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PPS regional offices to close in major shake-up

PPS director Barra McGrory

A MASSIVE restructuring within the Public Prosecution Service (PPS) will result in the closure of four regional offices, it can be revealed.

The PPS's Eastern Region office in Lisburn is expected to be the first to close in September with prosecution functions to be centralised in Belfast and Foyle.

The move will see the closure of existing branches in Ballymena, Omagh, Newry and Lisburn, with staff from the latter to be relocated to Belfast in the autumn.

The restructuring is part of PPS efforts to find £3 million in budget cuts, which will see it have to slash its wages bill.

The service is hoping a large proportion of the cuts will come from the civil service-wide voluntary redundancy scheme, which has received a "satisfactory" uptake.

However, like other areas of the public sector, the money to pay these packages, agreed in the Stormont House accord, will not be released unless the Welfare Reform Bill is passed.

That bill failed last month amid bitter recriminations from both sides of the debate, leading to a potential huge black hole in the service's budget.

The `exit scheme' was to operate "in the 2015-16 financial year only", with all staff selected to leave to be gone by March 31 2016 and the first tranche gone by September.

The PPS has faced significant criticism in recent weeks.

A damning report into how it handled three interlinked cases linked to alleged child abuse and IRA cover-up found the alleged victims, including Máiría Cahill, were "let down".

Among the criticisms were individual failures around strategic planning; management of the cases and in the communication and consultation with victims and witnesses.

The review by Sir Keir Starmer QC also said delays in the case were "unacceptable".

PPS director Barra McGrory faced criticism by members of Stormont's Justice Committee where he was accused of overseeing a department providing the worst service in decades.

DUP assembly member Edwin Poots warned there is "a public dissatisfaction with how things are being conducted".

Mr McGrory argued he is ushering in a series of changes, including bringing prosecutors formerly stationed exclusively in the crown court to regional offices to guard against future communication breakdown.

There will also be a new specialist unit established to deal exclusively with serious criminal offences after a regional prosecutor in the Máiría Cahill case "took a decision not to be involved in the case because of the size of the file".

"It will be replaced with parallel senior casework strand within which cases like Máiría Cahill's could go so never again (will we) have a situation where a senior director has so much on his case load that he does not feel that cannot be met," Mr McGrory said.

A PPS spokeswoman confirmed reorganisation is ongoing.

"In the light of ongoing budgetary pressures and the re-shaping of the wider criminal justice sector, we are currently considering how best to ensure the continued delivery of a first-class prosecution service right across Northern Ireland," she said.

"This includes exploring the possibility of consolidating a number of the PPS offices. We are working closely with the Strategic Investment Board to identify and explore these options.

"As a Government Department, the PPS is part of the civil service wide Voluntary Exit Scheme. We envisage this will deliver a reduction of approximately 10 per cent of our pay bill."

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The Irish News reported that the Public Prosecution Service (PPS) is to centralise all functions in its Belfast and Derry offices - closing all other branches.

The PPS has asked the Irish News to point out that no decision has been made on how many offices will close, but a number will remain outside the two central branches.

No closure will take place before 2016, not September as reported.

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