Healthcare news

Family of James Hughes killed by mentally ill neighbour round on health service over 'hidden' report

A family who lost their brother in a horrific killing at the hands of a mentally ill neighbour has learned that a second high-level NHS investigation is underway following failings in the first. It is one of seven similar cases in Northern Ireland subject to a review, with the process itself now under the spotlight. The Hughes family tell health correspondent Seanín Graham about their concerns and why they believe their loss was "avoidable"

Veronica Lillis describes her brother James as her "soulmate". She treasures a picture of him taken when he lived and worked in London as a young nurse. Picture Hugh Russell

WITH just over a year between them, Veronica Lillis said her older brother James was her "soulmate from childhood".

Her most treasured memory is of summer holidays together on a small holding on the outskirts of 1960s Belfast, where they ran down a meadow each morning with a white enamel bucket to fetch water from a well.

"As we skipped down that meadow we travelled the world as we both loved geography, we were in Africa, and Australia and America. There was a tree beside the well, that was our cherry tree...I remember him with great affection, he was wonderful and so gentle," she said.

In November 2016, as his next-of-kin, the 64-year-old Belfast woman and former BBC producer was asked to identify her beloved brother's body from behind a glass partition in a hospital mortuary.

James Hughes (62), a former psychiatric nurse who was one of a family of seven from the Lower Falls, had been stabbed 33 times in his Divis Tower flat in November 2016 by neighbour, James Devine.

A practising Buddhist, the "peace-loving" nurse had lived in London for over 20 years and once received a bravery award for saving a man's life on the city's Underground.

Police at the scene at Divis Tower in west Belfast where James Hughes (62) was found dead in his flat. Picture by Mal McCann.

Devine (44) a paranoid schizophrenic who was originally from Ballymoney, had 66 previous convictions, many of them for violent attacks. He received a minimum eight-year jail sentence last September for the manslaughter of Mr Hughes.

Sitting around a kitchen table with a white lantern in the middle containing their late brother's photograph - Mrs Lillis insists on fetching the picture as "he would hate if we were sitting here talking about him and he wasn't a part of it" - the family believe that James and his killer were failed by the system.

They feel the tragedy was "avoidable".

"If the health service had handled it differently our James would never have been killed and Jim Devine would never have been in prison for killing someone," said Mickey Hughes.

"Never at any time did I hate Jim Devine, never ever. I see him as big a victim as our brother, I have spoken to his sister - she was the person who reported him after he confessed to the killing.

A young James Hughes pictured in the 1970s in London

"His mother was telling me that James used to send her scarves and birthday cards, he was a very kind human being. The system had let him down, it's not taking mental health seriously enough. When is the next one of these going to happen?"

It has emerged the case is one of seven 'homicides' involving patients which were subject to 'delayed' high-level NHS investigations over the past three years - and which were kept hidden from some relatives who were supposed to form a key part of the probe.

The details only came to light after the family of an elderly Portadown couple, Mike and Marjorie Cawdery, fought for a second 'Serious Adverse Incident (SAI)' level 3 to be ordered into into their killings two years ago after they branded the initial report as "shambolic".

A separate confidential report released last month exposed serious flaws in the SAI process and called for its overhaul as a "matter of urgency".

The Belfast health trust has confirmed to The Irish News that a second independent SAI is now to take place into the death of James Hughes due to shortcomings in the first one - including failing to inform his family about the highest level review.

.Marjorie and Michael Cawdery who were stabbed to death at his home.

For his siblings, the trust's handling of the case has been "diabolical" and further compounded their grief.

"The police were the only ones who tried to keep us informed and I couldn't speak highly enough of them...but there has been this gap and lack of information from the trust which I find very frustrating. The way my brain works I need information and I need to know facts," said Mrs Lillis.

"I think it's very important there is an health service investigation and we are made part of it.

"I just feel someone has to be held accountable for what has happened, both in relation to my brother's death and subsequently for not keeping the family in the loop regarding this report and not involving the family.

"What has they done is disrespectful to us and disrespectful to James, he was such a good man."

Sinn Féin west Belfast MLA Alex Maskey has on behalf of the Hughes family pursued the authorities about failings in the handling of the James Hughes case. He is pictured with Mickey Hughes and Veronica Lillis. Picture by Hugh Russell 

The mother-of-one, who suffered a severe stroke five months after her brother's death and lost her husband of 38 years, Bobby, earlier this year, said she had "no bitterness whatsoever towards Mr Devine".

"I feel he was as let down by the system as James was. Up to that point in time, he was a violent person, he had been in prison for violent offences. But until he killed my brother, he had never been a killer and that must be very hard for his him and his family to live with," she said.

Mr Hughes said there were serious questions for the authorities to answer in how they monitored their brother's killer.

"My brother saw some good in Jim Devine. He knew him very well, tried to get him off drugs, tried to look out for him, which he did for everyone," he said.

"But the question is why was James Devine placed in Divis Tower? Why did you put a man with such severe mental problems and violent tendencies in Divis?

"The man had mental health problems and the people around him should have been protecting him. The one thing that kept popping up was that when he took his medication he wasn't a threat, but when he drank alcohol he disappeared.

"We have also learned that on November 3, Jim Devine rang the health authorities to say he was going to kill someone and he was told to ring back the next day. He rang back the next day to say he was worse. They made an appointment to see him on November 16, he killed James on the 5th. He was actually squealing for help."

While the case has striking similarities with the Cawdery killings, in which a mentally ill man stabbed the 83-year-old couple to death in a 'random' frenzied attack, the Hughes family say there are also significant differences.

"The investigation into the terrible death of the Cawderys found that it was not predictable but could have been avoided. But I think James's death was both avoidable and predictable, he was known to so many different authorities and had been placed in Divis twice - he had lost his first tenancy after attacking someone. They had made a very conscious decision to place him there," added Mr Hughes.

The family said they were too devastated to approach the health service in the aftermath of their brother's death and turned to a local politician, Sinn Féin's Alex Maskey, when they felt "something wasn't right". They also wanted to ensure that a similar tragedy didn't happen again.

"We weren't in a right place mentally to do anything, it was Alex who pursued our case," said Mrs Lillis.

Mr Maskey has been in correspondence with the trust since earlier this year and said it was clear there had been a "shocking litany of failings" across the statutory bodies.

Police at the scene at Divis Tower in west Belfast where Jim Hughes (62) was found dead in his flat Picture Mal McCann.

In a statement the Belfast trust said it "deeply regrets the loss suffered by the Hughes family as a result of this distressing incident and the lack of engagement with the family in the initial SAI review".

"The trust has commissioned a further independent SAI Review into the death of Mr Hughes. After consideration was given to the previous review report, it was not sufficiently comprehensive to provide the analysis required to ensure strong learning points and to ensure that the Hughes family are given the opportunity to fully engage with this independent review."

A trust spokesman added the terms of reference for the new report are currently "being considered" by independent reviewers from the Royal College of Psychiatrists and the Hughes family will be invited to contribute to this.

It is expected the family will meet the trust and the chair of the new investigation next month as the third anniversary of their brother's death approaches.

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