THE Public Prosecution Service is refusing to meet some murder victims’ families to explain why it has abandoned prosecutions as a result of “security concerns” for the health and safety of staff, a new report has revealed.
Between October 2010 and September 2011 the PPS issued 11,933 letters informing victims’ families that prosecutions were being abandoned or charges against defendants were being reduced.
Prosecutors came in for widespread criticism from victims’ families in a number of cases over claims that it had failed to explain to them why it had abandoned or reduced charges.
The Criminal Justice Inspection (CJI) will this morning publish a report into how effective the PPS has been in explaining its decision-making process to the families of victims.
“Telling Them Why: An inspection of the Public Prosecution Service for Northern Ireland’s giving of reasons for its decision” concludes that the PPS has made some progress in its engagement with victims.
However the report also finds evidence of a “detectable disinclination” within the prosecution service to avoid meeting families and highlights concerns that its engagement with victims is viewed at times as being “reluctant and insincere”.
Of the 56 case files investigated by the CJI, it was found that the PPS had only offered to meet families on two occasions to explain its decision to abandon charges.PPS STAFF RELUCTANT TO MEET VICTIMS FAMILIES
Inspectors said they could find “no common standard or corporacy applied” in the prosecution service’s handling of the cases.
Instead the PPS decided on a case-by-case basis whether it would meet families to explain its decision.
“While on the one hand inspectors noted an appropriate articulation of the need to meet with victims, there was also a detectable disinclination for the offer of victim meetings amongst some staff, except when specifically requested by a victim or their representative.”
When inspectors reviewed PPS background papers they discovered the prosecution service had initially considered including the offer of a meeting in correspondence to all families.
However the proposal was abandoned over concerns for the security of PPS staff.
“Discussion in respect of this matter was centred on the health and safety and security aspects for PPS staff and hence, in terms of policy, the PPS ultimately moved away from this stance.
“While inspectors are conscious that these are legitimate concerns and do not dismiss them, they do regard such matters as being capable of being adequately addressed and, above all, the balance in terms of public confidence best served by a re-examination of that standpoint.”
CJI investigators concluded that the longer-term interest of public confidence in the PPS would be better served by more of a willingness of prosecutors to engage directly with victims and warned:
“An undue pre-occupation with the risks associated with such matters could lead to a cultural reluctance to engage fully with the public.”
Pointing to the fact that prosecutors in England and Wales had a policy of meeting victims’ families without any significant difficulty, CJI said:
“Inspectors view this aspect of the PPS (Northern Ireland) policy to offer a meeting only
in appropriate cases as unclear and in need of revision.
“Of itself, this may be regarded as evidence of a wider historical reluctance to engage directly.”PPS failed to act on 2007 recommendation
The report questions why the PPS has failed to act upon a previous CJI recommendation – made five years ago in 2007 – which called for all victims to be provided with substantive reasons when prosecutors decide to abandon or reduce charges (save in exceptional circumstances).
“It should be the exception that more detailed reasons are not provided and where they are not, reasons for so doing should be recorded on the case file,” the report states.
Inspectors also found the way in which PPS keeps victims informed of its decision making process could “leave room for some confusion” among families and staff.
“Having reviewed and considered the existing policy, inspectors were of the opinion that, as currently set out, this potentially leaves some room for misinterpretation.
“Despite the fact that training has been provided for PPS staff, it is set out in such a way as to leave some room for mis-understanding.
“Such confusion may be the inevitable existence of a general policy or scheme, and a revised policy which are melded together, rather than one straightforward policy.”CJI chief says PPS has more to do
CJI Deputy Chief Inspector Brendan McGuigan acknowledged evidence of important improvements by the PPS in its explanation to families.
He said many first time victims often had little knowledge of how the prosecution system worked.
“It is important therefore that the criminal justice agencies provide as much information as is reasonable to ensure that victims can understand what is happening in order to help them cope with what can be a traumatic and life changing experience,” he said.
“This is especially important in cases where charges are altered or withdrawn.”
Mr McGuigan said that the PPS had received positive praise when it had proactively engaged with victims’ families to explain its decision making process, but added:
“There must also be a move to a greater level of openness, transparency, understanding and engagement in order to further augment trust and confidence.
“Inspectors recognize that the measures recommended will require an investment of resources on the part of PPS.
“However, this must nonetheless be regarded as a vital element of building further trust and confidence for the future.”
A PPS spokeswoman said it welcomed the CJI report:
“PPS recognises the importance of informing victims of the reason for a decision not to prosecute and is fully committed to providing as much information as is possible within the confines of the law.”
The spokeswoman said the PPS had already implemented measures to address the CJI recommendations.
“These include ensuring that all victims know that they can receive detailed reasons for the decision not to prosecute, can make contact directly with the decision maker in their case and can also request a review of that decision.”