Justice Committee member Jim Wells says his experience in Londonderry listening to the ‘tragic and telling stories’ of victims and witnesses who have been through the mill of the local justice system convinced him ‘drastic action’ was needed to improve their lot.
Mr Wells made the comments during a debate on the Justice Bill at the Stormont Assembly weeks after the Sentinel reported how some victims of the Troubles from Londonderry were unwilling to meet with the Victims and Survivors Service (VSS) in the city and others were even reluctant to meet the service in its Belfast office.
During the debate Mr Wells zoned in on the traumatic experience the courts system can be for innocent victims and witnesses.
He said: “I remember going up to Londonderry, as it will always be, to see how witnesses and victims were treated in that court jurisdiction, and we heard tragic and telling stories from people who felt that they had not been treated fairly in the courts as witnesses and victims of crime.
“One thing was very obvious: something drastic needed to be done.”
The South Down MLA said that over 32 years in public life he had attended and given evidence to many courts and “witnessed just how brutally some witnesses have been treated by the legal profession.”
“If it is intimidating for someone like me, who has spent 32 years in public life, to give evidence in court, what is it like for someone who is plucked from complete obscurity by dint of an accident or event and brought into the bear pit - that is all one could call it - of the judicial system?” he asked.
“It is extremely intimidating, even before a learned QC or barrister opens his or her mouth.
“I think that it is absolutely essential, therefore, that we have a witness charter and a victim charter. The Minister has listened very carefully to what was said, and he is pushing on an open door as far as the Committee is concerned,” he said.