Belfast Telegraph

Cahill welcomes change to how Northern Ireland justice system deals with abuse victims

By Staff Reporters

A woman who claims that she was raped by a member of the IRA has welcomed changes being made to the criminal justice system that she hopes will mean "no-one will ever have to go through what I and the other two victims in my cases did".

Mairia Cahill was speaking after a report by Criminal Justice Inspection NI (CJI) found that of nine main recommendations made in the wake of her case, four had been fully implemented, there had been substantial progress in implementing four others, and limited progress on another.

However, the inspectors found that almost half of the letters prosecutors send to victims of serious crime in Northern Ireland are not sufficiently empathetic.

Improving communication with victims had been a key recommendation of a damning report by Sir Keir Starmer that criticised how the region's Public Prosecution Service (PPS) dealt with the cases of three women who accused an alleged IRA member of abusing them as children.

Assessing progress within the PPS two years on from Sir Keir's report, inspectors raised concern about the quality of correspondence to victims.

Chief Inspector Brendan McGuigan said: "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."

Mr McGuigan said inconsistencies were also identified around the level, detail and location of records kept.

"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," he said.

Sir Keir's original report criticised the PPS's handling of the three women's abuse claims.

It was also critical of how prosecutors dealt with additional accusations made by one of the women - west Belfast woman Ms Cahill - that she was subject to interrogation by the IRA in the wake of the alleged abuse.

The attempted prosecutions of the man for alleged sex abuse and IRA membership - and of four others accused of IRA membership linked to the alleged republican cover-up - never got to trial because the three women withdrew their evidence.

Not guilty verdicts were returned for all five defendants, who all denied any wrongdoing.

Sir Keir found the PPS and prosecuting counsel had let the women down and that errors made it "almost inevitable" they would pull out of the process.

The controversy shone a light on how the IRA dealt with alleged sex abusers during a time when co-operation with the police in republican communities in Northern Ireland was extremely limited.

Ms Cahill, a grand-niece of prominent republican Joe Cahill, claimed the IRA conducted its own inquiry into her abuse allegations and forced her to confront her alleged attacker.

Ms Cahill waived her right to anonymity.

Last night, she said: "Change is always to be welcomed, but at the heart of this case was a victim who failed to secure justice in a court of law. That outcome was indescribably devastating.

"Seven years on from making my police complaint, I still have flashbacks of my abuse, panic attacks, night sweats and nightmares, and the thought that someone who should have been taken off the streets instead walked free.

"I hope that every prosecutor, defence barrister and indeed judge will remind themselves with every abuse case that they come into contact with, that while it may be a job to them, the lasting impact of the act perpetrated on a victim and their experience of the criminal justice system will stay with them for the rest of their life.

"It's vitally important when someone comes forward in a case as serious as this that we get it right. The criminal justice system failed in my case.

"I hope that it works for all those who pluck up the courage to report their sexual abuse in future.

"The CJINI report and the changes implemented is a welcome start towards that journey."

Ms Cahill said she found it hard to believe that it will be three years ago next week since a BBC NI Spotlight programme on her case led to Sir Keir's appointment.

"Since then, (outgoing Director of Public Prosecutions) Barra McGrory, to his credit, apologised for those failings and started to implement change," she said.

"I hope that this means that the PPS will continue to improve their service for victims of rape, domestic violence and murder - and that crucially, no one will ever have to go through what I and the other two victims in my cases did.

"Unfortunately the CJINI was unable in this instance to make recommendations towards the judiciary as it fell outside the remit. I believe that it is crucial for judges to understand that continual adjournments leading to lengthy delays in cases has a detrimental impact on victims of sexual abuse. The judiciary should undertake regular training in rape and domestic and sexual violence, and understand the very real impact that decisions taken can have."

Mr McGuigan said while inspectors found guidance issued to staff to support change was clear, there was a need to further embed the benefits of this approach within the organisation.

"I welcome the steps taken to date to meet the requirements of the Starmer recommendations but I believe the PPS is on a journey which is not yet complete," he said.

The DPP, Mr McGrory, said that he was "heartened" to see inspectors recognise the hard work undertaken to implement the recommendations.

"The inspectors also saw some examples of excellent practice, including letters which showed empathy and explained decisions in an easy-to-understand manner," he said.

"We agree, however, that there is more to be done and we will be working hard now to ensure that this is achieved consistently across all cases."

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