Sexual Assault Victims Being Let Down In Northern Ireland

Inspectors have warned that the criminal justice system in Northern Ireland is repeatedly failing victims of sexual violence and abuse, prompting an Alliance MLA to call for urgent action on the issue.

Faced with lengthy delays, an intrusive and challenging court process and a low chance of securing a conviction, a large amount of sexual offence complainants are choosing to withdraw their evidence rather than proceed with their case in the hope of successful prosecution, Criminal Justice Inspection Northern Ireland has revealed.

Concern has been raised at the conviction rates which show that while 823 alleged rapes were reported to police in 2016/17, only 15 people were found guilty and sentenced for the crime. The figure highlights that less than 2% of alleged rape victims saw justice.

The rates of rape and sexual offence convictions for Northern Ireland are the lowest in the UK.

Chief inspector of Criminal Justice NI Brendan McGuigan said the length of time taken by the Public Prosecution Service (PPS) to decide if they should proceed with a case can be more than a year which is "simply unacceptable".

Their findings were published today in a report, Tuesday 13 November.

"This report concludes that the criminal justice processes in Northern Ireland for handling these cases take too long, are too expensive and conclude with, all too often, a failure to deliver an acceptable outcome for victims," Mr McGuigan said.

"Victims, who may have waited months, years or decades to report the offences against them to the police, are let down by a system which then takes months or years for an investigation, and prosecution to commence and years to have the case resolved in court."
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Mr McGuigan continued that each incident of sexual abuse represents a "significant trauma" for the victim and when reported, there is an expectation that cases should be dealt with in a timely manner.

"Inspectors found that while there were many dedicated and professional individuals involved in dealing with incidents of sexual violence and abuse, delay was a substantial problem.

"It occurred from when the initial police investigation and file preparation was undertaken, through the time taken by prosecutors to review the case and make a decision to prosecute or not, and afterwards in the number of adjournments at court before a trial commenced."

Alliance MLA for the south Belfast area, Paula Bradshaw, said the report makes for "alarming reading".

"The stark warning that victims of sexual crime often come to withdraw from the criminal justice system entirely because it has failed them, could not be clearer," Mrs Bradshaw said.

"It is clear from the report in the period since the institutions collapsed the impetus has been lost in delivering on the recommendations of previous reports. Still now, the number of convictions per sexual crime reported is below one in ten.

"As a result it is no surprise victims going through such a traumatic experience would give up on the criminal justice system altogether. The system seems to set out to delay the quest for justice and does little to address the trauma and intrusion experienced by the victim in such an adversarial process. "

Writing on Twitter, former Justice Minister and Independent MLA Claire Sugden added that she is "not surprised by this report".

"The criminal justice system is slow, the process lacks humanity and communication is limited," she wrote.

"As one of the most prevalent crimes in NI, addressing DV (domestic violence) & sexual violence needs to be prioritised by all."

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