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Almost half of PPS letters to victim not empathetic enough

Brendan McGuigan deputy chief inspector with the Criminal Justice Inspector NI. Picture by Cliff Donaldson

ALMOST half of letters sent by the Public Prosecution Service (PPS) to victims were "not sufficiently empathetic", according to a report into how it has met Sir Keir Starmer's recommendations following the high-profile collapse of linked cases of alleged rape and IRA cover-up.

The 2015 Starmer Review examined PPS handling and conduct of the cases that did not proceed and made nine recommendations for improvement.

The assessment by the Criminal Justice Inspectorate (CJI) and HM Crown Prosecution Service Inspectorate, published today, found four were achieved, and "substantial progress" had been made in four others - with limited progress in the final one.

Chief Inspector of CJI, Brendan McGuigan, said a key recommendation the improvement of "communication with victims and witnesses around major decisions" and better recording of decisions and discussions with prosecuting barristers.

Inspectors found "the quality of letters sent by the PPS to victims varied (in)... the level, detail and location of records".

"I am concerned that while there were some excellent examples of empathetic letters sent to victims which explained decisions in an easy to understand manner, just under half of the correspondence was assessed by Inspectors not to be sufficiently empathetic," said Mr McGuigan.

"The issue of communication with victims and witnesses and record keeping are areas which CJI has highlighted in the past and one which we will return to as part of future inspection work on domestic violence and abuse and sexual violence and abuse."

A key part of Recommendation 1 was the development of the risk register process as part of case management procedures, introducing a `flagging system'.

This "has been developed and introduced", but the "flexibility for Assistant Directors to develop their own working practices" for the registers' structure, monitoring and updating has led to "differing practices developed in terms of how risks were reviewed, updated and `closed'".

Inspectors are concerned that "without a consistent template and guidance for completion,... (it will) be difficult for senior management to have an effective overview of casework risks... (and) ensure consistency of application of the policy in practice".

Of 84 cases in the file sample, just 16 were listed on the risk registers, with "some that did not appear which could have benefited from inclusion".

There were also issues where "risks had not been adequately identified", with "focus... on what the risk was rather than the consequences of it" and how it should be managed.

The PPS has improved case planning and developed new case management procedures.

Mr McGuigan said: "The establishment of a Serious Crime Unit within the PPS to deal with the most serious cases including murder, manslaughter and sexual offences is an encouraging development.

"In the last two years the PPS has undergone extensive organisational and structural change and I do not underestimate the scale of the challenge facing the PPS, or the considerable efforts of the senior management team to implement necessary changes identified internally and by the Starmer Review."

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