Belfast Telegraph

Families' experiences reveal how the justice system let them down

By Deborah McAleese

Disturbing failures in the treatment of victims and witnesses of crime by Northern Ireland’s justice system have been exposed in a damning Government report.

An investigation by Stormont’s justice committee has found that experiences of the criminal justice services by victims and witnesses of crime are “frustrating, demoralising and on occasions devastating”.

Throughout the inquiry the committee spoke to several victims and witnesses, including the families of Newry pensioner Maire Rankin, who was murdered on Christmas Day 2008, and school-boy Thomas Devlin, who was stabbed to death in north Belfast in August 2005.

The report that resulted from the committee’s investigations states frankly that victims and witnesses are not being treated with dignity and respect.

A major problem within the system is a difficulty for victims and witnesses to obtain information about their cases, according to the probe.

The report states that the committee heard numerous examples of failures in communications “with victims and witnesses left feeling confused, frustrated, ill-informed or not informed at all”.

“The manner of some of the written and verbal communication resulted in some feeling undervalued, sidelined and an inconvenience to the process.”

Another issue of concern raised throughout the investigation was the length of time cases took to reach a conclusion, during which the lives of victims and victims’ families were “put on hold”.

Particular criticism has been directed at the Public Prosecution Service (PPS), which, according to the report, requires “fundamental cultural reform” to “develop the skills and abilities” to deal with victims and witnesses “in an appropriate matter”.

“While difficulties exist throughout the criminal justice process they are particularly acute in the PPS from the stage of assessment of a case, through the process of a decision to prosecute and on through to the completion of the case,” the report asserts.

The document contains a total of 30 recommendations which the committee would like to see Justice Minister David Ford implement as part of a Justice Department five-year strategy to improve the experience of victims and witnesses.

The recommendations include the introduction of a victim and witness charter providing statutory entitlements for victims and witnesses, the establishment of witness care units, mandatory training for those dealing with victims and witnesses, resources for trauma counselling and the introduction of a maximum waiting time for witnesses.

“The committee agrees with the view put forward by respondents that there has been an imbalance of resources and that the rights of victims and witnesses of crime should be as protected as those of the defendant,” the report states.

“The committee recognises that the current budgetary climate is challenging for organisations, however is of the view that the changes required can be achieved largely by reprioritising and using existing resources in different ways.”

The murder of Maire Rankin: Woman accused of savage slaying was able to 'play games' with grieving relatives

A woman who viciously beat an 81-year-old grandmother to death with a crucifix “taunted” her victim’s distraught family during court hearings, and even followed them into the toilets.

Killer Karen Walsh, who murdered her elderly neighbour Maire Rankin (below) in her Newry home on Christmas morning 2008, was able to sit beside her victim’s family in the public gallery during several court hearings and follow them along the corridors.

In a damning report by Stormont’s justice committee that has exposed shocking failings over the treatment of victims and witnesses of crime in Northern Ireland, Mrs Rankin’s family said that the effects of their mother’s murder were “greatly exacerbated” by the legal process.

The family also criticised the Public Prosecution Service (PPS) for its lack of communication with them during the legal process, which they called a “long, tortuous and frustrating saga”.

Walsh, a mother-of-one, was jailed for a minimum of 20 years in November 2011 for Mrs Rankin’s murder — almost three years after the attack.

Mrs Rankin’s family questioned why the legal process in Northern Ireland should take so much longer than in England — drawing comparison’s with the murder of 25-year-old English woman Joanna Yeates, whose body was discovered on Christmas day 2010, two years after their mother’s death.

Ms Yeates’s killer, Vincent Tabak, was sentenced on the same day as Walsh.

“In England it took 10 months, but in Northern Ireland it took two years and 10 months. In our case, the murderer was arrested less than two days after the body was found. In Joanna Yeates’ case it was later than that. So the time had nothing to do with the investigation, it was to do with the process,” said the victim’s daughter Emily Rankin.

For almost three years members of Mrs Rankin’s family attended every court hearing as they felt it was the only way they could stay informed about the case.

They said that at these hearings they found the lack of separation between them and Walsh within court difficult.

“All the time we were there, all through the court process, the defendant was sitting among us, right up until the trial,” said Emily.

Another of Mrs Rankin’s daughters, Mairead McElkearney, added: “She followed us into the toilet. It was playing games, really.

“Every time we went to court she stared at us. She also played games with us by getting in our way or sitting in the seat beside us in the public gallery of the court. She was always kind of taunting us and looking at us.”

One of the biggest frustrations for the family was a lack of communication from the PPS about the case.

“We had to battle our way through. We almost felt like a nuisance in the process. When we complained about not knowing things we were told more or less that we did not need to know. As far as the prosecution was concerned, barristers do not talk to families.

“We were told not to go to court because we would not understand it. That is insulting,” said Emily.

She added: “We were told by a person involved: ‘Don’t be worrying about the legal process. Leave it to us. When I was doing my 11-plus it took over my life, but after I did it, I just had to walk away and leave it until the results. That is how you should treat the case’. That was so insulting.”

Mairead said that from day-one the family was told “it really had nothing to do with us and we did not feature because it was a State prosecution”.

She added: “All we wanted was for them (the PPS) to tell us that they were doing something. We sat there and wondered whether anyone was doing anything and whether they even knew mum’s name.”

Walsh is appealing against her conviction, prolonging the agony for Mrs Rankin’s family, who said that once again they have been left in the dark due to a lack of communication.

“We do not know what is happening with the appeal. No one is telling us because we do not have links in that department. No-one bothers,” Emily said.

The murder of Thomas Devlin: Parents alienated by 'patronising' PPS

Thomas’ parents said they had issues with their engagement with the Public Prosecution Service. They felt the PPS adopted a “very cold and patronising attitude” towards them and did not proactively provide information. When the prosecution initially decided not to prosecute in the case, Thomas’ parents said they never received a satisfactory reason as to how that decision was reached. No clarification was given for a later decision to prosecute. They felt that nothing would have happened in the case had they not got a meeting with the PPS and that they were only granted a meeting because they were media aware and had raised the profile of the case. They said that the working relationship between the PPS and the PSNI needs to be overhauled as the PPS appeared to them to be very reluctant to work closely with the PSNI. They also said the court process needs to be looked at in an effort to make the whole process shorter and more efficient, but that no-one seems prepared to make changes. The PPS needs to adopt a much more urgent approach to moving cases along “instead of the leisurely attitude currently taken”, they added.

The death of Erin Eagleson: A lack of empathy and respect for bereaved

The Eagleson family described experiences which they felt demonstrated a lack of empathy and respect for the dignity of bereaved families. On the day of Erin’s death her mother was told that she could not have access to her daughter’s body because it was a Sunday and the mortuary at the Royal Victoria Hospital was closed. During the legal process a court date was cancelled because the judge was involved in interviews for judges. The family said they felt this was an example of the low priority given to victims and the families of victims in the criminal justice system. The family experienced a lack of proactive communication throughout the process and felt that “people are misinformed, ill-informed or not informed at all”. Over the course of the investigation into Erin’s death, responsibility for the police probe changed hands a number of times. The family found this inconsistency and the resulting requirement for them to retell their story to each replacement investigating officer very difficult. The Eaglesons highlighted the length of time it took to complete the case — two years, two months and 22 days — and the impact the drawn-out process has on families.

The murder of Tony Robin: Victim statements 'seemed to be of no interest'

The family was critical of the PPS and said that officials never engaged with them. Concern was also raised over “leniency” of the sentence and the family questioned why the PPS did not ask for the family’s view on the jail term passed. A lack of communication was a major issue. The family said they made a point of attending all court appointments as they felt it was the only way of keeping informed. They said they found the court to be a very formal environment and did not feel as though they could ask any questions. They also felt that they were in the way within the court, and said there were issues with the proximity of Mitchell’s family. The family said they believed that too much consideration was given to Mitchell and were annoyed that she had not been penalised for causing delays throughout the case. They said that the family submitted five victim impact statements but felt they were of no interest to the judge as he misquoted from them. The family felt there was very little support from the police and said there were a series of communication failings at the time of the death. They did, however, commend the work of the murder investigation team.

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