Community impact statements: What impact?

James McDermott - unfit to stand trial

James McDermott - unfit to stand trial

A ’communication failing’ identified in the Donagh village sex abuse scandal may result in new legislation or procedures to allow communities to have a say in court about the impact serious crime has had on them.

Community impact assessments will soon be going out to consultation after a Department of Justice feasibility study concluded there was a place for them in the Northern Ireland justice system.

Yet, ironically, the Department’s feasibility study recognises that such measures in the Donagh case would not have resulted in a materially different outcome in court.

Indeed, if community impact assessments are adopted legally and officallly in the future, they will not be permitted to influence the outcome of a case before the courts but at least courts will be made aware of the collective (or communal) damage caused by serious crime.

The idea of community impact assessments came in a report from the Criminal Justice Inspection (CJI) into the events in Donagh during the progression of the case against four paedophile brothers through the justice system up to and including the trials in court.

What made Donagh unique was the outcome of the court case against two of the four paeophile McDermott brothers. While one brother, John, was jailed and another brother, Peter Paul, took his own life the day after his trial began – it was the fate of James and Owen Roe McDermott that caused great upset and controversy.

They were deemed to be mentally unfit for trial.

However, the jury heard the evidence and determined that they had abused children. The two brothers remained at the family home in Donagh while on bail. And the problem was that the judge had limited options – eventually placing the two abusers under a Supervision and Treatment Order for two years.

The Donagh community was outraged that the two men could be allowed back into the family home. It caused great offence and led to concerted efforts by the community to have the two men kept out of the village.

A COMMUNICATION AND EXPECTATION GAP

At the time it was felt that the systems of justice and health care had made mistakes and, through a loophole in the law, had allowed the return of the sex offenders to the village where they had destroyed so many lives.

But the chief inspector of the CJI, Dr Michael Maguire, determined there was ‘no mistake’ – that everyone had done all they could. He identified the problem as a communication gap, an expectation gap between the community and those responsible for providing the system of justice.

It’s a theme picked up in the Department of Justice feasibility report conducted on Dr Maguire’s recommendation: “Before the verdict, the community had been content to take a watching brief and wait for justice to take its course but this was in the firm belief that the McDermott brothers would be removed from Donagh for a very long time, if not permanently.”

The problem was that no one had anticipated that two of the brothers would be unfit for trial and therefore not suitable for prison sentences.

The feasibility report also concluded: “Going back to our starting point of the Criminal Justice Inspection and the Donagh community’s desire to have its voice better heard and understood, we do not believe that any of these options, if implemented, would have resulted in a materially different outcome in the McDermott case in court.”

So there was nothing the community could have done to influence the court in its deliberations about what could be done with the two brothers unfit for trial – but there was a recognition that at the very least the local community should have had an avenue of support in which their very real fears and concerns could be registered.

The feasibility study noted: “However, the strength of feeling that existed in that community is undeniable, and the process of developing a Community Impact Assessment may have flagged the depth of that community’s concerns at an earlier stage and provided reassurance that the views of the local community had been sought and captured.”

GIVING COMMUNITY VOICE TO CONCERNS OVER CRIME

So the importance of the community impact assessment is not necessarily the influence it allows the community to exercise in the provision of justice in the courts, but merely the fact that the courts and the system of justice is made aware of the sometimes damaging impact serious crime can have not just on individuals but on the community as well.

This was the point emphasised by Justice Minister David Ford when confirming that his department would now go ahead with a process of consultation on community impact assessments.

Mr Ford said: “The impact of the McDermott case on the people of Donagh showed there is a need for better communication with local communities, and the CJI report I commissioned highlighted the need to consider introducing community impact assessments.

“Their use clearly has the potential to give those communities most affected by crime a greater voice in the criminal justice process.”

Michael Connolly would welcome community impact assessments

Michael Connolly would welcome community impact assessments

It’s a view strongly supported by Michael Connolly – a survivor of abuse in Donagh who has given up his anonymity to encourage other sex abuse survivors to come forward.

In a statement he said: “The introduction of impact statements will be a useful tool in building a strong relationship between communities, their leaders and law enforcement agencies.”

BUT WHAT IS COMMUNITY IMPACT ASSESSMENT?

It is a relatively new concept in criminal justice. In the past it has been used in health and environment where there is a need to provide planning and risk managment. It is a report – one which considers the impact of offences in a wider context – focussing on the effect of crimes on a community. It’s obvious value is where there have been, for example, car crimes or a spate of violent attacks on elderly people in a particular area.

Community impact assessments do not replace the individual victim impact statments and reports. The two can run together.

HOW WILL IT WORK HERE?

The Justice Department considered five different options.

Option A – Maintain the status quo

This option would incur no financial costs to the criminal justice agencies and would not require additional legislation or guidelines. Although doing nothing might be seen as having a negative impact on public confidence.

Option B – Introduce Community Impact Assessments universally

The main risk with this option is the potential for a major paper trail that could slow down further the wheels of justice by putting greater pressure on those responsible for delivery. This option would require legislation.

Option C – Produce a Community Impact Statement to accompany all Victim Impact Statements/Reports.

The current work by the Department of Justice on the use of Victim Impact Statements and Reports may provide a pathway for the inclusion of a Community Impact Assessment as part of a wider Victim Impact Scheme.

There’s a risk of creating conflicts of interests when it comes to individuals and communities. Who should have primacy? And there is a substantial cost implication as well as a need to require legislation.

Option D – Develop Community Impact Assessments in specified circumstances

The example of the Donagh community perfectly illustrates the potential of this option. It would only be an option where the local community has felt itself to be the victim of a series of crimes…attacks on the elderly for example.

Additional pressure on existing resources – but to a lesser degreee than options B and C. This option would require legislation and guidance.

Option E – Provide Community Impact Assessments in specific public interest offences accompanying Victim Impact Statements

This option has greater limitations than providing community impact assessments along with peraonal victim impact statements. Carries the risk of increased demand which is not predictable. Less resource commitment than options B,C or D.

This option carries the risks of increased demand on resources which is not predictable, though it is likely to represent less of a resource commitment for the justice agencies than options B, C or D.

LIKELY OUTCOME

The Department of Justice is gearing up to begin the consultation process. They may also look closely at the pilot scheme under way in England and Wales.

But the big pressure will be on finding a solution that is affordable in the present economic constrictions.

And then, as Michael Connolly points out, there is the need for co-operation at every level in the community.

He told The Detail: “One reservation I have about the use of community impact statements is that it will need the full cooperation of the communities for the aforementioned to be effective.

“A small rural community like Donagh has been strongly discouraged from co-operating with the justice system in the past. This would appear to be a culture that has become ingrained within small communities and it is very evident that little has changed in the last 30-40 years.

“Political representatives in an area like Donagh should be doing more to promote integration and legal protection for all.”

Mr Connolly has been campaigning in recent years to have the chicken houses in Donagh, where abuses took place, to be removed and taken into community ownership. He’s called for a review of the Mental Health Act as well.

He said: “Many in communities, like me, who had no legal protection in the past, want our children to live in a society where there is a fair, accessible and accountable justice system for all. This is my hope for the future.”

David Ford’s consultation period might help survivors of sexual abuse in Donagh like Michael Connolly begin to build that new future.