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Slow down of justice system is because of budget allocation, says Long

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Northern Ireland’s justice minister 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 complete, during question time in the Stormont Assembly.

Last August, the department of justice figures indicated a 206-day average in 2022-23 terms of the time for a case to be dealt with at all courts. For the Crown Court this average time increased to 561 days, while there was a backlog across the system from the coronavirus pandemic.

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

Stormont Justice Minister Naomi Long (Liam McBurney/PA)
Stormont Justice Minister Naomi Long (Liam McBurney/PA)

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% increase in prisoner numbers in the last three years, police officer numbers being at an all-time low, a 30% 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.

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
Naomi Long, Justice Minister

“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,” she said.

“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.”

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