Reform urged for 'disjointed' bail and remand system in Northern Ireland

A report has found Northern Ireland's criminal bail and remand system is "disjointed."

Northern Ireland's criminal bail and remand system is "disjointed" and leads to prison being used as the "default revolving door", a report has found.

The Chief Inspector of Criminal Justice in Northern Ireland Jacqui Durkin has called for consultation on legislative reform to improve the system.

She has highlighted the length of time suspects are remaining on bail or in prison on remand before their cases are dealt with in court.

The report said Northern Ireland has one of the highest rates for remanding suspects in custody in Europe - double compared with England and Wales.

It said: "Nearly 80% of all prison committals were remands and nearly 40% of our prison population are unsentenced prisoners."

The report stated: "The current system of bail and remand in Northern Ireland is out of step with the rest of the United Kingdom.

"Legislation is disjointed, information is fragmented and in the absence of any alternatives, prison is too often the default revolving door.

"If there was ever a time to grip avoidable delay in our criminal justice system it is now, the pandemic has left a backlog of cases that need to progress to conclusion as soon as they can."

Ms Durkin said: "The operation of bail and remand are essential parts of the criminal justice system."

However, she added: "Victims are left waiting and too often are not kept informed of changes made to bail conditions or case progress.

"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."

Deputy chief inspector James Corrigan said: "Unlike England and Wales, the use of police bail in Northern Ireland has not been the subject of any recent significant review, consultation, or legislative change."

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.

Mr Corrigan added: "With the current position becoming increasingly difficult to justify and the Covid-19 pandemic increasing the backlog of criminal cases that need to progress to conclusion, inspectors have recommended the Department of Justice (DoJ) and the PSNI should develop an options paper for police bail to include the use of time limits, scrutiny arrangements and enhanced protections for victims and witnesses."

Inspectors have also called for movement on the longstanding proposal to introduce a Bail Act for Northern Ireland.

"The need for a Bail Act for Northern Ireland was first recommended by the Northern Ireland Law Commission a decade ago," said Ms Durkin.

"We accept there have been competing legislative priorities and three years without an Assembly in the intervening 10 years.

"However, based on the evidence gathered in this inspection and our assessment of it, we recommend the DoJ should go further than its proposed changes to legislative provisions for the operation of bail for children and young people and undertake a public consultation on more wide ranging, ambitious reforms to bail for all defendants to inform the legislative programme in the next Northern Ireland Assembly mandate."

A spokesperson for the Department of Justice welcomed the report.

He said: "This issue has far-reaching implications across the justice system, and for people who come into contact with it.

"The department is committed to identifying why remand in Northern Ireland is higher than in other jurisdictions and work is already under way to seek alternatives to remand."

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