Chief Inspector says victims and witnesses in Northern Ireland ‘deserve better’

The Chief Inspector of Criminal Justice in Northern Ireland, Jacqui Durkin, has called for leadership, action and adequate resources allocated to deliver long overdue improvements in the care and treatment of victims and witnesses engaging with the criminal justice system in Northern Ireland.
Speaking following the publication of Criminal Justice Inspection Northern Ireland (CJI’s) latest Follow-Up Review, Ms Durkin said she welcomed the positive progress that had been made by criminal justice organisations and the Department of Justice, but further work was required to deliver quality services that will produce better outcomes for victims and witnesses.

“During this Follow-Up Review Inspectors found there were many dedicated individuals doing good work who were focused on meeting the needs and improving the experience of victims and witnesses.  We acknowledge the positive work they are doing but their commitment will only go so far without leaders prioritising a real change in victim and witness services” said Ms Durkin.

“All victims and witnesses should be able to access their Victim Charter and Witness Charter entitlements and service standards. Every victim and witness deserves human dignity and respect from everyone in the criminal justice system.

“This should not be determined by the type of offence or their vulnerabilities as we know that what looks like a minor offence can be devastating and life changing for some people.  Everyone deserves to have their needs assessed and met throughout the often long duration of the case they are involved in,” she said.

Inspectors returned early this year to assess progress to implement the 16 inspection recommendations made in CJI’s 2020 inspection report to improve the care and treatment of victims and witnesses by the criminal justice system.

They found a mismatch between how well inspected organisations believed they had implemented recommendations and the Inspection Team’s independent assessment of progress based on fieldwork and the evidence they examined.

“We found three recommendations had been fully achieved, 10 were partially achieved and three were not achieved.  While work had been undertaken to progress the four strategic recommendations for improvement, none had been fully achieved at the time of the review,” said the Chief Inspector.

Ms Durkin said it was a real disappointment to find that despite a lot of work being completed to design and agree a new operating model and better services provided in the Victim and Witness Care Unit, a lack of funding meant it could not be progressed.

“This has the potential to be a real game changer in how victim and witness needs are assessed and met throughout the duration of a criminal case.  It was needed before the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic further increased delays in the progress of cases through the criminal justice system and unfortunately, investment in pandemic recovery does not seem to have resulted in better victim and witness care for all cases.  

“The Victim and Witness Care Unit needs to be resourced to do what its name suggests – provide victim and witness care.

“It is important that plans are developed to keep pushing for the full implementation of this and other outstanding recommendations, even where budgets are not currently available and we don’t currently have a Minister of Justice to decide to prioritise them.  There is a cost to not funding good victim and witness care that reaches into families, health care, employment and education,” she said.

Ms Durkin said Inspectors were disappointed to hear that many victims continued to experience a fragmented approach to their criminal justice journey and positive initiatives for specific groups of victims and witnesses, like domestic and sexual abuse, were not always joined up with the criminal justice system.

Inspectors found that a communications plan to promote and raise the profile of the Victim Charter and Witness Charter (the Charters) and the rights or entitlements they contained across the community and within criminal justice organisations had been agreed.  Progress on some elements, including informational videos and attendance at seminars and events like Belfast Pride and the Belfast Mela festival, had been delivered.  

However, other aspects of the communication plan including awareness sessions with voluntary and community sector were scaled back and had not progressed because of budget pressures.

Inspectors found awareness of the Charters was mixed among Police Officers and Public Prosecution Service Victim and Witness Care Unit staff they spoke to.

They also found less awareness of the Witness Charter and the entitlements it contained compared to the Victim Charter and that further analysis was needed to understand how work undertaken to date had improved awareness of and support for the rights of victims and witnesses contained in the Charters.

Ms Durkin said she welcomed the appointment of Victims Champions within each of the criminal justice organisations and the work they were doing.

“Inspectors found the role of the Victims Champions was still evolving and more needed to be done to raise awareness of the position within individual organisations as they have an important role to play in driving progress and continuous improvement in the workplace.

“New laws and IT systems will only take the criminal justice system so far if victims don’t have the confidence to report crimes or withdraw their evidence because their dignity has been crushed and they are re-traumatised by the delay, lack of information and poor support they receive.  This undermines the rule of law and confidence in our justice system,” said Ms Durkin.

“If offences are not reported and victims and witnesses are not supported to give their best evidence when they need to and offenders exploit this and are not brought to justice it is a crime against all of us,” she said.

“Victims and witnesses in Northern Ireland deserve better. They are entitled to at least Charter rights and minimum standards being respected and delivered.  We do not need any more recommendations, we need leadership, influence and leverage across the criminal justice system to drive improvement and ensure organisations work better together.

“With this in mind Inspectors will return to carry out a further Follow-Up Review to review progress and assess evidence of impact on the experience of victims and witnesses,” concluded the Chief Inspector.