A follow-up review of the Without Witness Sexual Violence and Abuse inspection

Publication: 31/03/21
Without Witness:  A thematic inspection of the handling of sexual violence and abuse cases by the Criminal Justice System in Northern Ireland
Inspectorate recognises progress on sexual violence and abuse inspection recommendations but declares further work is needed to deliver better outcomes for victims

The Chief Inspector of Criminal Justice in Northern Ireland, Jacqui Durkin, has welcomed improvements in how sexual violence and abuse cases are handled by the criminal justice system, but stressed more remains to be done to deliver better outcomes for victims of these traumatic crimes.
Speaking following the publication of Criminal Justice Inspection Northern Ireland’s (CJI’s) Follow-up Review of the Without Witness inspection of the handling of sexual violence and abuse cases, Ms Durkin said she was encouraged by progress made by the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI), the Public Prosecution Service for Northern Ireland (PPS) and the Department of Justice (DoJ).
“Sexual violence and abuse crimes are some of the most traumatic and life changing in our criminal justice system.  In 2019-20, 3,558 sexual offences were recorded by the police, which equates to over nine offences every day – the highest level since recording began 15 years ago,” said the Chief Inspector.
“When CJI published its Without Witness inspection report in 2018, Inspectors made nine recommendations for improvement.  When we carried out fieldwork for this Follow-up Review, we found progress was made on six recommendations with two assessed as achieved and four partially achieved.  Three are assessed as not achieved.
“Better partnerships are now in place between the PSNI and the PPS which aims to ensure better quality prosecution files and improved standards around the investigation and prosecution of sexual violence offences,” said Ms Durkin.
“Changes within the structure of both organisations has also led to an improved focus on sexual offences and steps have been taken to address staffing pressures with more Police Officers and Prosecutors now working on sexual offences cases in order to improve the response to these crimes,” she said.
Ms Durkin also noted that improvements had been made in the use of digital technology, with Police Officers now able to quickly transfer electronic evidence such as body worn video, CCTV footage and ‘999’ and ‘101’ calls for assistance to Prosecutors to support prosecution decisions and court cases.
“This is a positive development and I am encouraged steps are being taken to further expand the use of digital evidence sharing and make evidence available electronically and securely to defence representatives and for use at court,” she said.
“CJI welcomes long overdue draft legislation being scrutinised by the Northern Ireland Assembly to reform how cases are transferred from the Magistrates’ Court to the Crown Court for trial.  This important reform will ensure that many sexual offence cases are sent to the Crown Court and listed before a Judge at an early stage who can monitor progress towards a trial date if one is needed.  It also means victims of sexual offences will not be further traumatised by having to give their evidence in a court twice.”
However, Ms Durkin said Inspectors were disappointed the PPS had chosen not to fully implement a recommendation that Prosecutors record the rationale for their decision making in a proportionate way for cases regardless of what court they were heard in, choosing instead to limit the guidance and requirement to indictable cases, prosecuted in the Crown Court.
“Inspectors believe extending effective practice in this area to those offences prosecuted in the Magistrates’ Court could potentially deliver better outcomes for and better information to victims,” she said.
The Chief Inspector also said she hoped work paused on legislation to enable jury directions to be given in sexual offence cases would be progressed at the earliest opportunity.
“The COVID-19 pandemic has unfortunately stalled or delayed action in relation to some inspection recommendations and has created a backlog and further delays in a criminal justice system where victims of sexual offences may have to wait two or three years for a trial to commence.
“I know in the recent years there have been many recommendations on how our criminal justice system deals with and how our wider community needs to respond to sexual offences and abuse,” said Ms Durkin.
“I am also acutely aware of the challenges the last year has brought for all of us but as criminal justice organisations seek to recover and restore, it is important work continues to fully implement all the inspection recommendations they have accepted.
“This includes those recommendations still to be progressed, so vulnerable victims and witnesses also affected by the COVID-19 lockdown, and those who have yet to report sexual crimes, benefit from improvements aimed at addressing the specific issues identified in the Without Witness inspection,” concluded Ms Durkin.