Victims of the most serious crimes to have cases speeded up
VICTIMS of the most serious crimes are to have their cases fast-tracked from next year, after changes to crown court procedures agreed three years ago have finally been given the green light.
The Irish News understands that, by April 2019, a streamlined `committal procedure' will be in place - substantially speeding up justice in serious criminal cases.
Last month, the criminal justice system's "grossly inefficiencies" were lambasted by Auditor General Kieran Donnelly, who highlighted that one in eight victims are being forced to wait for almost three years for the end of crown court trials.
His audit found on average it is taking 515 days from the date a crime is reported to police until the completion of a trial, with the cost of criminal justice "significantly higher than in England and Wales" and cases taking considerably longer to complete.
Critics say Northern Ireland's cumbersome committal proceedings, which require multiple magistrates court hearings and can see victims and witnesses subjected to lengthy cross-examinations (up to two days) before the case is formally sent to the higher court.
Such hearings are largely non-existent in England and Wales, and the 2015 Justice Act NI allowed for them to be phased out.
However, it has taken several years to reorganise the court system for the change, which will allow prosecutors to issue summonses directly and ensure oral evidence and cross-examination of witnesses only happens "where, in the opinion of the court, it is required in the interests of justice".
It also allows for direct transfer to the crown court when there is a guilty plea and for certain indictable offences, beginning with murder and manslaughter cases.
Meanwhile, it is expected that Northern Ireland could also soon see the introduction of recorded cross examinations in rape cases.
At present, vulnerable witnesses and rape victims can have their `evidence in chief' recorded before the trial begins and played to the jury afterwards - although they can also chose to appear before the court in person.
However, it is understood that the legislation exists to allow cross-examinations by defence barristers to be recorded in closed a courtroom before the trial begins.
The impetus for bringing in the changes has been the Ulster Rugby rape trial, when the woman who made allegations against Ireland internationals Paddy Jackson and Stuart Olding spent eight days on the witness stand, facing cross examination from four separate defence barristers.
It is likely to be an area explored by the independent review of sexual violence cases undertaken by retired Appeal Court judge John Gillen.