Abuse trials: community voice call
The controversial case of two paedophile brothers allowed to return home to the scene of their crimes could see communities given a greater voice in future sex abuse trials.
A feasibility study is to examine whether judges should be given a statement outlining local residents' concerns about allowing offenders to live among them, said Justice Minister David Ford.
The move comes following the public outcry when James and Owen-Roe McDermott, from the Co Fermanagh village of Donagh, were permitted to return to their home after being deemed mentally unfit to stand trial.
The recommendation was contained in an independent review of issues arising from the case carried out by the Criminal Justice Inspection Northern Ireland (CJI). The review was conducted by the Chief Inspector of Criminal Justice in Northern Ireland Dr Michael Maguire.
Mr Ford stressed that, even if Community Impact Assessments were introduced, the judge would still make a decision balancing all evidence before the court.
"The report finds that, although considerable efforts were made by individuals within the justice sector to explain the legal position and the possible implications, a significant gap arose in this particular case between the outcome expected by all of the agencies involved and the expectations of the Donagh community," he said. "I accept that we should look afresh at how the justice system engages with victims and local communities.
"The Department already has some work in train through our current Strategic Action Plan, including the consultation I launched recently on a new Code of Practice for victims of crime, and we will also undertake a feasibility study as Dr Maguire suggests. However, we need to be careful not to create unrealistic expectations about what effect Community Impact Assessments could have, were they to be introduced. While they may well help to make communities feel their voice is being heard, judicial decisions will continue to be made independently, based on the evidence presented in court and the individual circumstances of each case."
The main issue of contention around the Donagh case was the judge's decision to grant orders that allowed the brothers to return home to receive treatment and why medical expert witnesses had not objected to the move. That matter is being examined by a review set up by Stormont's Health Department. The report, published on Tuesday, looked at issues related to the Justice Department, including two clerical errors in court orders issued to the brothers. Dr Maguire found that these mistakes did not impact on the outworking of the orders.
Mr Ford said: "I am grateful to Dr Michael Maguire for providing me, within a very tight timeframe, with a report that helps to clarify the events around this extremely complex and unusual case. The report confirms that the administrative errors which occurred within the Northern Ireland Courts and Tribunals Service, which were the starting point for this review, had no material effect on the outcome of the case. It further concludes that the remedial work undertaken by the Courts and Tribunals Service was extensive and comprehensive."
The McDermotts were two of four brothers who faced 60 charges of abuse. John McDermott was jailed for nine years in June for his crimes, while Peter Paul McDermott killed himself during his trial.