Belfast Telegraph

Ombudsman row ‘damaged trust in justice system’

Controversy surrounding the Police Ombudsman's office has created a “confidence issue” for the justice system, a senior civil servant has said.

Nick Perry is permanent secretary of the Department of Justice and former director-general of criminal justice and policing in the Northern Ireland Office (NIO).

His new department, which was formed after the devolution of justice, inherited the law and order powers previously held by the NIO and also took on large numbers of experienced NIO staff.

But both organisations became embroiled in the long-running controversy over the independence of the Police Ombudsman's office, which saw a freeze on its handling of historic cases from the Troubles.

Asked if the dispute had eroded public confidence in the justice system, Mr Perry said allegations of major government interference in the policing watchdog had been proved “fundamentally incorrect”.

But he added: “There is an issue that 90% of the Department of Justice used to work in the NIO and that's an issue that we just need to deal with, because I am absolutely clear that there is no member of my department that is not absolutely committed to making devolution work.

“Clearly there is a confidence issue we have to deal with. We work hard to address it.”

Mr Perry was speaking at a conference on the Justice system, and shared a platform with a number of experts.

These included the inspector of criminal justice, and the person who is to become the next Police Ombudsman, Michael Maguire.

As inspector of criminal justice in Northern Ireland, Dr Maguire’s organisation published a report which found the Ombudsman’s reports had downplayed criticism of police officers.

The NIO was also accused of interfering in former Ombudsman Al Hutchinson's appointment — though this was denied by the Northern Ireland Office.

An independent report by former civil servant Tony McCusker later examined disputes inside the Ombudsman's office, and while it raised some concerns, it found no systematic interference.

Mr Perry was asked whether Mr Hutchinson's appointment and the controversy surrounding his term in office had damaged public confidence.

“I can safely say that those allegations were fundamentally incorrect,” he said.

“Those specific allegations were investigated by Tony McCusker.

“Now some issues arose from that and those issues will now be addressed.”

Story so far

A number of damning reports criticised the work of the Police Ombudsman's office which until recently was led by former Canadian police officer, Al Hutchinson. There was major controversy around a finding that reports into police misconduct had been redrafted with criticism of officers inexplicably reduced. The ombudsman's office then agreed to halt their Troubles investigations.

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