Northern Ireland's Justice Minister has unveiled special measures to give victims of crime a voice.
David Ford said the use of registered intermediaries, the establishment of specialist care units and a new Victims Charter would prevent people being re-traumatised by the legal process. It is also hoped the new proposals could help reduce the number of criminal cases that collapse when they reach court.
Mr Ford said: "Being a victim of crime is never pleasant even at the most trivial level. What we have to do is ensure that what happens within the criminal justice system does not make the experience worse for victims. We need to make the process as smooth as possible."
Speaking at the launch of his department's new strategy, 'Making a Difference', the minister claimed the criminal justice system must be more responsive to the needs of victims.
"The important thing has to be that we get a strategy which sees victims not as an adjunct who happen to be there while the state takes action against perpetrators but to recognise the importance of the role of victims and not being seen merely as bystanders in the process. There has to be a real issue about valuing them as participants in the process and give them the dignity and respect which has not always been the case up until now," he added.
The strategy contains 51 actions and aims to introduce new or enhanced services for victims and witnesses over the next five years. Dedicated care units will be set up to provide a single point of contact for victims and witnesses throughout a case. One member of staff will be responsible for the case from when it enters the system and the unit will also carry out an individual assessment of the needs for services of each victim.
Registered intermediaries will be used to assist the most vulnerable witnesses, including children and adults with disabilities who may have to go through the justice system. The new charter will provide guidelines on the treatment of victims, including the need to keep them informed about services available; the progress of a case; the reasons not to prosecute; and if an offender is released from custody.
The strategy includes recommendations from an inquiry into the services available to victims and witnesses by Stormont's justice committee. The views of a wide range of organisations including the NSPCC and Victim Support were also taken into account.
Susan Reid, chief executive of Victim Support Northern Ireland, said more people may now come forward to give evidence.
"The 'Making a Difference' Victim and Witness Strategy not only gave those affected by crime a voice, but with the priorities set out by the Justice Minister, the work of his officials and the inquiry led by the Justice Committee, the process heard people's experiences and has outlined actions to address these issues. Victim Support NI would also like to personally thank those who came forward and spoke so powerfully about their ordeals, which ultimately helped to formulate the strategy," she said.