Northern Ireland’s bail and remand system ‘out-of-step’ with neighbouring jurisdictions, inspection finds
The Chief Inspector of Criminal Justice in Northern Ireland is calling for a consultation on legislative reform to improve the bail and remand system in Northern Ireland.
Jacqui Durkin said the current position was becoming “increasingly difficult to justify”, with victims “left waiting” and too often not kept informed of changes to bail conditions.
An inspection report published on Wednesday January 11) says current legislation is “out-of-step with neighbouring jurisdictions in the UK and Ireland”, and highlights how long people accused of committing an offence are remaining on bail or in prison on remand before they are convicted and sentenced or acquitted.
“The operation of bail and remand are essential parts of the criminal justice system as police, prosecutors and the courts progress criminal cases, balancing the needs of victims and witnesses and the safety of the public, with the rights of defendants to a fair trial and their cases being dealt with in a reasonable time,” said Ms Durkin.
While the granting of bail or remanding in custody at court is a judicial decision, the Chief Inspector said time spent on police or court bail and remand, either in prison or at a juvenile centre for young people, and case progression and delay, went “hand in hand”.
“Victims are left waiting and too often are not kept informed of changes made to bail conditions or case progress,” said Ms Durkin.
“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.
Northern Ireland has one of the highest rates for remanding people in custody in Europe, with figures double compared with England and Wales.
In 2021/22, almost 80 per cent of all prison committals were remand prisoners and nearly 40 per cent of the prison population were unsentenced prisoners, said Deputy Chief Inspector James Corrigan who led the inspection of bail and remand.
“Defendants who have spent time on remand in prison but are later released on bail or having served their time prior to conviction, miss opportunities to utilise prison-based rehabilitation programmes, meaningfully address offending behaviour or reduce the risk of offending in the future,” he added.
“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 Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI), particularly at 28 days, had ceased to be relevant with time extensions becoming standard practice.
“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,” said Ms Durkin.
Inspectors have also called for gaps in information about the use of bail and remand and its analysis to be addressed to support effective monitoring and inform decision-making, help address inefficiencies, increase governance, and improve the use of valuable police and prison resources.
The Chief Inspector has also appealed for movement on the longstanding proposal to introduce a Bail Act for Northern Ireland to provide greater levels of consistency and certainty around bail law.
“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 ten 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.”
In the interim, inspectors have recommended that the Public Prosecution Service for Northern Ireland updates its legal guidance on bail decisions to assist prosecutors, police, service-users and the wider public, similar to the detailed guidance provided by the Crown Prosecution Service in England and Wales.
The report reveals that information at an individual or system wide level is not readily available to support effective monitoring and decision-making.
“Better collection of data and better use of management information is a recurring theme in many of our inspections and this one is no different,” said Ms Durkin.
“Gaps in information and its analysis need to be addressed to support effective monitoring and inform decision making, help address inefficiencies, increase governance, and improve the use of valuable police resources.
“As part of this work, the Criminal Justice Board should take a lead in developing effective governance and delivery arrangements for bail and remand. This should include developing alternatives to remand such as the use of electronic monitoring and bail support schemes for defendants and the need for legislative reform to meet the needs of our criminal justice system today and tomorrow.
“How this is achieved is no mean feat for any future Minister of Justice to deliver.
“We all know that the prolonged absence of an Executive and legislature has a significant impact on many areas of much needed reform. But another decade cannot slip by as we fall yet further behind other jurisdictions and opportunities to improve the operation of the bail and remand system to better support the criminal justice system in Northern Ireland are lost.”