Criminal justice organisations urged to ‘respond to vulnerable older people according to their individual needs’

The Chief Inspector of Criminal Justice in Northern Ireland says criminal justice organisations, including the police, need to respond to a vulnerable older person’s individual needs to help them give “best evidence” in court cases.

Sep 18, 2023
By Paul Jacques
Jacqui Durkin

Chief Inspector Jacqui Durkin said the challenges and barriers faced by vulnerable older people can impact their participation in the criminal justice system, adding to the “significant delays” already being experienced.

Speaking following the publication of Criminal Justice Inspection Northern Ireland’s (CJI’s) latest inspection report, Ms Durkin said the barriers some older people faced could be wide-ranging and relate to their family situation, physical mobility issues, conditions that may affect thinking and reasoning abilities such as dementia, or life circumstances such as isolation or housing issues.

“This is the first time CJI has inspected this specific issue. We examined what the criminal justice organisations including the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI), the Public Prosecution Service for Northern Ireland (PPS), the Northern Ireland Courts and Tribunals Service and the Probation Board for Northern Ireland did throughout the victim’s journey,” said Ms Durkin.

“This inspection identified the need for criminal justice organisations to respond to a vulnerable older person’s individual needs and circumstances, rather than making assumptions about individuals based on their age or perceived capacity to participate in the criminal justice system.

“We know that Northern Ireland is a relatively safe place to live where older people are less likely to be victims of crime compared to other age groups, but we are an ageing community where 23 per cent of the population are aged 60 or above, in the middle of an economic crisis with increasing reports of criminal offences and significant delays in our criminal justice system,” she said.

“Vulnerable older people who are the victim of, or witness to, a crime need to be appropriately supported to give their best evidence and participate in a prosecution that is progressed with a sense of urgency.

“Criminal justice organisations need to consider how they can reduce delay in the progression of cases involving vulnerable older people, so they are not prevented from giving their best evidence at later time during the case or at court.”

Inspectors found the PSNI was the only criminal justice organisation with a specific strategy in place for older people and other organisations needed to improve the focus on older people in their policies.

Inspectors have recommended that within the next 12 months, the PSNI should work with colleagues in the PPS to develop and implement an action plan to improve the ability of vulnerable older victims of crime to give their best evidence and enable their cases to move through the criminal justice system faster, speeding them up where appropriate.

This could involve considering greater use of video recorded interviews as evidence for cases involving vulnerable older people, where a person’s age or condition such as dementia, may prevent them from giving their best evidence at later time during the case or at court.

Ms Durkin said the report recognised positive work being undertaken by the PSNI alongside partner organisations on crime prevention and personal safety as well as innovations that recognised the impact of cognitive conditions such as Alzheimer’s disease and other types of dementia.

“Inspectors were positive about the work of police crime prevention officers in providing personal and home safety advice to older people as well as efforts to engage with older people through community groups and social media campaigns,” she said.

As part of the inspection, inspectors spoke to victim’s groups and organisations representing the interests of older people including those who experienced vulnerabilities in Northern Ireland.

Ms Durkin said they were supportive of the PSNI’s involvement in crime and fraud prevention initiatives such as the awareness raising ScamwiseNI Partnership, the QuickCheck scheme enabling householders to check identity of callers at their door claiming to represent utility companies and the Banking Protocol aimed at reducing bank transaction fraud.

“While these education campaigns are valuable, inspectors have recommended that in the next six months the PSNI should identify further opportunities to develop public awareness of the schemes including using both the PSNI and nidirect websites and develop a communications plan to deliver this,” she said.

The PSNI has indicated that it intends to revise its current Older People and Crime Strategy after a national review led by the National Police Chiefs’ Council has concluded and inspectors have made a recommendation in this inspection report to support this planned work.

It has also proposed the PPS should continue to work with the Commissioner for Older People in Northern Ireland to better reflect the need of older people in its policies, particularly the Victim and Witness Policy and associated internal guidance for prosecutors.

“We know that feeling safe and being safe are not the same things and that sometimes home is not a safe place for an older vulnerable person,” said Ms Durkin.

“In the last 13 years the number of domestic abuse crimes being reported by victims aged 60 and over has increased by 447 per cent from 251 crimes in 2007/08 to 1,373 crimes during 2021/22.

“Older vulnerable people are often reliant on those closest to them to manage their finances appropriately in their best interests and it can be very difficult for them to raise concerns about those who they should be able to trust the most.”

The Chief Inspector added: “Given the rise in the reporting of these types of offences and significant levels of victim attrition in domestic abuse cases and likelihood of a victim disengaging in a domestic abuse case, we have recommended the PPS should include age as a criterion in its processes for ensuring cases involving domestic abuse or a domestically motivated crime are dealt with to an acceptable standard.

“Any areas for improvement identified through the monitoring of this data should be implemented and actioned.”

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