Prosecutors have more work to do in child sex cases, say inspectors
Progress could be made on victim engagement, a report by Criminal Justice Inspection Northern Ireland said.
Prosecutors have made significant progress in dealing with child sex abuse cases but there is room for improvement, inspectors have said.
The establishment of a Serious Crime Unit in early 2016 has helped concentrate expertise, particularly in child sexual exploitation cases, but some victims have reported the interview experience by prosecutors as “daunting”.
While conviction rates for rape and sexual offences have risen and the creation of a centralised unit has been praised, there is work to be done on engaging with victims and managing their expectations, Criminal Justice Inspection Northern Ireland (CJI) said.
Inspectors produced a report following up on recommendations aimed at improving the performance and corporate governance of the Public Prosecution Service for Northern Ireland (PPS) during the past five years.
They said the PPS had, since 2013, closed two regional offices, reduced staffing by 80 people and, in the 2016-17 financial year faced a £1.9 million cut in funding.
Brendan McGuigan, CJI chief inspector, said: “The PPS has taken steps to generate significant savings while implementing better performance management within the organisation through the collection and analysis of information around key areas such as compliance with the Prosecutor’s Code; achievement of timeliness targets; and decision standards.”
In their report inspectors noted the PPS had made efforts to explain the legal process to victims of child sexual exploitation but said additional support, possibly through “experienced voluntary and community organisations” may be required.
There is still more work to be done to engage with victims Brendan McGuigan, chief inspector of CJI
They said child victims of sex abuse cases involving family members were sometimes reluctant to engage in the process when it became clear it could lead to a criminal prosecution.
Mr McGuigan said: “While inspectors accept progress in this area has been significant and conviction rates for rape and other sexual offences have increased, there is still more work to be done to engage with victims, manage the expectations of different groups of victims or vulnerable witnesses, particularly children, and to understand why victims and witnesses withdraw from the prosecution process.”
Overall inspectors were positive about steps taken by the PPS, judging them to have fulfilled four of the six recommendations.
They said the service had introduced a “comprehensive performance measurement process” and their 2015-16 conviction rates of 86% in crown courts and 79% at magistrates’ courts showed an improvement.
Other areas included successful review of instances where police dealt with certain crimes using community resolution notices and penalty notices for disorder rather than bringing the matters to court.
Inspectors accepted a scheme to assess prosecutors at court had to be suspended amid financial constraints.
Mr McGuigan added: “I welcome the progress that has been made in response to the original recommendations but remain acutely aware of the need for the PPS to constantly review and improve its performance in these uncertain times.”