Half of letters sent to serious crime victims 'not empathetic enough'
Almost half of the letters prosecutors send to victims of serious crime in Northern Ireland are not sufficiently empathetic, inspectors have found.
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.
The Criminal Justice Inspection NI (CJI) found that of nine main recommendations made by Sir Keir, four had been fully implemented, there had been substantial progress in implementing four others and limited progress on another.
The PPS asking the CJI to undertake the inspection was fulfilling a tenth recommendation by Sir Keir - to have progress independently reviewed.
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 woman - Mairia 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, all of whom have strongly 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.
The CJI's inspection report was carried out with the support of Her Majesty's Crown Prosecution Service Inspectorate (HMCPSI) in England and Wales.
The implemented recommendations focused on staff training around the service's policies on victims and witnesses and the prosecution of rape cases.
Inspectors said the PPS had taken steps to improve its case planning and strategic thinking around complex cases - such as the establishment of a specialist unit - and had also developed new case management procedures.
Mr McGuigan said while inspectors found guidance issued to staff to support these changes 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.
Northern Ireland's Director of Public Prosecutions Barra McGrory said 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."
"We have engaged positively with the Inspectorate following their review and will be seeking further engagement in areas such as communication with victims to continue to improve how we deliver our service."