Northern Ireland

Delays of years in justice system ‘increase trauma for victims’

Victims of Crime Commissioner Designate Geraldine Hanna said she knew of a case where the victim had waited nine years for a court resolution.

Geraldine Hanna said many victims were waiting years for their cases to get to court
Laganside court Geraldine Hanna said many victims were waiting years for their cases to get to court (Liam McBurney/PA)

Delays in the criminal justice system are leaving victims of crime in Northern Ireland waiting years for justice, Geraldine Hanna has said.

The Victims of Crime Commissioner Designate said she had dealt with a case where a victim had waited nine years from reporting an incident to police to a court resolution.

Ms Hanna said this was increasing trauma for victims and warned that the situation had got worse since the pandemic.

Geraldine Hanna, Commissioner Designate for Victims of Crime in Northern Ireland
Domestic abuse review Geraldine Hanna, Commissioner Designate for Victims of Crime in Northern Ireland

She said: “For every victim of crime that I meet they have been waiting normally a few years, worst case scenario nine years, from reporting the crime to police right through to the court experience.

“The impact of that, it increases the trauma that individual experiences and their ability to readjust and move on following the crime because it is always hanging over them.

“Throughout that time there are lots of adjournments and false starts.

“Delay is a significant issue. It was significant before the pandemic, but the levels of delay have increased since then so I’m calling for more funding to the justice system.

“We have been chronically underfunded in justice really since the devolution of justice, which means that we have significant capacity issues across criminal justice so we need money just to stand still but we also need transformational money to address some of the systemic issues.

“We need to reshape the system to make it more fit for purpose.”

Ms Hanna said the criminal justice system in Northern Ireland had not kept pace with society and was struggling to cope with an increased caseload.

She said: “We have made great strides in terms of legislation around domestic violence, sexual violence, but while our reported crime levels are going down, the more serious, complex cases are increasing.

“What victims are finding is a system that hasn’t reformed appropriately enough to meet it.

“We are too far behind other jurisdictions in my view. We haven’t made progress at pace, some of the issues around delay are around how the system is set up and the processes.

“There was a significant piece of work done on committal reform, the process that a case has to follow in order to get to the court itself.

“We have just recently put through legislation. We have been talking about the removal of oral hearings for victims in pre-trial hearings from as far back as 2013/14, but yet we only introduced that last year.

“That was removed in England and Wales probably 15-20 years ago.

“So, again we are not learning the lessons from others and implementing them at pace.

“There are many cultural issues there but also a failure to invest and possibly a bit of resistance in terms of implementing things in the way they were intended.”

Geraldine Hanna said public perceptions about lenient sentencing needed to be addressed
Stalking Protection Orders Geraldine Hanna said public perceptions about lenient sentencing needed to be addressed

Ms Hanna also said more work needed to be done to allay public perceptions about the leniency of sentences handed down by courts in Northern Ireland.

She said: “The impact of sentencing can be significant for victims in terms of their experience of the system and their confidence in the system and their willingness to come forward.

“Obviously sentencing is a complex issue, that is why judges do it and they are weighing up a range of factors. It is very difficult for someone standing outside the system to just look in and see whether a sentence is right or not.

“But I do think for some victims there is a sense that when we see what seems like strong sentences from other jurisdictions compared to what we are seeing here, I think there is more work that we need to be done to ensure that people understand the sentencing process and also understand how to flag a case to the Public Prosecution Service if they believe it to be a lenient sentence.

“I think there is also a potential that when it comes to issues such as violence against women and girls where we have a very strong, clear message coming from our government that this won’t be tolerated.

“When the public then see that there seems to be potentially a lenient sentence that those two don’t marry, so there is work to do there to bring them into closer alignment.”