Northern Ireland’s justice system will slow down due to budget allocation, Long warns

Ms Long says there has been ‘no recognition’ of the 35% increase in prisoner numbers in the North

Northern Ireland’s Minister for Justice has suggested that the region’s criminal justice system is set to slow down due to the budget allocation her department received.

Naomi Long made the warning about the system, which is already criticised in terms of the length of time it takes for cases to be complete, during question time in the Stormont Assembly.

Last August, the Department of Justice figures indicated a 206-day average time for a case to be dealt with at all courts during the 2022-2023 period. For the Crown Court this average time increased to 561 days, while there was a backlog across the system because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Departments were handed their budget allocations last month as Minister for Finance Caoimhe Archibald said none would receive the level of funding it bid for due to demand outstripping what was available to allocate.

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Ms Long’s department has responsibility for policing, courts and prisons.

She told MLAs on Monday that there had been “no recognition” of the 35 per cent increase in prisoner numbers in the last three years, police officer numbers being at an all-time low, a 30 per cent increase in legal aid costs and backlogs in the courts.

Ms Long said her department is also contending with inflationary cost rises as well as the cost of delivering pay awards to workers.

“I’m very conscious of the limited funding that the Executive had available to allocate, however, whilst the additional £95 million of funding is welcome, it still leaves my department facing pressures of £351 million in 2024/25,” Ms Long said.

“The severity of the financial position for justice is exacerbated by the compound effects of historic underfunding compared to need for Northern Ireland and the demand layered structure of the majority of services delivered by justice organisations.”

Ms Long said there is a question around whether the pressures can be managed.

“Difficult decisions on prioritisation and service provision will be required as the department will have to manage these pressures in order to live within the budget allocation,” she said.

“Given the challenging budgetary position, there will inevitably be a detrimental impact on the ability to continue to fund all the services we currently deliver.

“It will inevitably result in the slowing down of the justice system and whilst that is regrettable and damaging to our citizens, it is unavoidable given the scale of financial pressures.

“However, more concerning, it will without doubt increase the risk of a catastrophic failure of the system, compromising our ability to preserve life, protect the public and keep people safe, and it is around that, that I am making my priorities.” – PA

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