Five Years on From Gillen Report

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In May 2019, Sir John Gillen published his report on the Criminal Justice System's handling of sexual violence cases.  Prompted by the now infamous ‘Belfast Rugby rape trial’ the review examined the experiences of both victims and the accused within the criminal justice process. Half a decade on from the reviews publication, just how far have we come in implementing Sir John’s recommended changes to the justice system? 

With 253 recommendations for change it was evident from the outset that this would be a significant body of work to complete. 

Progress is ongoing, but slow. Notable achievements include the introduction of Independent Legal Advisors (known as SOLA’s) for victims, who are now able to obtain free and independent legal advice regarding their privacy rights and information about the court process.  The establishment of bespoke Remote Evidence Centres where victims can give evidence from a separate location to the court is another positive. 

And of course the impact of political instability and the Covid-19 pandemic must be taken into account.

The impact of the political hokey cokey at Stormont not only impeded progress on the legislative changes recommended by Gillen, but also left a gap in leadership and scrutiny of progress and pace of change. 

The comparable level of funding received by justice against other departments is another, longer-term, issue, recently highlighted by the justice minister. Since the devolution of justice in 2011, funding for that department has increased by only 3%, compared to an average of 11% for other departments. This is not sustainable if we are serious in creating a victim-centred justice system.

Criminal Justice agencies should rightly be credited for the efforts they made to prioritise sexual violence cases in the face of increasing backlogs due to court closures during the pandemic, yet despite this we still see appalling delays in our system.

The Public Prosecution Service (PPS) takes a median of 271 days (almost 9 months) to reach a decision to prosecute in Crown Court cases. The average time taken to complete cases where the main offence was a sexual offence was 757 days (over two years) in 2022/23.

We have heard from both our Chief Constable and our Director of Public Prosecutions about the impact of financial restraints on their respective agencies. The need to fund our system to meet today’s demands are now well rehearsed at both Stormont and Westminster,

While adequate resourcing is vitally important, the golden thread running through Gillen’s entire review is that of cultural reform. 

Both within our criminal justice system and across wider society, fundamentally, we must address the misogynistic, stereotyping and victim blaming attitudes that are all too prevalent.

Today we are seeing green shoots of positive change demonstrated by both the notable achievements above and an increase in the public understanding of the issues facing victims of sexual violence. 

However, we cannot afford to wait another five years to fully implement the reviews recommendations. 

Sir John rightly emphasised the need for a holistic as opposed to a piecemeal approach to this work.  

The implementation of all these recommendations is crucial, but will not be the final measure of achievement. True success will lie in their delivery and impact on victims' experiences. 

One victim speaking about Sir John’s report told me, ‘It was like my Bible – to me it held so much hope’. 

The pace of change remains too slow and the voices of victims engaging with my office underscores the urgency for continued pressure to ensure that that hope has not been misplaced.