Criminal Justice (Committal Reform) Bill: Second Stage

Executive Committee Business – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 1:15 pm on 16th November 2020.

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Photo of Naomi Long Naomi Long Alliance 1:15 pm, 16th November 2020

I beg to move

That the Second Stage of the Criminal Justice (Committal Reform) Bill [NIA 11/17-22] be agreed.

Photo of Roy Beggs Roy Beggs UUP

The Second Stage of the Bill has been moved. In accordance with convention, the Business Committee has not allocated a time limit to the debate. I call the Minister to open the debate on the Bill.

Photo of Naomi Long Naomi Long Alliance

Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker. I am pleased to be back in the Chamber after taking advice from the Chief Medical Officer (CMO) on the required period of self-isolation after my negative test for COVID-19. I would like to put on record my thanks to the Members of the House who were in contact with their good wishes over the last week.

The Bill that I move today is designed to help tackle some of the key challenges faced by our criminal justice system. The measures in the Bill will help tackle delay in the most serious cases that are heard in the Crown Court and will improve the experiences of victims and witnesses on their journey through the criminal justice system. The Bill, whilst relatively short, deals with the complex area of criminal law. Some aspects are very technical in nature. The clauses have been developed in consultation with the relevant criminal justice organisations to ensure that they provide a sound footing on which to implement the necessary reforms.

It is important to say at the outset that the principles of committal reform are not new. Powers to directly commit or transfer an accused person from the Magistrates' Court to the Crown Court in certain circumstances are included in the Justice Act (Northern Ireland) 2015. I will refer to it as "the 2015 Act" from here on. Reforms to the committal process were considered in detail during its passage through the Assembly. There have also been external reports and reviews recommending committal reform, and I would like to touch on some of those shortly.

Before getting into the detail of the Bill, I want to briefly explain what we mean by "committal". Committal proceedings were originally used to collect and record evidence ensuring that an accused was not sent for trial on indictment in the Crown Court unless there was sufficient legal evidence to justify doing so. However, as committal proceedings have developed, they have become a means for the defence to test the prosecution case pre-trial, often at the cost of additional stress to victims and witnesses. Indeed, Sir John Gillen's recent report on his review of sexual offences said:

"The paucity of cases where any material benefit is achieved for the defendant is completely outweighed by the disproportionate cost of and stressful nature of such hearings. More importantly is the fact that precisely the same issues of liability can be dealt with by the Crown Court at an equally early stage. I can see no justification, therefore, for continuing with the present system, which is wasteful of time, costs and resources in circumstances where the vast majority of cases will be transferred anyway to the Crown Court."

Photo of Jim Allister Jim Allister Traditional Unionist Voice

I am sure that the Minister is aware that the figures that she supplied in answer to an Assembly question indicate that, in the last three years for which figures are available, 95·5% of all cases went on committal without the calling of evidence, without a preliminary investigation (PI) and without any delay in that respect. Why does she tell us that this causes excessive delays and that the defence are testing the prosecution case? Perish the thought. Why does she tell us that it costs money, when, if, at preliminary investigation, a matter does not proceed to trial, it saves the cost of what would have been the resulting trial?

Photo of Naomi Long Naomi Long Alliance

I thank the Member for his question. I am happy to deal with the issues that he raises as best I can. First, on the time that it takes for a preliminary inquiry or for a mixed committal, where oral evidence is given, on average it takes six and seven court hearings respectively, as opposed to two for a direct committal or a written evidence case. The number of court hearings is much greater than the number of cases to which they apply. The number is multiplied on that basis. Furthermore, the Audit Office — I do not wish to suggest that Mr Allister would not want to be acutely aware of what happens when it comes to the Audit Office — has said that committal reform is an urgent necessity in terms of cutting delay in the justice system. As I have set out even in the brief part of my speech to date, this is not just about delay; it is about the additional stress that it places on vulnerable victims and witnesses in cases where the victim may be retraumatised by the experience — for example, in cases of rape and other serious sexual assault — or where they may be subject to intimidation due to a link to paramilitary cases. That has been demonstrated in a number of cases.

The Member makes a good point, if, indeed, this is so important in terms of testing the evidence at an early stage. First, the evidence can still be tested at an early stage. If the Member allows me to proceed with my speech, he will be reassured of that in due course. More than that, however, this is also being used by people who do not want to test the evidence at an early stage. Around a third of people who requested a preliminary inquiry or a mixed committal hearing, on the day of that hearing, reverted to written-only evidence. Victims included in that cadre had to spend time stressed and anxious, expecting to have to give evidence and be brought to court, only to be told, at the last possible minute, that they would not be called on. That goes further than simply wishing to test the case; it is about trying to test the mettle of victims and witnesses in such cases. It is not, frankly, an appropriate way for defence barristers to behave. It is not therefore simply about the evidence.

I will move on. Committal hearings can proceed in three ways, as I mentioned in response to the Member's question: via preliminary enquiry (PE), where written evidence only is provided; via preliminary investigation or "PI", where oral evidence is called for from victims and witnesses; or, finally, via mixed committal, where oral and written evidence is considered. However, despite the fact that the process is intended to act as a screen to ensure that only suitable cases proceed to the Crown Court, the vast majority of cases end up being committed for trial. The 2019 figures suggest that only 75 of the 1,765 defendants who went through the committal process did not proceed to the Crown Court. That means that only 4% of cases did not proceed to the Crown Court for trial. Given that the time to complete a Crown Court case is lengthy — a median of 565 days last year — it is important that we take all possible steps to reduce delay.

I mentioned that a range of external reviews have called for reform of the committal process. It is important to highlight some of those. As part of 'A Fresh Start', the Executive committed to implement:

"Further measures to speed up criminal justice and support victims to give evidence."

The 2016 Fresh Start panel report made two recommendations in relation to committal. First, it called on my Department to:

"bring forward ... legislation to further reform committal proceedings to remove the need for oral evidence before trial".

Secondly, it recommended that we should:

"use the measures already available ... to abolish committal proceedings in respect of those offences most frequently linked to paramilitary groups, including terrorist offences and offences which tend to be committed by organised crime groups".

Both of those recommendations were subsequently accepted by the Executive in their 2016 action plan. In its 2018 'Speeding Up Justice' report, the Audit Office noted:

"When criminal justice does not perform effectively it can have a significant impact upon the lives of victims, defendants, witnesses and their families. Participating in a trial can place an enormous burden upon a person: numerous stakeholders described to us how involvement in a serious criminal case can effectively put a person’s life on hold until its completion. It is critical for these people that cases do not take an excessive amount of time to progress through the justice system and do not have their progress punctuated by administrative delays and adjournments at court ... Alongside the human cost of these delays, there is also a waste of public money resulting from inefficiencies."

That report recommended that my Department should establish an action plan and timetable for the eradication of the committal process. In the 2018 'Without Witness' report, the Chief Inspector of Criminal Justice recommended:

"Once direct transfer to the Crown Court is established for murder and manslaughter cases, the DoJ should ensure that rape, serious sexual offences and child abuse offences be added to the list of specified offences under the Justice Act (Northern Ireland) 2015".

That report concluded:

"the criminal justice processes in Northern Ireland for handling these cases take too long, are too expensive and conclude with, all too often, a failure to deliver an acceptable outcome for victims."

The report highlighted the following statistics in relation to cases in which the defendant was charged with only sexual offences:

"In 2017, 125 of 127 (98%) of such cases were transferred to the Crown Court from the Magistrates’ Court. In 2016 the comparable figures were 170 of 171 (99%) and in 2015, it was 164 of 171 (96%)."

The report stated:

"These figures demonstrate that there are limited risks involved in abolishing the committal proceedings in these types of cases, as the vast majority will be transferred anyway. Direct committal would also reduce the anxiety for victims and should reduce delays in case progression."

Then, in 2019, in Sir John Gillen's 'Report into the law and procedures in serious sexual offences', to which I have already referred, he recommended that my Department:

"should make provision for the direct transfer of serious sexual offences to the Crown Court bypassing the committal process".

Looking at committal proceedings in general, we can see that the vast majority of cases that proceed through the committal process end up being committed for trial to the Crown Court. Finally, at the beginning of this year, the 'New Decade, New Approach' deal stated:

"The Executive will deliver committal reform to help ?speed up the criminal justice system, benefiting victims and witnesses."

It is clear that further reform of the committal process is needed and supported by all Executive parties and a range of justice partners.

As I have said, the principles and policies around reforming the committal process are not new, and we, as an Assembly, have already legislated for some reform. So, why the need for this short, tightly focused Bill? It is designed, in the main, to do three things.

First, the Bill seeks to get more cases, more quickly, to the Crown Court. The 2015 Act provided only for murder and manslaughter cases to be directly committed to the Crown Court in certain circumstances. This Bill proposes to expand that list so that all offences that, as an adult, are triable only on indictment will be directly committed. This definition is necessary to ensure that we capture in legislation an appropriate set of offences, and it ensures that the system works for adults and youths. The group of offences will include serious sexual offences like rape, helping to deliver the Gillen recommendations, and offences that are often, but not exclusively, linked to paramilitary activity and organised crime, such as firearms, explosives, GBH with intent and, of course, murder. This change will contribute to the delivery of commitments arising from the Fresh Start Agreement.

The Bill also includes provisions to add small numbers of additional offences by way of an order made by draft affirmative resolution procedure, should that need arise in the future. It is also important to note that my Department's long-term aim is to completely eradicate the traditional committal process, with all offences being directly committed to the Crown Court. That will take time and further legislation, but it is the right direction of travel and something that external scrutiny bodies say that we need to do.

The second key objective of the Bill relates to the area of oral evidence. The proposals to directly commit more cases will remove committal hearings and, with that, the option of oral evidence at that stage. However, for cases that are not yet directly committed, and until direct committal is operational, there will continue to be committal hearings. I have already outlined that oral evidence can be provided at that stage through a preliminary investigation or via mixed committal.

Through the Justice Bill in 2015, my Department previously sought to abolish the option to hear oral evidence from victims and witnesses at a committal hearing. The experience of giving sometimes traumatic oral evidence, particularly under cross-examination, both at committal and again at the Crown Court trial, can have a significant impact on victims and witnesses. However, this did not receive sufficient support at the time of the passage of the Bill, and instead an amendment was made that ensured oral evidence could be called only if the judge was satisfied that the interests of justice required it. However, as I said, in 2016 the three-person panel appointed by the Executive to report on a strategy for disbanding paramilitary groups recommended that the Department of Justice should bring forward draft legislation to further reform committal proceedings to remove the need for oral evidence before trial. This was accepted by the Executive in their action plan published in July 2016, and this Bill gives effect to that commitment.

There will no doubt be those who say that oral evidence at the committal hearing is an important part of the criminal justice system and should be retained. Mr Allister is one such Member, and he has made that clear already today. To that I say three things. First, it is not just me or my Department saying that we should remove oral evidence. We are delivering previously agreed Executive commitments flowing from the Fresh Start Agreement. Secondly and, I believe, most importantly, I want to do this for victims, who will face a committal hearing until the committal process is fully eradicated. I have heard all too often of the impact on vulnerable victims who have to give traumatic evidence not just once but twice as part of our criminal justice process. Last year, cases involving 109 out of 1,765 defendants proceeded with oral evidence at committal stage, either through a preliminary investigation or a mixed committal. On the one hand, that is only 6%, so Mr Allister was correct. However, this is not just about numbers and statistics; it is about people. Direct committal of the additional offences I have outlined will remove the need for oral evidence in many of those cases but, for the remainder, I want to ensure that victims and witnesses do not have to go through this process.

We also know that, as I alluded to earlier, in the cases of a further 53 defendants, a preliminary investigation or mixed committal proceeding had been planned, only to be changed at a late stage — often, on the day — to proceed with written evidence through a preliminary inquiry. As Sir John Gillen noted in his report:

"committal proceedings ... are often listed as a mixed committal, which then turns into a conventional preliminary enquiry hearing on the morning of the matter, after the complainant has suffered the stress and worry of a court appearance, only to be told that they are not required. This is quite unnecessary and that practice should be strongly deprecated, given the additional stress and delay this process is causing."

Besides the obvious impact on victims and witnesses, the preparation and process for these committal hearings can add both delay and burden to an already stretched system. We know, for example, that the number of hearings for a preliminary investigation or mixed committal can average three to four times the number of those required for a preliminary inquiry that uses only written evidence.

The final key objective of the Bill is to make improvements to the smooth operation of the direct committal process. The 2015 Act provided for a new process in cases directly committed to the Crown Court. Called application to dismiss, it allows the defence to apply to the Crown Court for some or all of the charges to be dismissed on the basis that the evidence is insufficient for the accused to be properly convicted. The 2015 Act allows oral evidence in that process, but, to ensure consistency with the objective of victims and witnesses not giving evidence before trials, the Bill includes a provision to remove oral evidence in the application to dismiss process.

The Bill also seeks to introduce a new power for the Public Prosecution Service to discontinue proceedings between cases being committed to the Crown Court and the presentation of indictments that set out the charges for which the accused is to be prosecuted. That is seen as necessary for the operational outworkings of direct committal and is similar to powers that exist in England and Wales. It means that where there is a material change in the circumstances of the case, such as new evidence, that leads the prosecution to conclude that the test for prosecution has not been met, immediate action can be taken to discontinue the case without adding additional delays.

Following extensive engagement with relevant criminal justice organisations, the Bill also seeks to repeal section 10 of the 2015 Act. That provides that a Magistrates' Court will directly commit an accused to the Crown Court if they indicate, prior to a traditional committal hearing, an intention to plead guilty. I recognise the benefits to victims, witnesses and defendants of that approach; however, a number of significant operational complexities and risks have been identified by justice partners, including the risk of false release or false imprisonment. It is also an interim measure and once direct committal is fully rolled out it would become obsolete. Although it is not possible to quantify the numbers involved with any certainty, it potentially applies to a relatively small number of cases. On balance, therefore, my Department considers that focusing efforts on a more expansive roll-out provides a better and less-complex basis on which to implement the changes required and speed up the justice system.

I recognise the benefits to victims, witnesses and defendants of fast-tracking cases when accused parties wish to plead guilty. Therefore, the Bill also includes powers where an individual is charged with committing a relevant offence and expresses an indication to plead guilty to allow the Magistrates' Court to order the necessary reports in preparation for the Crown Court. That answers the third part of Mr Allister's question about the potential transfer of duties to the more expensive tier of the courts system.

Finally, the Bill will ensure that related offences can be transferred to the Crown Court —.

Photo of Naomi Long Naomi Long Alliance

No, I will not. I have given the Member quite a bit of attention thus far.

The Bill will ensure that related offences can be transferred to the Crown Court together with relevant offences. I recognise that much of that is quite technical, but it is important so that the reformed processes can operate as effectively as possible.

In summary, the Criminal Justice (Committal Reform) Bill seeks to, first, expand the use of direct committal to a wider range of offences and bring more offences more quickly to the Crown Court. Secondly, it will remove the need for pre-trial oral evidence. Finally, it will smooth the operational outworkings of direct committal.

I want to pay tribute to everyone who has helped us in the Department to reach this stage, including our criminal justice partners, whom I know will continue to work together with us to implement the reforms. I look forward to Members' support in taking the Bill through the Assembly and in keeping it focused on its current provisions, with any material policy amendments being dealt with through a future legislative vehicle.

This is another piece of significant legislation from my Department. It is a relatively short Bill of six clauses only, but the changes that it proposes will deliver much-needed reform of the criminal justice process, reduce delay and improve the experience of victims and witnesses, which, in my view, is the most important thing. I commend the Bill to the House.

Photo of Paul Givan Paul Givan DUP

I also welcome the Minister back in her place. We are thankful for her speedy recovery. I also thank — I know that she did not — her Executive colleague Edwin Poots, who kindly offered to take the Second Stage of the Bill through today and, indeed, the Consideration Stage of the Domestic Abuse and Family Proceedings Bill last week.

I know that the Minister is able to do it today, but it is worth putting on record that there was a willingness to do that, and it is good to see Executive Ministers supporting each other in that way.

Photo of Naomi Long Naomi Long Alliance

I thank the Member for giving way. I do not normally discuss Executive correspondence in the Chamber, but I have thanked Minister Poots for that kind offer. It was very generous of him.

Photo of Paul Givan Paul Givan DUP

OK. Thank you, Minister.

As Chairman of the Committee, I am pleased to be able to speak, on behalf of the Committee, during the debate on the Second Stage of the Criminal Justice Bill. A primary objective of the Bill, as the Minister said, is to improve the operation of the criminal justice system by reforming committal proceedings, which is the procedure that determines whether there is sufficient evidence to justify putting a person on trial in the Crown Court.

In oral evidence to the Committee on 5 November, Department of Justice officials outlined that the Bill will do three key things. It will remove the need for victims and witnesses to give oral evidence pre Crown Court trial, it will seek to get more cases to the Crown Court quicker by expanding the range of offences to which direct committal will apply, and it will make some technical amendments to smooth the committal process. In the longer term, the Department aims to abolish the committal process completely.

There have been many calls for reform or, indeed, the eradication of the committal process over recent years. In addition to the length of time it takes for cases to progress through the criminal justice system, one of the key concerns with the process is the impact that it has on victims and witnesses, who may be required to give oral evidence at the committal stage as well as at the trial itself. The experience of giving oral evidence can be traumatic, particularly under cross-examination, and has a significant impact. We need to address the fact that they have to do that twice for the same case so that we can improve the experiences of victims and witnesses.

Delay in the criminal justice system and the time it takes to progress cases through the system has been a recurring issue and concern for the Committee since the devolution of policing and justice powers in 2010. The Committee was recently advised that reducing delay is one of the biggest challenges facing the justice system and is a priority for the Department, its criminal justice partners and the Criminal Justice Board. Reforming the committal process is a key part of the plan to reduce avoidable delay.

In its report on speeding up justice, which was published in 2018, the Northern Ireland Audit Office suggested that the committal process added minimal value to the progression of cases whilst imposing demands on victims and witnesses. The report stated that the committal process could:

"effectively amount to a preliminary trial, with victims and witnesses required to provide testimony which they will have to deliver again at trial in the Crown Court. This is, at the least, stressful to participants and ... may deter them from attending for trial."

In its consideration of the implementation plan for the recommendations in the Gillen review of the law and procedures in serious sexual offences in Northern Ireland, the Committee learned that the time taken for sexual offence cases was 698 days in 2019-2020 compared with 470 days in 2015-16. I am sure that all Members will agree that that is much too long, and the impact that delays of that magnitude may have on a victim cannot be overstated. A key recommendation from the Gillen review is that steps should be taken to combat excessive delay in the judicial system, and the specific recommendation in that regard is that provision should be made for the direct transfer of serious sexual offences to the Crown Court.

Criminal Justice Inspection Northern Ireland (CJINI) also pointed out in its report on the handling of sexual violence and abuse cases by the criminal justice system that, in each year from 2015 to 2017, at least 96% of cases where the defendant's offences are exclusively sexual offences were transferred to the Crown Court from the Magistrates' Court for preliminary enquiries and preliminary investigations. In CJINI's view, that demonstrates that there are limited risks in abolishing the committal proceedings in these types of cases as, in the vast majority of cases, they will be transferred. Direct committal will also reduce the anxiety for victims in such cases and should reduce delays in case progression.

The Minister outlined that the Fresh Start panel on the disbandment of paramilitary groups in Northern Ireland recommended that the Department of Justice should bring forward legislation to further reform committal proceedings to remove the need for oral evidence before a trial. Indeed, the 'New Decade, New Approach' document noted that the Executive would deliver on committal reform.

The Committee for Justice considered committal reform as part of its Committee Stage scrutiny of the 2014 Justice Bill. Those who were on the Committee at that time will remember fondly that scrutiny, and the debate that took place in the Chamber. The provisions of that Bill, as introduced, aimed to abolish the use of preliminary investigations and the use of oral evidence at preliminary inquiries, provide for the direct committal to the Crown Court of certain indictable cases, where the defendant intends to plead guilty at arraignment, and provide for the direct committal to the Crown Court of certain specified offences. As Members will know, there was a divergence of views in the evidence that the Committee received at that time on those proposals. The Public Prosecution Service and Victim Support NI were supportive of the changes, but the Law Society believed the proposals to be flawed. Having previously undertaken an inquiry looking at the experiences of victims and witnesses of the criminal justice system, the Committee was fully aware of the trauma that is caused to victims by having to give evidence twice. It also believed that measures needed to be taken to address avoidable delay in the system. The Committee was, therefore, supportive of the Bill's provisions, but, as Members are aware, an amendment to the Bill retained the use of oral evidence where the court deemed it to be in the interests of justice.

When discussing the principles and provisions of this Bill with departmental officials on 5 November, Committee members raised a number of issues, including the likely volume of cases to which direct committal will apply under the legislation, the likely time reduction for such cases to be completed, the likely costs associated with the changes, any legal aid implications and operational complexities, and risks associated with the section 10 process provided for by the Justice Act 2015 and the reasons for its repeal in this Bill. Officials were also asked to address the argument that is sometimes put forward that having an oral hearing is useful in sorting out issues and that only so much can be conveyed through written papers, so it is better to have the opportunity to question in person. Officials responded by indicating that while there are arguments for and against direct committal, and while the number of cases that go through a preliminary investigation or mixed committal are small, it is a traumatic experience for those who are required to give oral evidence, pre-trial. The recommendations from a number of external organisations and sources indicate that direct committal should be implemented in full.

Officials also advised the Committee that it is difficult to specify how much time might be saved in progressing cases. Although there will be no committal hearing, which can, at times, be lengthy, at the Magistrates' Court, the proceedings in the Crown Court are likely to take slightly longer. In addition, it is difficult to predict cost savings, as it is more likely that there will be a change in the balance of costs between Magistrates' Courts and the Crown Court. However, there is no expectation that the new procedures will cost any more overall. The implications for legal aid are still being considered.

The Committee was also informed that there will be a phased approach to the roll-out of direct committal. The initial tranche will be for those cases that are triable on indictment only, which account for 30% of cases annually. The intention of the Department is that, eventually, direct committal will apply to all cases that go to the Crown Court.

In relation to the repeal of section 10 of the Justice Act 2015, officials indicated that, currently, if a defendant indicates an intention to plead guilty, regardless of the offence type, it will go straight to the Crown Court. However, if they change their mind, they will be returned to the Magistrates' Court. That is a complex matter, and it poses a number of operational and IT difficulties which produce risks, including the risk that the incorrect application of bail could result in the person being wrongly released or imprisoned. Given that section 10 applies only to a small number of cases, and will become redundant when the traditional committal hearing is removed, the Department has decided to repeal it and to include powers in the Bill to enable the Magistrates' Court to do a lot of the preparatory work for such cases for the Crown Court.

The Committee will wish to explore all of those issues, and others that no doubt will arise during the Bill's Committee Stage, assuming that it passes Second Stage today. The Committee is content to support the principles of the Bill. We look forward to dealing with it at Committee Stage. Members have already indicated some of the points that were rehearsed back in 2014.

I give the commitment that all of those issues will be given the detailed scrutiny that the Justice Committee has shown itself to be adept at carrying out. It is vital that the Department engages with the Committee during Committee Stage. As I said on the Domestic Abuse and Family Proceedings Bill, when a Department introduces a Bill, it becomes an Assembly Bill. The Assembly takes the final decisions. I am sure that Members will propose amendments or other issues that could be deemed to be within the scope of the Bill, and it is vital that the Department engages at that stage rather than leaving it until the eleventh hour.

I encourage Members who want to propose amendments to do so early to allow the Committee to carry out its scrutiny work. Obviously, they retain the right to do that once the Committee has reported, but, if evidence is brought to the Committee during the scrutiny stage, it is a lot easier for members of that Committee to have a considered position on the amendments. The evidence would also go to the Department and others.

Photo of Roy Beggs Roy Beggs UUP 1:45 pm, 16th November 2020

I now call Linda Dillon. I may need to interrupt because we are approaching Question Time, which starts at 2.00 pm.

Photo of Linda Dillon Linda Dillon Sinn Féin

I assure you, a LeasCheann Comhairle, that you will not have to interrupt me: I will be finished before Question Time.

I thank the Minister for moving the Bill. As the Chair has outlined, it will be scrutinised in much greater detail as it progresses through the legislative process. It has been a steep learning curve for me. I have just been through the Domestic Abuse and Family Proceedings Bill, my first ever legislation. A number of pieces of legislation are coming through the Committee. That is a positive thing. It is what the House is for. We are here to try to make the best law that we can.

Committal proceedings are held to determine whether, in the case of more serious offences, there is sufficient evidence to require a defendant to stand trial. That can include the taking of oral evidence, as has already been referred to, from victims and witnesses, which means that they will have to give further oral evidence at a trial. There is a huge risk of retraumatisation. We have spoken on many occasions in the House about the need to support and look after victims and have a victim-centred approach to everything that we do. We should do whatever we can to reduce that trauma to victims, and I am hopeful that the committal Bill will go some way to dealing with that. The proposals to streamline —.

Photo of Jim Allister Jim Allister Traditional Unionist Voice

I understand entirely the sentiment that the Member expresses. The debate has not lasted for long, but, already, every Member who has spoken has fallen in to the trap of talking not about "alleged victims" but about "victims", before you get anywhere near conviction. At the stage of committal and until a jury says, "Guilty", there is nothing but an alleged victim. We should not allow that to cloud our judgement in the manner in which it seems to be doing.

Photo of Linda Dillon Linda Dillon Sinn Féin

I accept what you say. That is why we will scrutinise the Bill as a Committee. We will speak to everybody during that process, not just to alleged victims but to those from a background such as yours, Mr Allister. I appreciate that you may have a different and more detailed understanding.

Photo of Naomi Long Naomi Long Alliance

I thank the Member for giving way. Does she agree that part of the process of speeding up justice is for the alleged perpetrators and defendants in a case who are not guilty but will have that hanging over their head for a more protracted period if justice is not swift?

Photo of Linda Dillon Linda Dillon Sinn Féin

Absolutely. It hangs over the heads not just of the perpetrators but of their families. Even where someone is guilty of something, their family has done nothing wrong. A protracted process does not help anyone in relation to those issues.

Photo of Roy Beggs Roy Beggs UUP

I ask the Member to ensure that she speaks into a microphone so that her comments are picked up.

Photo of Linda Dillon Linda Dillon Sinn Féin

Apologies.

We, as a party, support the two main purposes of the Bill around removing the option of calling alleged victims and witnesses for oral evidence in advance of a trial and the issue around speeding up the time for progressing Crown Court cases. However, we will not take a final position without going through the scrutiny process.

It is vital that the wider justice system supports victims of crime at every stage of their journey through the system. The Bill is one piece of the puzzle of how we can do that by removing the need to give oral evidence more than once. That, along with shortening the time taken for that journey to be progressed are major cogs in the process of how we can properly support victims in the process. The Department, however, has a responsibility to ensure that victims are put at the front and centre of the Bill and any other measures that are designed to improve the system for them. I would like to think that, in developing the Bill, the Minister and her Department have engaged with victims and organisations that represent victims and that she has their support.

As a member of the Justice Committee, I am sure that I speak for other members of the Committee when I say that the best interests of victims and alleged victims will be our priority in scrutinising the legislation. I am certainly keen to engage with all, including those from a legal background and the Bar, who obviously have had some issues with previous Bills that have come before the House.

I am also keen to hear some figures from the Minister on the expected outcomes of the Bill. For example, we know that there is a major backlog of cases and that the time taken to deal with serious criminal cases is already far too high. We need to hear additional information on the figures. I accept that it is not all about the figures — it is very much about people — but we are a public body that uses public finances. We also have a real focus on shortening the time for cases going through court, so we need to see some of the figures.

The issue was, of course, raised in 2015 as part of the Justice Bill. The 2015 Act provided for more fundamental reforms to the committal process by allowing direct committal of an accused person from the Magistrates' Court to the Crown Court in certain circumstances without the need for the traditional committal hearing. It was considered throughout the 2015 Bill whether we should abolish the option to hear oral evidence from victims and witnesses at the traditional committal hearing in the Magistrates' Court. However, it did not receive sufficient support at that time. Since 2015, however, there has been a range of developments that have led to where we are today, and some of those have already been outlined. We had the Fresh Start panel report, the NI Audit Office report in 2018 on speeding up justice, the Gillen review, a number of CJINI reports and then NDNA. Therefore, although the issue was not resolved in 2015, it has become clear that the case for further reform of committal proceedings is strong. My party, therefore, at this stage welcomes the Department moving on the issue. The changes are regarded as key to improving the speed of the justice system and delivering on the Executive's priorities outlined in NDNA.

Photo of Roy Beggs Roy Beggs UUP

As Question Time is scheduled for 2.00 pm, I suggest that the House takes its ease for a few moments until then. This debate will continue after a further ministerial statement and a number of questions for urgent oral answer. When we resume the debate, the next Member scheduled to be called is Sinéad Bradley.

(Mr Speaker in the Chair)