Justice system failing sex crime victims time and time again say inspectors

Chief inspector Brendan McGuigan delivering his report, 'Without Witness", to Stormont Buildings. Picture by Liam McBurney/PA Wire
David Young

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, fewer than 2 per cent.

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

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 courtroom.

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. Three months after she was interviewed 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 told police 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. After the initial report, it took three weeks for police to contact the woman and another three months before she was contacted again. Within days she withdrew her evidence and a no prosecution was later directed.

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

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" from alleged victims who experience delays.

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.

Responding, assistant director of the PPS Marianne O'Kane, said they had accepted the recommendations and were "wholly committed to working with our criminal justice partners to improve how we deliver together, with fairness and integrity".

They said they were working with criminal justice partners on a shared action plan and that work is already underway "to deliver the agreed PPS actions."

Head of the PSNI's Public Protection Branch Detective Chief Superintendent Paula Hilman said they acknowledged the findings and recommendations raised in the report and said they were "working closely with others to improve the service we provide to victims".

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."

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