Belfast Telegraph

Tuesday 22 July 2014

Help us to develop a justice system to serve the people

The needs of victims must be put at the heart of the system of justice, says Paul Givan

The Northern Ireland Assembly Committee for Justice has just launched an inquiry into the experiences of victims and witnesses in the criminal justice system.

As chairman of the Stormont Justice Committee, I am very pleased that this is the topic of our first inquiry.

As MLAs, we often hear from local people about their personal experiences of the justice system, which is not always good and can be very traumatic.

Being a victim of, or a witness to, crime can be a very stressful and emotional experience - you only need to read about the recent experiences of Maire Rankin's family, who described their dealings with the justice system over the last three years as "harrowing".

The process of going through the justice system can take a long time. The legal process itself can be confusing and the use of complex language can make this worse. This can make someone's experience of the justice system a stressful and damaging one - this at a time when they are already very vulnerable.

The justice system is made up of many different components - the police, the Public Prosecution Service, the courts, the Prison Service and the Probation Service. As it stands now, these different elements all tend to work separately.

As a victim going through this system, it can all become very confusing. This is one area, in particular, that the committee would like to see improved and we will wish to consider how a more joined-up and seamless service can be delivered.

It is very important that the justice system responds to the needs of victims and witnesses - they should be at the heart of the entire process and must be treated with sensitivity and respect.

The committee is aware that there have been previous reports into the justice system and a number of good practice guidelines have been developed. These have not, however, made the difference we are looking for.

For this reason, the Assembly Committee for Justice intends to look at all the different stages of the current system in Northern Ireland from a victim's perspective to identify what is working well and the areas that need improvement.

The committee wants to identify key changes that will make a real difference to victims and witnesses - not just seek to develop more guidance. For us to be able to identify where change is needed, we want to hear from people who have personal experience of the system.

People can write to us and we'll also be holding a number of events throughout Northern Ireland to meet people and hear their experiences at first-hand.

We are interested in the concerns about the system as it is now and people's views on how the system can be improved to provide a more positive experience for both victims and witnesses.

As well as listening to people's personal experiences, we will be working closely with organisations such as Victim Support, the NSPCC and others.

We will also be comparing our system with those in other countries to see if there are any examples of good practice which could be adopted here. The evidence we gather and the experiences we hear will all help to inform the committee's views on the system and what needs to change.

At the end of our inquiry, we will be making recommendations to the Department of Justice on how the system can be changed and improved. We encourage people, organisations and groups to take this opportunity to get involved. More information is available at http://nia1.me/gn.

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