8,343 suspects in Northern Ireland skip bail in five years and 971 are still at large
More than 8,000 suspected criminals disappeared after being released on bail in the last five years in Northern Ireland, the Belfast Telegraph can reveal.
Almost 1,000 of them are still at large, Justice Minister David Ford confirmed.
They are understood to include people suspected of violent crimes including robbery, grievous bodily harm and sex offences.
The statistics were obtained by DUP peer Lord Morrow, who warned the bail process was being abused.
"These figures are deeply troubling and represent a huge evasion of justice," he said.
Meanwhile, a Policing Board member said it made a mockery of Northern Ireland's justice system.
Replying to an Assembly question, Mr Ford said 8,343 suspects failed to turn up at court while on bail between 2009 and 2013 - an average of five a day. Of that total, 971 are still unaccounted for, meaning hundreds of dangerous criminals could be walking the streets.
Mr Ford wasn't able to say what offences the missing suspects were said to have committed. However, it is understood to cover a range of offences, including violence and sex crimes.
Mr Ford's reply shows the Belfast court division has the largest number of missing suspects. Between 2009 and 2013, 2,869 suspects went missing while on bail, with 272 still at large.
The Fermanagh and Tyrone area is second, with 210 of the 1,083 suspects who went missing still on the run.
Lord Morrow (right) said the bail system must be reformed, adding: "As matters presently stand these figures show bail is being abused."
He said a dedicated police unit was needed to track down the missing offenders.
"Much tighter bail is by far the best way to secure co-operation, but that won't affect the current figures," he added.
"The Justice Minister and Chief Constable should look towards a dedicated team who track down absconding defendants. The longer they remain at large, the longer many victims are suffering the trauma of denied justice.
"In cases involving lesser charges, the longer a person is at large the penalty can be reduced or the case discharged, especially if dating back five years or more. That legislation needs to be amended urgently as some absconders could be cheerfully sitting out the time elsewhere for the avoidance of justice."
Ulster Unionist MLA Ross Hussey, who sits on the Policing Board, said it represented a major breakdown of the system.
"The fact that almost 1,000 suspected criminals are walking the streets makes the whole justice system a laughing stock. If these people skip bail, they are no longer accountable to the authorities and that concerns me greatly," he said.
A Department of Justice spokesperson said: “Any breach of the law is a cause for concern to the Minister. The decision whether or not to grant bail is a judicial one which is subject to very strict parameters established by European Court of Human Rights.”