Medical treatment available to prisoners in Northern Ireland is not up to the required standards, a High Court judge claimed today.
Mr Justice Weir also lambasted police and Public Prosecution Service for the time taken to get criminal cases ready for trial.
Calling for the authorities at the highest level to get to grips with any delay issues, he said: “Files are going backwards and forwards like a ball in a tennis match.
“Meanwhile the (Justice) Minister is on TV going on about faster, fairer justice.”
His scathing assessment came as he granted bail to an epileptic man accused of inflicting serious injuries on a pub drinker in a one-punch attack.
Barry Whittle was only getting out of custody because of how his case has been handled, the judge emphasised.
Whittle, 33, from Clareen Drive in the Strathfoyle area of Derry, faces a charge of causing grievous bodily harm with intent to a man in a city bar.
The alleged victim suffered a fracture to the skull and broken facial bones in the incident at Duke’s Bar in the Waterside area on August 17.
Whittle denies the offence, allegedly captured on CCTV, claiming he acted in self defence.
As he renewed his bail application today defence counsel contended that he has not receiving proper medical care while detained in Maghaberry Prison.
Sean Doherty claimed that during one of a number of epileptic seizures Whittle lay in his cell for 45 minutes without treatment.
According to the barrister his client ended up on a life support machine and is now suing for negligence.
Mr Justice Weir was told five letters have been sent to prison authorities about Whittle’s care without a response to date.
The judge suggested defence lawyers should write to the Director General of the Prison Service at Stormont.
“Unfortunately it’s all too common that Maghaberry pay no attention to correspondence,” he said.
According to the judge medical services within the prisons have been farmed out to a health trust “presumably to save money”.
“I’m afraid this is not the first case where I have been told about shortcomings in care provided for prisoners,” he said.
“I think it’s lamentable, because if you’re a prisoner you don’t have the same opportunity that you do if you’re in the community to go to a hospital or to go to a doctor to get help - you’re depending on help being provided for you.
“Therefore the care provided in the prison should be of the very highest quality. I’m afraid that it doesn’t seem that it is.
“People who are in prison need to be properly looked after and they are not being properly looked after.”
Questioning the length of time being taken to progress Whittle’s case, the judge pointed out that murder suspects go on trial in England within nine months.
“Here we can’t get a case about a stolen bicycle on within a year,” he said.
Mr Justice Weir told counsel he was “sick” of hearing issues about files not being complete.
He said: “It’s about time we dragged ourselves into the 21st Century.”
In his view a decision could be taken on whether to prosecute Whittle, with any outstanding material supplied later.
“I know very well when police send the file in what the prosecutors do is they pick through the file to find some little thing that isn’t there that could perfectly well be dealt with subsequently and they send it back,” he said.
“It happens all the time, this case of ping-pong between police and the PPS, and who suffers? People on remand, people who legitimately complain about things that happen to them and the public generally - that’s who suffers.
“It’s really about time police and the PPS at the top level sit down together and work out mechanisms for dealing with this.
“I have been talking like this for two or three years and nobody has done anything about it.”
Despite opposition to Whittle’s release, the judge held that preparation work had gone on too long and bail should be granted.
“It’s captured on CCTV and there’s an account - that’s assuming witnesses aren’t dead by the time the case gets somewhere near court,” the judge said.
“We can’t keep people interned while this sort of carry on goes on,” he insisted.
“I wouldn’t be granting him bail if the prosecution had gone on and done something with this case.
“But I’m not going to keep people with mental health difficulties locked up in prison while the police just stroll about.”
Under bail conditions Whittle has been banned from contacting the alleged victim or entering Duke’s Bar.
He must also abide by a curfew, wear an electronic tag and is prohibited from drinking alcohol.
Responding to comments made by Mr Justice Weir in the High Court today, PPS Spokesperson said: “The remarks made today by Mr Justice Weir are disappointing. In this case, which involves a serious offence, the PPS has liaised positively with police to ensure a full and proper prosecution case is presented. We consider that the comments of Mr Justice Weir are unwarranted. Weacknowledge that avoidable delay is a concern across the criminal justice system and remain committed to working with the judiciary and other agencies to ensure that these are properly addressed.”