The Northern Ireland Court Service and Restorative Justice Reports
Last week’s Northern Ireland Court Service Annual Report (2008-09) provides backslapping bonhomie and useful statistics on the operation of the Courts in Northern Ireland in equal measure.
The recession’s impact on the activities of courts in this period has been particularly interesting. The relatively stable amount of business in Northern Ireland’s Crown Courts and a 6 per cent drop in cases before magistrates courts can be set against fears of rising crime rates which accompanied the economic downturn. Unsurprisingly, however, the civil courts have made up for this shortfall, with an overall 14 per cent rise in caseload largely being accounted for by a 77 per cent rise in mortgage cases.
Nonetheless, in recognition of the degree to which the Court Service has tackled these challenges, the Report notes that ‘all 21 courthouses in Northern Ireland achieve the new Cabinet Office “Customer Service Excellence” Standard’, the successor to the Chartermark standard for public service providers (p.6). As Jack Straw noted in his response to the report, these awards provide ‘clear testimony to the positive experience of court users and the service delivered by front-line staff’ (p. 7). Nonetheless this award scheme is, like its predecessor, dogged by the reality that, even if its performance dramatically declined, the people of Northern Ireland would have no alternative to the Court Service as presently organised (and that lobbying for reform would still have to go through Westminster as policing and justice spheres are yet to be devolved).
The Report’s evaluation of progress against the objectives set out in the Bridging the Gap (2007) strategy document on service provision for victims and witnesses. This strategy focused, amongst other aims, on the need to provide ‘an accredited Interpreters Service which establishes minimum quality assurance standards’ (p.28). The latest Report highlights the timeliness of this strategy, with over three thousand requests for language interpretation being made in 2008-09 (up from 1647 in 2007-08). Over three quarters of these requests were for Mandarin, Polish, Lithuanian and Russian language support. The findings of the Report can be contrasted with the overall decline in immigration to Northern Ireland in the last year and indicate once again the dangers in reliance on “headline figures” in resource allocation. The Annual Report instead indicates how advanced planning allowed the Court Service to maintain its responsiveness to different groups of user.
However, the areas neglected by the Annual Report are as interesting as the successes that it focuses upon. In relation to victim and witness support in general, the Report simply acknowledges that, ‘[t]his year we contributed to the development of a Victims and Witness handbook, which provides a step by step guide to the Criminal Justice process’. This seems like a particular innocuous statement in terms of the Prison Reform Trust’s (PRT) near simultaneous announcement of the success of the restorative youth justice programme operating in Northern Ireland since 2003.
The PRT’s Report, Out of Trouble, Making Amends: restorative youth justice in Northern Ireland, highlighted the historic failure of the United Kingdom’s strategy of imprisoning under 18s and the long-standing concerns of the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child in this regard (most recently in October 2008, although Westminster’s Joint Committee on Human Rights has been highlighting such concerns for many years). In response, Northern Ireland’s Youth Conference Service (part of the NIO’s Youth Justice Agency) provided for Victim-Offender conferences prior to (voluntary) or after the conviction (court-ordered) of a young offender. The conference process encourages the young offender to recognise the consequences of their offence (in a process coordinated and overseen by trained youth conference coordinators).
Against the backdrop of the 5500 conference referrals under this programme the numbers of young offenders sentenced to immediate custody dropped from 139 a year in 2003 to 89 a year in 2006. Reoffending rates for young offenders involved in the conferences stand at 37.7 per cent, compared to 70.7 per cent for custodial sentences.
When asked to comment on the PRT’s findings by the BBC, a Ministry of Justice spokesperson would only acknowledge that, ‘[w]e will be using the findings of this report to further improve our work with the police, local authorities, communities and other frontline agencies’. Against this backdrop, the absence of reference to the success of this scheme in the Court Service Annual Report is disappointing, especially in light of the pledge in the Bridging the Gap strategy document (2007) to, ‘[e]xplore the potential for introducing restorative interventions and reparative processes with adult offenders, which can directly involve the victim where they so wish’ (p.30).
The evident lack of executive willingness to build upon this success, likely resultant from the hiatus in plans to devolve justice powers to Northern Ireland, may squander this opportunity to expand the role of restorative justice within the Northern Irish criminal justice system. Nor will speeding devolution of these areas necessarily result in the expansion of this programme. A substantial number of MLAs, vocally led recent Assembly debates by Basil McCrea (UUP, Lagan Valley), continue to espouse tougher sentencing as the paradigm response to young offenders. Staking out a “tough on crime” position for public consumption, he countered evidence of the success of the Youth Conference scheme in curbing recidivism with the assertion that:
“People lack trust in the criminal justice system. They do not understand the situations in which sentencing is not appropriate. When offenders are released either early or at the weekend, the crime rate often rises. The Assembly must address the problem of public trust and confidence.”
Hopefully the broad support for the Youth Conference programme displayed by victims of crime involved in the process will help to assuage the fears of Assembly members such as Mr McCrea, even if it is unlikely to restrain their populism.