Lack of oversight of restorative justice as government officials failed to meet with schemes for year and a half
Government officials failed to meet with anyone linked to a restorative justice organisation for a full 18 months prior to concerns raised internally over its accounts, a new report reveals.
Funding for Community Restorative Justice Ireland (CRJI), which received £1.2 million in 2021, was suspended after the organisation self-reported accountancy and other failings but restored several months later.
But the working relationship between the CRJI and the Department of Justice “was not effective” with records showing the last meeting with government officials took place a year and a half before concerns were raised, the Criminal Justice Inspection found.
CRJI self-reported financial irregularities related to staffing issues, salary and pension payments in July 2022. However, internal discussion over issues began a year earlier.
Inspectors last year were asked by then Justice Minister Naomi Long to investigate as reports "were negatively impacting on public confidence".
"It was becoming increasingly evident that Community Restorative Justice Ireland was expanding and it lacked the appropriate skill set and experience to sustain this growth. Incorrect salary and pension payments were identified," the inspection report noted.
CRJI has several branches in Belfast, Derry and Newry with a head office in the New Lodge in Belfast. The concerns over the accounts were investigated.
“We also assessed work undertaken in partnership with criminal justice organisations, the quality of CRJI’s work generally and looked at how public money was being used,” said Jacqui Durkin, Chief Inspector of Criminal Justice.
Inspectors found that prior to the start of the review, CRJI had taken steps to address failings in its accounting practices by appointing an experienced treasurer and financial officer, implementing a revised financial policy and engaging an external accountancy firm to manage its payroll and pension systems.
“The work already undertaken by CRJI is positive and we acknowledge the progress the organisation has already made, but more remains to be done,” said Jacqui Durkin, Chief Inspector of Criminal Justice in Northern Ireland.
Deputy Chief Inspector James Corrigan added “We identified that the working relationship between CRJI and the Department of Justice (DoJ) was not effective with only limited engagement taking place.
"Records we examined showed that the last meeting between CRJI and the DoJ was held in January 2020 - about 18 months before the concerns about CRJI arose."
He added: "The DoJ have accepted their oversight of CRJI has been lacking."
Jim McCarthy, CRJ chief executive, welcomed the report and highlighted its finding he first raised concerns when taking on the acting director role in 2021.
Mr McCarthy said: "This report provides us with a template to better formalise and improve our relations with key criminal justice partners, including the Department of Justice, the Probation Board and the PSNI."
"We are pleased the Inspectors were impressed by the dedication and commitment of our staff, the quality of our work, the positive views of key partner organisations towards us."