What is the criminal justice system?

The criminal justice system is the collective term for the agencies and processes by which victims, witnesses, defendants, offenders and young people who experience, come into contact with, or engage in criminal activity are dealt with and/or supported.  

The criminal justice system in Northern Ireland is made up of five key agencies that represent the ‘coal face' of  criminal justice that interlink together to provide a fair, effective justice system for the local community. They are the Police Service, the Prison Service, the Prosecution Service, the Court Service, the Probation Service and the Youth Justice Agency. 
These core agencies are supported in the delivery of criminal justice services by Government and a number of supporting agencies such as Criminal Justice Inspection Northern Ireland, Forensic Science Northern Ireland, and the Police Ombudsman’s Office. 
Valuable support and assistance is also provided by organisations within the voluntary and community sector such as Victim Support Northern Ireland and the Northern Ireland Association for the Care and Resettlement of Offenders (NIACRO). 
Members of the community often feel distanced from the criminal justice system and many people do not have a clear understanding of how the system ‘fits together’ and works to provide a seamless service from start to finish.  This is partly because knowledge and understanding of the criminal justice system is most commonly based on personal contact with one or more of the agencies that make up the justice system. 
As many people come into contact with the system at difficult times, for example after becoming a victim of crime, engaging with the criminal justice system can be challenging.  Confidence levels in the system are often driven by personal experience rather than based on the overall performance and delivery of the system as a whole.
Part of Criminal Justice Inspection’s role is to demystify the criminal justice system by carrying out comprehensive inspections that:
  • help explain how it works and links together;
  • examine and evaluate how services are delivered on the ground;
  • look at the policies and processes that are in place to support service delivery; and
  • analyse how the various parts of the system work together. 
It also has a role in terms of enhancing the criminal justice system by making recommendations in terms of improvements that can be made within an individual agency or across all agencies to improve the effectiveness and efficiency of the criminal justice system and increase public confidence in it.

How does it work?

The various statutory agencies that make up the criminal justice system work as independent organisations and in partnership with one another to deliver justice in Northern Ireland.

Each organisation is represented on the Criminal Justice Board, which has responsibility for developing strategy for the criminal justice system and ensuring it works co-operatively in a co-ordinated way.  It also deals with issues of inter-agency interest.
The justice process can differ from person to person depending on whether an individual is a witness, victim, defendant, offender, juror or young person.
Various voluntary and community sector organisations also engage and make an important contribution to the criminal justice system. This can be by providing services that can be utilised by the criminal justice agencies or by providing support to individuals engaging with or subject to the system.
For further information on the criminal justice system and its workings, please refer to the Criminal Justice System Northern Ireland website ( or the individual websites of the five core criminal justice agencies.

How did CJI come about?

The Belfast/Good Friday Agreement reached in 1998 provided for a ‘wide ranging review of criminal justice (other than policing and those aspects of the system relating to emergency legislation) to be carried out by the British Government through a mechanism with an independent element, in consultation with the political parties and others.’
The aims of the criminal justice system (CJS) were, it said:
  • to deliver a fair and impartial system of justice to the community;
  • to be responsive to the communities concerns, and encourage community involvement where appropriate;
  • to have the confidence of all parts of the community; and
  • to deliver justice efficiently and effectively.
The Criminal Justice Review which reported in 2000 noted ‘the importance of inspection as a tool for holding criminal justice agencies to account for their actions and the proper expenditure of public resources.’
It also ‘noted the views it heard in the course of the consultation process in relation to inspection.  All those who commented on the issue believed that inspection of criminal justice functions was both necessary and desirable.  There was some disagreement over whether individual agencies should have their own inspection arrangements or whether there should be a single, all embracing and independent criminal justice inspectorate.’
The review concluded that in the political and institutional context of Northern Ireland envisaged by the Belfast Agreement, the balance of arguments favoured the creation of a single, independent criminal justice inspectorate.

What responsibilities does CJI have?

It is responsible for ensuring the inspection of all aspects of the criminal justice system under the statutory basis which it was established. The courts were initially excluded from CJI’s remit but legislation was amended in 2007 to give CJI responsibility for inspecting the Northern Ireland Court Service.  A number of other organisations have also been added to the Inspectorate’s remit since it was set up.  A full list of the organisations and agencies CJI is responsible for inspecting can be found in the About Us section of this website.
CJI must, according to the Criminal Justice Review of 2000, present its inspection reports to the Minister for Criminal Justice, the responsible Minister (if the inspected agency is the responsibility of another Minister) and the relevant departmental committee or standing committee.
It must also publish its reports and make them widely and readily available and must also publish an Annual Report of its activities.  This report must also be presented to the Minister for Criminal Justice and be laid before the relevant departmental and standing committees.
Criminal Justice Inspection also has a responsibility for advising Ministers on standards within Northern Ireland’s criminal justice agencies, though standard setting remains the prerogative of Ministers.
It is charged with employing a range of full and part-time Inspectors and securing supplementary expertise as appropriate from other inspection agencies in England, Scotland and Wales as appropriate, such as HM Inspector of Prisons and HM Inspector of Constabulary and Fire & Rescue Services.
CJI has responsibility for determining its own programme of inspection in consultation with the relevant Ministers.  This programme should consist of a range of inspections including periodic, cyclical and unannounced inspections of systems and structures in place within Northern Ireland’s criminal justice system.
In addition, the Inspectorate has a duty to carry out thematic based inspections that may require additional expertise and/or special skills.
It must work closely with other Inspectorates as appropriate, for example on issues of health and safety, mental health or social services, and with professional bodies such as the Royal College of Pathologists and academics from various universities such as the University of Strathclyde (Glasgow) and the Policy Advisory Board for Forensic Pathology.