Belfast Telegraph

We all must do justice to those who use the system

Radical changes are urgently needed to improve services for victims and witnesses of crime, says Paul Givan

In the Assembly yesterday, MLAs were given an opportunity to debate the committee for justice's report on the inquiry into criminal justice services available to victims and witnesses of crime.

This report followed a committee inquiry which took evidence from those who have had experience of the criminal justice system, as well as those administering it.

All those involved agree that the system, as it stands, does not provide an appropriate experience, or support, to those who have been impacted by crime and subsequently are required to interact with the criminal justice system.

It is clear victims and witnesses of crime face significant difficulties and often find their experience of the system frustrating, demoralising and, on occasion, devastating. Our report is wide-ranging and will, when implemented, transform the experience of both victims and witnesses.

Being a victim of, or a witness to, crime is a very stressful experience. We should not be making it more difficult or traumatic.

We have listened carefully to the evidence presented by individuals and groups involved with helping victims and witnesses, as well as those bodies which administer the criminal justice system.

Armed with that evidence, the committee has made recommendations that, we believe, will redress the balance in the system and substantially improve the experience of both victims and witnesses.

Among the 30 recommendations contained in the report, there are a number that we believe are particularly important.

These are: that a statutory victims and witness charter be implemented in the next available Justice Bill and that the same rights be afforded to bereaved families; that all staff in criminal justice organisations receive mandatory training on how to treat and care for victims and witnesses; the introduction of witness care units as the single point of contact for as much of the process as possible; that there should be a maximum waiting time for witnesses; and that case-management should be put on a statutory basis. This should also be taken forward in the next available Justice Bill.

The reason we are calling for statutory implementation of a number of these recommendations is we believe that, although criminal justice organisations have produced numerous guidance documents, victims and witnesses are still not receiving the right level of care, support and joined-up information.

We believe the best way - indeed, the only way - to move this forward and provide the necessary step-change is to place these services on a statutory basis.

We also know and have been told by victims and witnesses that they are often confused and traumatised by their contact with the criminal justice system.

It is our belief that the best way to redress this is to ensure that all those who work with victims and witnesses should be trained to deal with them in the most appropriate manner, treating them at all times with dignity and understanding.

Victims and witnesses have told us that one of the greatest frustrations they have is with the length of time it takes for a case to make its way through the justice system.

The committee shares this frustration and believes introducing statutory case-management will ensure cases are effectively progressed.

We are calling on the Minister for Justice, in the strongest possible terms, to make a commitment to implement the recommendations contained in our report.

The minister will be bringing forward his new five-year strategy and this will provide the opportunity to do so and make a real difference to the way victims and witnesses are treated.

The co-operation of victims and witnesses in the criminal justice process is vital to achieving convictions and ensuring that justice is seen to be done. They deserve no less.

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