The care and treatment of victims and witnesses by the criminal justice system in Northern Ireland. A Follow-Up Review of recommendation implementation

Publication: 26/10/23
Cover of the Victims and Witnesses Follow-Up Review
Victims and Witnesses Follow-Up Review

In 2020, Criminal Justice Inspection Northern Ireland published Victims and Witnesses: The Care and Treatment of Victims and Witnesses by the Criminal Justice System in Northern Ireland. Three years later, we published the Follow-Up Review of recommendation implementation.

The Chief Inspector of Criminal Justice in Northern Ireland, Jacqui Durkin, has drawn attention to the urgent need for leadership, action, and adequate resources to enhance the care and treatment of victims and witnesses involved in the criminal justice system in Northern Ireland.  While recognising some positive progress, Ms Durkin emphasises that further efforts are required to ensure the delivery of quality services that will produce better outcomes and support for victims and witnesses.

Dedication to improving victim and witness care

During the Follow-Up Review, Inspectors discovered dedicated individuals committed to enhancing the experience of victims and witnesses.  However, Ms Durkin highlighted that their commitment alone will not suffice without leadership prioritising real change in victim and witness services.  
Every victim and witness, regardless of the nature of the offence or their vulnerabilities, deserves to access their Victim Charter and Witness Charter entitlements and service standards.  The care a victim or witness receives 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.

A mismatch between belief and reality in victim and witness support

Inspectors found a discrepancy between how well inspected organisations believed they had implemented recommendations and the Inspection Team’s independent assessment of progress.  Out of 16 inspection recommendations made in CJI's 2020 report, only three were fully achieved, 10 were partially achieved, and three remained unachieved at the time of fieldwork to inform the review.  The Chief Inspector expressed disappointment that, despite efforts to design a new operating model and better services in the Victim and Witness Care Unit, insufficient funding prevented its progression.

The need for care in the Victim and Witness Care Unit

Ms Durkin stressed the importance of resourcing the Victim and Witness Care Unit to provide the care and support that victims and witnesses require.  She highlighted the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, which had further exacerbated delays in the criminal justice system.  Investment in pandemic recovery did not yield improved victim and witness care for all cases. The lack of funding is a significant barrier to providing comprehensive care, with other costs both financial and non-financial, impacting families, healthcare, employment, and education.

Fragmented Approach

Inspectors found that many victims continued to experience a fragmented approach to their criminal justice journey.  Positive initiatives for specific victim and witness groups, such as those affected by domestic and sexual abuse, were not always in line with the criminal justice system.  A communication plan to promote the Victim Charter and Witness Charter was in place, but budget pressures resulted in scaling back some elements.  Awareness of the Charters was mixed among Police Officers and Public Prosecution Service Victim and Witness Care Unit staff Inspectors met during fieldwork.

The role of Victim Champions

Ms Durkin welcomed the appointment of Victim Champions within criminal justice organisations and highlighted the evolving role they play.  However, more needs to be done to raise awareness of their positions within individual organisations.

Call for better leadership and collaboration

Victims and witnesses in Northern Ireland deserve better. They are entitled to have their Charter rights (entitlements) and minimum standards respected and delivered.  New laws and IT systems alone will not suffice if victims lose confidence in reporting crimes or providing evidence due to delays, lack of information and poor support.

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.

After three comprehensive full inspection reports conducted in 2005 and 2011, along with two previous Follow-Up Reviews and additional pieces of work looking at the use of Special Measures spanning 18 years of work, we  do not need more recommendations, what we need is leadership, influence, and leverage across the criminal justice system. This is essential to drive improvement and ensure that organisations work better together.

Inspectors will return to carry out a further Follow-Up Review to evaluate progress and assess evidence of impact on the experiences of victims and witnesses.