Belfast Telegraph

Editor's Viewpoint: Report will refocus Ombudsman's role

The role of the Police Ombudsman will come into focus this week when Al Hutchinson discusses his position with the Justice Committee on Thursday.

He has revealed exclusively to the Belfast Telegraph that he will stand down if continued criticism of his performance is seen to be damaging the integrity of his role.

The work of the Ombudsman is not easy, and controversy is inevitable. However, Hutchinson has had a difficult time, and already he has been severely criticised over his reports into several atrocities, including those at McGurk's Bar and Loughinisland.

Now he faces more criticism in a report by the Criminal Justice Inspectorate which is expected to conclude that the independence of historic investigations carried out by the Ombudsman's Office has decreased since Hutchinson took over from Nuala O'Loan in 2007. The report also claims there were other deficiencies including allegedly major inconsistencies in the Ombudsman's reports of RUC handling of the investigations into major atrocities during the Troubles.

Significantly, the CJI report concludes that the Ombudsman's office should not deal with any more historic cases until the alleged deficiencies are addressed.

However, Hutchinson stoutly defends his record and claims investigations into the so-called "historic cases" represents the greatest risk of a loss of confidence in the Ombudsman's Office, and that they should be handled by a special unit.

This is a complex issue. Hutchinson has attracted criticism which, if it continues indefinitely, could seriously damage the Ombudsman's Office.

Yet if Hutchinson were to retire early, that might not solve the problem. He may have a point in suggesting a dedicated unit or section should deal with historic cases. Certainly there is a strong case for a redefinition of the role of the Ombudsman who is key in a controversial area, and who needs to retain the confidence of people on all sides.

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