justice system, which remains a problem, despite significant effort. I believe that the fact that we are now looking at statutory time limits for young people is an example of where progress is starting to be made. There will be initiatives announced around that, but it is an issue on which people will want to see greater progress. The concept that a case can take two years and 10 months to come to trial in Northern Ireland, when the equivalent case in England and Wales takes 10 months, as has been highlighted by a couple of Members, is something that we must all seek to avoid if we are to help reduce the trauma suffered by victims in those circumstances.
Today, around the Chamber, we have clearly heard the voice of the victim. In the Committee’s report and, I hope, my response to it, our commitment to seeking to listen to that voice and to ensuring that we make progress in the experiences of victims and witnesses has been absolutely clear. I am fully committed to continuing to work collaboratively with all those who have a role to play in the Assembly; very specifically, the Committee; the various leaders across the justice sector, such as those who are now working as victims’ champions across the agencies; and our partners in the voluntary sector, particularly in Victim Support and the NSPCC. I am committed to responding positively to that call from Members. The Department will continue to analyse the report over the summer, and we will draw on its findings to prepare the draft five-year strategy for victims and witnesses of crime. The report may not be unique in what it says, but it does very carefully draw together, in a short, coherent and cogent document, the lessons that have been drawn by the Committee that will closely inform the work of the Department.
I plan to launch a consultation on the new strategy in the autumn, and I am happy that officials continue to engage at an early opportunity with the Committee as to how the detail of that work is being carried through, building on the work that the Committee has done in the report. I also add my thanks to the Committee, the Chair, the Deputy Chair and the other members, and in particular the staff, who on occasions like this have done all the work, as well as my staff — four of them sitting in the box at this time of night — to show that their work to improve the experiences of victims and witnesses is absolutely real. It is a commitment by the Assembly, the Committee and the Department. As Peter Weir said, we have an unprecedented opportunity to show that devolution is working for the people of Northern Ireland, and I am determined to build the partnership that makes that happen.
Raymond McCartney (Sinn Féin)
Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. Ba mhaith liom fáilte a chur roimh an tuairisc seo. I commend the report to the Assembly.
Although this may be the last piece of work of this Assembly term, I have no doubt that it will inform not only the Justice Committee but, I am sure, the Department and indeed the Assembly and wider society as we take forward the need to address the issues in the report. As stated earlier by the Chairman, the report is the result of much detailed and painstaking work and, indeed, poignant testimony. I add my thanks, and indeed the Committee’s thanks, to the Committee staff. The Chairman has already mentioned the good work of Christine Darrah and Roisin Donnelly, who sometimes are the hidden people when these reports hit the Floor of the Assembly.
Alban Maginness acknowledged the role of the Chairperson, Paul Givan, and I want to do so again, on behalf of the Committee, because he provided leadership and drive. The first draft terms of reference were set by the Committee on 29 September, so it was early in the new mandate. This is the type of work that will carry us forward.
As other Members acknowledged, it would be remiss of us not to acknowledge the valuable contributions of those who gave evidence to the Committee. In particular, the many agencies that we spoke to gave us their professional perspective, but all of us stand in awe of, in particular, those who were victims of crime — or who were bereaved and whose family members were actually victims of crime — because they described in very articulate terms the effect that their encounters with the justice system had had on them. Indeed, the report illustrates the nature of those encounters, which was all too often frustrating and demoralising.
I heard phrases being used here tonight to describe such testimony. It was simple things: they felt lost in the system, bewildered, left out and ill informed. Indeed, the demands that they were making and the demands that they felt — demand may be too strong a word — but the things that they felt should have happened that did not happen were simple things also. They wanted to be informed; they wanted to feel part of the process. Many times they argued — that is why we were impacted and why it is one of our recommendations — that there should be a single point of contact.
Seán Lynch and Peter Weir made that point in their contributions. All of us came away from the first evidence session knowing that many of the issues raised by the witnesses at that first encounter could have set the parameters. Seán Lynch said that we could have nearly written the report after that first encounter. I think that that is a fair point, and it stands in good testimony to those who contributed to that first session and how they articulated their encounters and experience in a very modest yet very forthright and informing way.
The report makes a number of recommendations — I think there are 30 in all. However, for me, the first four recommendations encapsulate the main thrust of what we are trying to achieve. The case has been made very well in the report for the need for a victims’ charter. It is compelling, and I welcome the fact that, in his contribution, the Minister accepted that in principle. On Thursday, the Committee will get an outline of the Faster, Fairer Justice Bill, and I note that there is a recommendation from the Department for the code of practice — not a victims’ charter — to be put on a statutory footing.
Earlier this afternoon, the Minister addressed some of the issues in the Criminal Justice Bill, and he made the point about the good relationship that exists between the Department, departmental officials and the Committee. That good relationship also existed between the Committee and those who contributed to the report. It is with, perhaps, that spirit in mind that the challenge for us in September and onwards will be to try to find an agreement in principle. The Committee’s view is that there should be a victims’ charter, and the Department wants to place the code of practice on a statutory footing. Perhaps we can come up with a way forward that will ensure that both of those things can be delivered. That is important.
I do not intend to itemise each and every thing that Members said during the debate. I want to thank all those Members who spoke tonight, and particularly Ross Hussey, who is not a member of the Committee. It was easy for all of us to pick out the individual items that had an impact on us. It was very noticeable that, if you were to marry all the speeches together, there were very obvious constant themes.
I want to thank the Minister for his constructive and supportive comments. That does for us and gives the Committee a sense of recognition. However, we also recognise that much more needs to be done, and many of the things that were outlined today will guide us in the future.
We have to ensure that victims and witnesses receive the support and services that they need and deserve, and we look forward to the Minister’s detailed response — we heard some of that tonight, but the rest will come over the summer and into September. He outlined that the Department is working on one particular strategy, and we want to see how this report can be used.
In summing up, I, again, want to thank everyone who spoke in the debate tonight. I also want to offer thanks on behalf of the Committee to all those who contributed to the inquiry, particularly those who found themselves as witnesses to the inquiry through circumstances over which they had no control and which, I am sure, they never thought they would be in. I know that some of the witnesses were in the Assembly today and that some are here tonight.
The Committee Chair and Alban Maginness referred to the report. I have been a member of the Justice Committee since it was formed, and I feel that it is one of the hard-working Committees. I do not say that as a form of self-praise, but it is certainly one of the Committees that does a lot of detailed work. I have absolutely no doubt that, in the time ahead, the report will be seen as one of the landmark reports that I and other members will regard as a piece of work that they will feel glad and privileged to have been part of.
On behalf of the Justice Committee, I commend the report to the House.
Question put and agreed to.
That this Assembly approves the Report of the Committee for Justice (NIA 31/11-15) on its Inquiry into the Criminal Justice Services available to Victims and Witnesses of Crime; and calls on the Minister of Justice to implement the recommendations contained in the Report as part of the new 5-year strategy for victims and witnesses of crime.
Adjourned at 8.44 pm.