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Judge presiding over drugs court concerned by increase in heroin use

A leading judge who is presiding over a pioneering drugs court has warned that heroin use is becoming more prevalent in Northern Ireland.

Judge Fiona Bagnall, who presides over the new pilot scheme, has spoken to UTV about the attempts to help drug addicts break the cycle of offending.

Every day across Northern Ireland lives are being destroyed by drugs and many of those with drug addictions are falling into a cycle of crime.

But a new drugs court is attempting to help some prolific offenders break that cycle of addiction and reoffending.

Judge Fiona Bagnall, who presides over the court, said she has seen an increase in offenders addicted to hard drugs.

Right from when I started there has been a drugs problem, but undoubtedly I have seen it increase exponentially in the last number of years, and more concerning is the fact that it has become more serious drugs.

– Judge Fiona Bagnall
Judge Bagnall presides over a drugs court which offers offenders a treatment programme for their drug problems.

She continued: “Originally we would have seen cannabis as being the main drug that would have come before the court but now you are seeing heroin on a regular basis. Heroin is becoming more and more prevalent and cocaine, crack cocaine as well. It’s serious users and it’s very serious drugs that are being taken.”

Those currently participating in the scheme are charged with crimes like theft, robbery and assault. Some are facing prison terms but their sentences have been deferred to give them a chance to undertake an intensive treatment programme led by the probation board.

Earlier on Thursday 11 men and five women who want to beat their addictions and turn their lives around met with Judge Bagnall in the drugs court. One young man with a heroin addiction told the judge he was doing his best, but needed something to stabilise him.

Some would say that scheme is soft justice, but Judge Bagnall disagrees.

“At the start I was skeptical because I sort of thought, 'this is all very touchy-feely', and I’ve been trained in the process of the normal criminal court, but having actually worked it now I can actually see the benefits that are coming and certainly see the benefits that the defendants are taking up,” the judge said.

They have to be personally accountable for their behaviour, for their drug taking and these are people who haven't really ever had to meet those personal responsibilities in the past.

– Judge Fiona Bagnall

She added: “So at this stage I would say I’ve been impressed with the challenges that have been faced by the defendants and I wouldn’t say it’s an easy touch.”

The success of the scheme - and a decision on whether or not to extend it - will be judged on the re-offending rates and drug use of those currently before Judge Bagnall's drugs court.

A victims’ group has welcomed the chance for offenders to address their problems and be rehabilitated.

“Victim Support NI welcomes the Substance Misuse Court initiative which offers the potential for behavioural change. Most victims whom we deal with share a concern that no-one should have to go through what they have gone through as a victim of crime,” a spokesperson said.

Any programme, therefore, that rehabilitates offenders is something victims will welcome not least because this is not a soft option as they will face greater scrutiny as they progress through the programme.

– Victim Support NI

“They must take responsibility for the substance misuse and to remain in the programme must comply with the programme standards.

“This problem-solving approach is good for offenders and good for society in that a safer society is created for all when offending behaviour is directly confronted and turned around. The result of a successful programme will hopefully result in fewer victims something that Victim Support NI always welcomes.”