Inspector calls for reform of bail and remand system, some non-sentenced behind bars for more than two years

Chief inspector of Criminal Justice Jacqui Durkin
Chief inspector of Criminal Justice Jacqui Durkin

LEGISLATIVE reform is needed to improve Northern Ireland’s bail and remand system, which is out of step with England, Wales and Ireland, according to a new report by the inspector of criminal justice.

Figures published by the Prison Service reveal 37 per cent of all those being held during 2021/22 were not sentenced, compared to just 16.5 per cent in England and Wales.

The north has one of the highest percentage on remand in Europe, illustrating the need for a new bail act, said Jacqui Durkin, the Chief Inspector of Criminal Justice.

A quarter of the population have spent over six months on remand, 15 per cent for over one year and five per cent for two years or more.

Ms Durkin noted the current lack of an executive and assembly but argued work should start to lay the groundwork for legislative change to be introduced under any new mandate.

“Victims are left waiting and too often are not kept informed of changes made to bail conditions or case progress,” the inspector said.

“Court lists and judicial, court staff, prosecutor and defence time and costs, are spent dealing with recurring bail and remand hearings. At the same time our prisons are dealing with high numbers of men and women, neither convicted nor sentenced, some who are with them for long periods while others are in and out in a few days if they get bail.”

A bail act was first recommended by the Law Commission a decade ago but there has been little movement.

“We accept there have been competing legislative priorities and three years without an assembly in the intervening 10 years,” Ms Durkin said, adding she is recommending the Department of Justice should undertake a public consultation on wide-ranging bail reform.

The department is looking at bail reform for young people.

“Better collection of data and better use of management information is a recurring theme in many of our inspections and this one is no different," said Ms Durkin.

"Gaps in information and its analysis need to be addressed to support effective monitoring and inform decision making, help address inefficiencies, increase governance, and improve the use of valuable police resources."

She further recommends the "Criminal Justice Board should take a lead in developing effective governance and delivery arrangements for bail and remand".

"This should include developing alternatives to remand such as the use of electronic monitoring and bail support schemes for defendants and the need for legislative reform to meet the needs of our criminal justice system today and tomorrow," she added.

Deputy Chief Inspector James Corrigan took aim at the use of extended police bail, which has not been the subject of any recent review, unlike England and Wales.

Inspectors found the use of statutory time limits for police bail by the PSNI, particularly at 28 days, had ceased to be relevant with time extensions becoming standard practice.

"We all know that the prolonged absence of an executive and legislature has a significant impact on many areas of much needed reform. But another decade cannot slip by as we fall yet further behind," added Ms Durkin.