Northern Ireland justice system failing sex crime victims time and time again say Inspectors

The criminal justice system in Northern Ireland is failing victims of sexual violence and abuse crimes time and time again, inspectors have warned.

Faced with lengthy delays, an intrusive court process and a low chance of securing a conviction, a “high” number of complainants are choosing to withdraw their evidence rather than proceed with their case, Criminal Justice Inspection Northern Ireland said.

Inspectors expressed concern that while 823 alleged rapes were reported to police in 2016/17, in that same 12 month period there were only 15 convictions for the crime, less than 2%.

Of the 2,335 other alleged sexual crimes reported that year, a total of 228 defendants were convicted, less than 10%.

The conviction rates for rape and sexual offences are the lowest in the UK, the CJINI said.

Chief inspector Brendan McGuigan noted that the Public Prosecution Service (PPS) was sometimes taking more than a year to decide whether to proceed with a charge, a time-frame he branded “simply unacceptable”.

“This report concludes that the criminal justice processes in Northern Ireland for handling these cases take too long, are too expensive and conclude with, all too often, a failure to deliver an acceptable outcome for victims,” he said.

A retired appeal court judge is currently reviewing how sexual offence trials are handled in the region.

Sir John Gillen’s work was prompted by a number of issues highlighted during this year’s high profile rape trial of former Ulster and Ireland rugby players Paddy Jackson and Stuart Olding, who were acquitted of raping the same woman in 2016.

The CJINI inspection is not linked to the Jackson and Olding trial and was under way well before that case came to court.

The inspectors do not examine how trials are conducted, as that is outside their remit, rather how cases are progressed and built in the period before they reach the door of the courtroom.

“Inspectors found that while there were many dedicated and professional individuals involved in dealing with incidents of sexual violence and abuse, delay was a substantial problem,” said Mr McGuigan.

“It occurred from when the initial police investigation and file preparation was undertaken, through the time taken by prosecutors to review the case and make a decision to prosecute or not, and afterwards in the number of adjournments at court before a trial commenced.”

The report, which makes three strategic and six operational recommendations, outlined a number of case studies inspectors felt highlighted issues of concern within the system.

They included:

:: A woman with Down’s syndrome who alleged she had been raped by a relation. She was interviewed by police and, three months after that, a file was sent to the PPS. But the woman died almost a year later and a decision on prosecution had still not been made. Six months after the woman’s death and a decision had still not been made.

:: A woman walked into a police station to allege she had been drugged, raped and forced to carry our explicit sex acts while being videoed by her husband. She alleged other men were brought into the house to rape her and that her husband tried to blackmail her so he would not share the footage. After the initial report, it took three weeks for an investigating officer to contact the woman to arrange an appointment. It would be another three months before the officer made contact again. Four days later she withdrew her evidence. A no prosecution was later directed.

:: A foreign national woman alleged she was tied up and raped by her partner. She had suffered a broken eye socket and ligament tears to her eyeball and significant internal injuries caused by the alleged rape. The woman claimed her partner had assaulted other women in his home country. The woman withdrew her support for the prosecution on a number of occasions. The PPS ultimately accepted a lesser assault charge from the defendant. Inspectors criticised the decision and said the rape charge should have been pursued in the public interest, even by compelling the complainant to give evidence.

Mr McGuigan said police and prosecutors had made progress in developing a more collaborative approach to work together to progress cases.

“But from the outset, their ability to deliver improved outcomes and reduce delay has been hampered by challenges around securing sufficient staff and managing their ever increasing workload,” he said.

The chief inspector added: “Inspectors also found examples in their case file review where some PPS decisions on sexual offences exceeded one year which in our view was simply unacceptable.”

The chief inspector said the report also highlighted “high levels of victim withdrawal”.

“Victims who experience delay in the overall progress of their case can choose to withdraw their support for the criminal justice process,” he said.

“And for some, the prospect of an adversarial, highly intrusive trial where their intimate behaviours will be scrutinised and challenged, with only a very limited prospect of securing a conviction, may cause them to reconsider.”

Mr McGuigan said impetus generated by previous inspection report recommendations had been lost and “work required to bring about real change remains unfinished”.

“The result is that time and time again victims of sexual crime in particular are being failed,” he said.

Mr McGuigan, whose report is to be considered by a Stormont all-party group on domestic and sexual violence, said it was time for a wider societal debate on the issue.

“This inspection and recent public debate about rape cases has raised wider issues about the societal approach to sexual relationships, consent and the media attention on cases which come to trial,” he said.

“There is more to be done to prevent these offences occurring in the first place by providing better education for children and young people about healthy relationships, changing societal behaviours and attitudes and early interventions for those at risk.

“I believe the time is right for a more informed political and public debate on the role of the justice system in dealing with these complex issues.”

Responding to the report, assistant director of the Public Prosecution Service, Marianne O’Kane, said: ” We very much understand that the rigour and robustness of the system can be difficult from a victim’s perspective, and this is particularly true of those who are a victim of a sexual crime.

“For our part, we are wholly committed to working with our criminal justice partners to improve how we deliver together, with fairness and integrity.

“We have accepted the recommendations of this report and are actively collaborating with our criminal justice partners on a shared action plan. Work is already well underway to deliver the agreed PPS actions.”

Head of the Police Service of Northern Ireland’s Public Protection Branch Detective Chief Superintendent Paula Hilman said: “We acknowledge the findings and recommendations the Criminal Justice Inspection has raised in its report.

“As a police service we are committed to putting victims’ needs at the heart of what we do.

“We recognise how difficult it can be for anyone to come forward to police, especially those who are a victim of sexual violence or abuse, and we have been working closely with our partners, in particular the Serious Crime Unit within the Public Prosecution Service and victim representative groups to improve the service we provide to victims, both adults and children.

“We welcome the opportunity to have been part of this inspection and part of the ongoing review by Sir John Gillen.”

A spokeswoman for the Department of Justice said: “We are working with our criminal justice partners on an action plan to address the points raised in the report.

“Reducing the time it takes to complete criminal cases in Northern Ireland is a hugely challenging and complex issue, which means there is no quick fix.

“Improvements will only be delivered through partnership working and close co-operation across the system.”

Wreaths laid in memory of Northern Ireland’s Prison Officers.

Director General of the Northern Ireland Prison Service, Ronnie Armour pictured laying a wreath in memory of the 32 members of the Prison Service who lost their lives in the course of duty. Picture: Michael Cooper

Wreaths have been laid in memory of prison officers in Northern Ireland who lost their lives in the course of duty.

Some 32 members of the Northern Ireland Prison Service were remembered during the service at the memorial garden at Hydebank Wood in south Belfast.

Serving officer Ernie Smyth was among those who laid wreaths at the memorial stone.

He is the longest serving uniformed member of the Prison Service with almost 40 years’ service.

Both male and female prison officers are among the 32 who died.

They include Adrian Ismay, 52, who died following a dissident republican booby trap bomb under his vehicle in east Belfast in 2016, and William McConnell, 35, governor of HMP Maze who was shot dead by the Provisional IRA in 1984.

The first prison officer to be killed was Officer R Walker, 33, who was shot dead in 1942.

Agnes Wallace, 40, was the first female officer to be killed. She died in 1979 following an attack by INLA terrorists.

Ronnie Armour, director general of the Northern Ireland Service, met a number of families of the officers during the annual event.

“It is important that we continue to remember the service and sacrifice of prison staff who lost their lives serving the community,” he said.

“The annual service of remembrance serves as a reminder of the professionalism, commitment and dedication of governors, officers and support staff of the Northern Ireland Prison Service, past and present, in upholding and maintaining our justice system.”

Wreaths were also laid by Peter May, Permanent Secretary for the Department of Justice, representatives of the bereaved widows, the Central Benevolent Fund, the Prison Officers’ Association, the Prison Governors’ Association, NI Public Service Alliance, thePrison Service Trust, the NIPS Sports Association, the Retired Officers’ Fellowship, the local branch of the Royal British Legion and the Irish Prison Service.

The Memorial Garden at Hydebank Wood was officially opened by the Princess Royal, earlier this year.

Mr Armour described the new garden as “a space where we, as a Prison Service family, can come to remember relatives, friends and colleagues so cruelly taken from us and to reflect on the contribution they made as well as the service they gave”.

“It is a place of tranquillity and a permanent acknowledgement of the heavy price paid by the families of our murdered colleagues,” he added.

Why prison is never the right place for seriously mentally ill vulnerable people

Sean Lynch pictured with his father Damien
Sean Lynch pictured with his father Damien

A report of the Prisoner Ombudsman’s investigation into Mr Lynch’s self-harm in Maghaberry Prison in June 2014 was published today.

The self-harm that Sean Lynch inflicted over a three day period was extreme and shocking. It followed deterioration of his mental health in the community and increasingly bizarre behaviour in prison.

Although a detailed Forensic Medical Officer’s assessment, which suggested formal psychiatric assessment was an “absolute necessity,” was sent to Maghaberry, Mr Lynch was treated as a routine referral. It took two weeks for him to see a psychiatrist, when he was diagnosed with a drug-induced psychosis. Our clinical reviewer said problems may have been compounded by the fact that there was an eight day delay in administering an increased dosage of medication that was prescribed.

The default approach for vulnerable prisoners – the interagency Supporting Prisoner at Risk (SPAR) process was initiated. However it was never designed to care for someone as challenging as Mr Lynch. While efforts were made to comply with the letter of the process, the spirit was completely missed. Various aspects of the NIPS policy for using observation cells were also deficient and there were also indications that Mr Lynch was treated less favourably at outside hospitals because he was a prisoner.

Numerous NIPS and the SEHSCT personnel were involved, but nobody took overall responsibility for managing him, either as a patient or as a vulnerable prisoner. Events moved faster than the official reaction, and his increasingly bizarre and violent crises were met by short-term responses which included several moves of location and placements in observation cells with anti-ligature clothing. A Transfer Direction Order to a secure healthcare setting was considered but the necessary assessment did not take place in time.

A contemporary, independent assessment by a priest is informative: he said “His condition is beyond anything the officers can cope with.”

It is clear that Mr Lynch faked symptoms on some occasions and this led certain NIPS officers to believe he was being manipulative. This belief, which was also partly caused by insufficient awareness of his mental illness, impacted negatively upon his management and care.

The escalation in Mr Lynch’s self-destructive behaviour required treatment at outside hospitals. His conduct was so challenging that he had to be restrained and tranquilised, and he seriously assaulted a prison officer. He inflicted an 8cm cut to his groin, allegedly with a piece of broken flask which he found after moving into a new cell. However this cannot be confirmed as the implement was never sought nor found.

Much of Mr Lynch’s main self-harm episode – he rendered himself blind and extended his groin injury – on 5th June was directly observed by prison officers. Although they complied with a strict interpretation of Governor’s Orders which require intervention if a situation is “life-threatening,” Mr Lynch did not meet the definition. It seems remarkable that the officers felt it was neither necessary nor appropriate to enter his cell to prevent him from self-harming further. Their duty of care was trumped by security concerns that appear to have had little basis in reality.

We make 63 recommendations for improvement, of which 11 have previously been made to, and accepted by the NIPS. Five recommendations have previously been made to, and accepted by the SEHSCT.

Ombudsman Tom McGonigle said “This dreadful sequence of self-harming highlights the challenges of caring for severely mentally-ill people in prison. The key messages from this investigation are the need for someone to take prompt and effective control when a prisoner/patient’s mental health is deteriorating rapidly; and for improved assessment and information-sharing at the point when people go into prison.”

Media contact

McCann Public Relations, Telephone: 02890 666322
Maria McCann: 07802934246 or Natalie Mackin: 07974935855

Notes to editors

1. The Prisoner Ombudsman’s current Terms of Reference authorise the Office to investigate serious self-harm incidents in prison custody when requested to do so by the Northern Ireland Prison Service. For further information see www.niprisonerombudsman.gov.uk/termsofreference.html

2. The Ombudsman aims to provide the facts of the case and publish all material that is necessary to serve the public interest. This is balanced against legal obligations in respect of data protection and privacy for everyone concerned, and their views are therefore taken into account when publication is being considered. Mr Lynch and his family indicated they are content for the full findings of this investigation to be published.

3. Mr Lynch has requested that media enquiries for him should be directed to his solicitor, Kevin Casey of Mc Cartney Casey Solicitors on 02871288888

Overtime payments to prison officers in Northern Ireland have topped £9.4 million during the last three financial years.

Finlay Spratt head of the Prison Officer's Association
Finlay Spratt head of the Prison Officer’s Association

Overtime payments to prison officers in Northern Ireland have topped £9.4 million during the last three financial years.

New figures show huge sums are being spent every month to bolster staffing levels at the region’s four main jails.

Critics claim the money would be better spent recruiting additional staff, but the Northern Ireland Prison Service (NIPS) has argued it is necessary to meet the demands of a 24/7 operation.

The highest overtime payments were made by bosses at HMP Maghaberry, which houses some of the most dangerous criminals and has segregated wings for paramilitary inmates.

Between April 2012 and March 2015, some £6.15 million was spent on overtime at the high-security jail in Co Antrim which employs 623 prison officers.

During the same period, a further £1.7 million was paid out in overtime at Magilligan Prison in Co Londonderry, which has 276 prison officers.

At Hydebank Wood in South Belfast, where young offenders and female prisoners are locked up and 175 prison officers work, overtime payments totalled more than £1.5 million.

Finlay Spratt, chairman of the Prison Officers’ Association, which represents rank-and-file officers, said: “They should be employing the right number of staff rather than relying on overtime because if you rely on overtime, then you get burn-out.

“But this is the way the service is being run.”

Mr Finlay said the prison service was operating with at least 100 officers short and turnover among new recruits was high.

Hundreds of experienced officers have also left through a voluntary redundancy scheme in recent years.

Last year inspectors branded Maghaberry the most dangerous prison in the UK, describing conditions as “Dickensian” in a damning report.

A follow-up inspection found the unsafe and unstable regime had stabilised, but still fell a long way short of required safety standards.

The figures were provided following a Freedom of Information request from the Press Association.

DUP MLA Edwin Poots, who sits on Stormont’s justice scrutiny committee, said the level of overtime spend was unsurprising.

He said: “Unfortunately I am not at all surprised by the figures.

“All the indications are that the service has been too reliant on overtime, largely down to the fact that they did not recruit – despite requests from two prison governors at Maghaberry.

“It seems that the prison service headquarters have refused or failed to go and recruit staff to do the job.”

A Northern Ireland Prison Service (NIPS) spokesman said: “There are times when overtime is required to meet the operational need of prisons and it is an aspect of running a 24/7 service. Overtime provides a degree of flexibility that can be used to ensure that effective regime is provided for prisoners and to cover unpredictable pressures.

“NIPS has regularly been recruiting since 2012 with job opportunities in the service advertised in 2012, 2013 and 2015. Since March 2015, NIPS has run external recruitment campaigns for Prisoner Custody Officers (PCO), Night Custody Officers (NCO) and Custody Prison Officers (CPO). Recruitment interviews are ongoing for all these opportunities with new recruits to begin training in early April 2016.”

Meanwhile, figures also show that thousands of days have been lost because officers have taken time off due to stress, anxiety and, or depression.

In Maghaberry last year, 7,919 days were taken off – a significant jump on the 4,321 days lost during 2013/14.

Some 64 prison officers are currently sick leave at Maghaberry, according to the statistics.

Mr Finlay said morale was low.

He added: “The mood is not good, especially when you consider one of our colleagues was blown up just the other week. That trades a lot of fear and there is no point saying that we are big, brave and macho because you can’t be brave when someone places a bomb under your car.

“Also, in Magilligan, for example, there used to be four prison officers for 50 prisoners. That has been cut to two members of staff. And, to be honest those fellas and girls are scared. These people have not been put in prison because they missed Sunday school -they are criminals.

“So, there is a big fear factor and I think a lot of the sickness is stress induced by fear because numbers have been cut.”