Report highlights concern over work by justice groups

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Victims and witnesses feel they are only paid “lip service” by criminal justice agencies in Northern Ireland, inspectors have found.

Although significant progress has been made towards meeting the needs of victims and witnesses, “sizeable portions” were still dissatisfied with court delays and poor levels of communication with the police and Public Prosecution Service (PPS), an inspection report said.

The assessment was made by the Criminal Justice Inspection (CJI) Northern Ireland.

CJI Chief Inspector Brendan McGuigan said: “This report continues to reveal the challenge facing justice organisations in Northern Ireland as they strive to meet the very diverse needs of victims and witnesses here.

“While there has been very good progress, and inspectors welcome that, there is no room for complacency.”

CJI inspectors found almost a third of victims and witnesses were unhappy with how they were kept informed about the progress of a case while a quarter (25%) wanted better levels of contact with local criminal justice agencies.

The report said: “Many issues remain individually and collectively for victims and witnesses.

“Inspectors heard recent and continuing concerns from the community and voluntary sector that in too many respects ‘lip service’ was still being paid to victims and witnesses.

“Principle among the concerns are those surrounding delay and for still too many witnesses, the fact that cases in the courts often do not proceed when expected.”

The introduction of the Victim and Witness Care Units (VWCUs) in May 2014 was cited among the most significant practical changes to the system.

But the passage of the draft Justice Bill through the Northern Ireland Assembly; the launch of a new code of practice for victims; a dedicated young witness service; and the introduction of a Victims of Crime Fund were also hailed for improving experiences.

The CJI looked at progress regarding the implementation of report recommendations from separate reviews of the care and treatment of victims and witnesses and the use of special measures published in 2011 and 2012 respectively.

Of 28 recommendations made across the two inspections, 27 (96%) were achieved either in full or in part, inspectors said.

Mr McGuigan added: “The commitment of various leaders across the criminal justice system and the clear political support, together with the personal interest of the Minister of Justice have been central to the good progress made to date.”

In a statement, the PSNI welcomed the inspection report.

Temporary Assistant Chief Constable Chris Noble said: “The commitment of the police service to delivering better services to victims can be seen in our work with the PPS to deliver a joint victim and witness care unit, which provides a professional and more personal service to all victims and witnesses throughout their time in the justice system.

“Similarly, the work of the police service to embed the principles of the recently-introduced Victims’ Charter stands as a testament to our commitment to deliver a service which meets all the needs of victims, supporting them through an often stressful and traumatic experience which starts with the initial crime but can often continue until court proceedings are concluded.”