Justice delayed is justice denied. That well known expression still rings true today.
Look around. Victims of some of the most serious crimes, including sexual offences, are choosing to opt out of the criminal justice process because of delays. Attrition rates for witnesses are not improving. Sir John Gillen noted that rape cases take longer than the average time for all cases to complete, with victims experiencing an average of 943 days from reporting to trials finishing.
No case should ever be delayed because of technical problems and yet this is what we are still hearing from organisations like Victim Support NI.
Previous Criminal Justice Inspectorate reports have also concluded that current timescales are too long and need urgently addressed.
There’s plenty of work to do, including fully implementing Gillen’s recommendations on case management and disclosure to prevent unnecessary delays.
However, what is often overlooked, or downplayed, is the significance of the Legal Aid system. Efforts have been made to streamline the process, dealing with fraud and errors, which is still ongoing.
But what has been highlighted recently, regarding the potential impact of cuts to the Legal Aid budget, would represent a regressive and retrograde step backwards when it comes to access to justice. Legal Aid represents a fundamental part of our welfare system, and it needs to remain as such.
The Courts Service and Legal Practitioners are often doing their very best in difficult circumstances. Legal professionals have warned that the prospect of a Justice budget decrease will cause “generational harm to the Justice system”. Warnings that cannot be ignored.
The Northern Ireland Fiscal Council’s (NIFC) independent assessment of the draft Budget 2022-25 highlighted the potential negative impact on the Department of Justice. It is the only Department where “general allocations” are insufficient to cover the baseline cut and therefore Justice will see a net budget decrease.
This is despite the fact that, similar to the Health service which is the main beneficiary of the draft Budget, the Justice budget includes Legal Aid which is also demand-led with chronic backlogs.
Access to Justice also relies on sustainable funding and the availability of a skilled legal profession.
The baseline legal aid budget needs protected, and any new Justice Minister should commission an independent review of fees and eligibility thresholds, as well as explore further options to support small firms that are barely staying afloat, including quicker payments and modernising the systems used.
It might not be the most obvious, or talked about, until something goes wrong, but ensuring effective access to justice is incredibly important for our society and confidence in the rule of law.
With that, comes recognising the need to provide assistance to those who need proper representation.
Rachel Woods was Green Party MLA for North Down from October 2019 until March 2022. During that time she was a member of the Committee for Justice and sponsor of the Domestic Abuse (Safe Leave) Bill.