Latest statistics from the Department of Justice show that the median time for completion of court cases where the main offence was in the sexual offences category is 622 days. These statistics are not comfortable reading for those affected by sexual violence, writes Cara Cash-Marley, CEO at Nexus NI.
We are living in interesting times. We are in the midst of a review into the criminal justice system in Northern Ireland specifically related to sexual offences. As an agency, Nexus are seeing greater demand for our specialist counselling than ever before and we are seeing higher reporting figures to the PSNI than we have seen for many years.
We are also looking at figures published by the Department of Justice which are startling to many, but unfortunately come as no real surprise to us. At Nexus NI we hear day and daily from victims and survivors of sexual violence that they are frustrated and frightened by the lengthy waits to see the case through to its resolution. Frustrated, because for many, it has taken years and often decades to feel brave enough to share with others what has happened to them. Frightened, because for them, delay means living with this trauma every day until and often beyond resolution.
Not every person affected by sexual violence engages in criminal justice, and this element of choice is vital. But for those that do, the stats published are not necessarily comforting reading.
Engagement with police, public prosecution service and the courts is daunting in the first place; victims are fraught with worry, that people will not believe them, that they will be put on trial themselves, that they will have to face the perpetrator and that they themselves will be judged. So for the individuals who feel they can, who are strong enough; a lengthy period of waiting and living with live trauma is less than ideal.
Clients often report to us that the process itself is traumatising, that they live in fear while it “hangs over” them.
We know that our partners in criminal justice are listening to this feedback, we know that Sir John Gillen’s review is looking, in detail, at the process and its impact on victims and survivors and from these things we take hope, and attempt to share this with those we engage with. However, this does not lessen the unacceptability of a victim or survivor of a serious sexual assault having to wait for up to 622 days to get to court.
During this time, the person has to relive their trauma on a daily basis. The impact of sexual violence is life-changing and for many life long before we consider engagement with criminal justice, so a lengthy period of waiting whilst engaged does very little to help alleviate this pressure on victims and survivors. It will impact on their mental health, their relationships, potentially their work, home life and every element of life.
These latest statistics only serve to highlight the serious need for review and reform of criminal justice in Northern Ireland. Recent public campaigns by Nexus (Break the Silence, James is Dead and who is Nexus) and the PSNI (No Grey Zone) are attempting to change the conversation, to create greater confidence in people to come forward and seek help and support. However, without a reformed system which delivers to conclusion in a reasonable amount of time, treating all parties fairly, this becomes all the more difficult.
For our part, we are working with our partners across criminal justice, educating them and sharing what victims and survivors have shared with us. Their experiences of engagement are hugely powerful in their honesty and there are lessons for us all to learn.
What we need is a review from Sir John Gillen that is brave, that challenges all parties across criminal justice to look at the system and to reform where necessary. We need to continue to break the silence on sexual violence, to challenge the myths and misconceptions that exist around it and most importantly we need to listen to the experts: Those men and women, boys and girls who have completed their engagement, who can share honestly their experiences and help us create a fairer system.
In order to do this we need all partners to be willing, we need an assembly up and running, we need victims and survivors to continue to be brave and we need to continue to change the conversation in Northern Ireland regarding sexual violence.
We would urge anyone who has been a victim of sexual violence to seek help and support, to know that what happened to them was not their fault and to know we will believe them.