A new facility that ensures vulnerable witnesses giving evidence will not meet defendants within a court building, was officially opened in Belfast today the Department of Justice (DoJ) has announced.
The Belfast Remote Evidence Centre enables vulnerable or intimidated victims and witnesses to provide their evidence to the court, using live link video technology.
Remote Evidence Centres (REC) are intended to reduce the trauma that vulnerable witnesses can feel about participating in the criminal justice process. They were a key recommendation in Sir John Gillen's 2019 Report into the law and procedures in serious sexual offences in Northern Ireland.
DOJ Permanent Secretary, Richard Pengelly CB said: The Gillen Review set out a vision for the criminal justice system where victims of serious sexual crimes feel confident in reporting the offences they have experienced; where they do not fear that they will be re-traumatised by criminal justice processes; where they are able to access the support, advice and information that they need and where they have confidence that justice will be delivered. I believe that with the opening of The Belfast Remote Evidence Centre, we have taken an important step towards it.
Opening The Belfast Remote Evidence Centre, Lady Chief Justice Dame Siobhan Keegan said: "Initial feedback from witnesses is very positive with some indicating that without the availability of the REC they would not have given evidence and would have dropped out of the criminal justice process. While at an early stage, there is also some evidence to suggest that the availability of the REC and associated lower dropout rates could contribute to a higher number of early guilty pleas. The judiciary are fully supportive of this initiative and would encourage a greater take up by the profession."
The Belfast Remote Evidence Centre will be supported by Victim Support NI and NSPCC's Young Witness Service.
Janice Bunting, Chief Executive Victim Support NI explained: "Victims and witnesses tell us that going to court can be a traumatic and stressful time for them, with some describing it as 'horrendous'. One of the things that contributes to this stress is the fear that they might encounter the defendant or the supporters of the defendant at court. We welcome this new facility which provides a safe space for victims and witnesses to give their evidence, in a separate location away from the main court, with no danger of coming into contact with the defendant or anyone associated with the defendant.
"We trust that this facility will be fully integrated into the workings of the courts system and will be made readily available to vulnerable victims and witnesses going forward. Our staff and volunteers look forward to providing the same caring and professional support at the Belfast Remote Evidence Centre as they currently deliver at court."
The Belfast Remote Evidence Centre has separate adult and children's facilities including conference, waiting and live link rooms - with state-of-the-art technology connecting to the courtroom. They also provide a more relaxed, less intimidating environment including child friendly facilities for child complainants.