A review of how the Public Prosecution Service (PPS) handled three cases linked to an alleged rape and IRA cover-up following claims by Belfast woman Mairia Cahill has found they were "let down".
The Public Prosecution Service has apologised to three women who accused an IRA member of abusing them as children for "shortfalls" in the handling of their case.
Sir Keir Starmer QC was asked to investigate three connected cases involving sex abuse and terrorist-related charges following claims by Belfast woman Mairia Cahill.
However the review stated there was no "improper motivation".
DPP Barra McGrory QC apologised after Sir Keir found that the Public Prosecution Service (PPS) and prosecuting counsel had let the women down.
Ms Cahill (33), a grand-niece of prominent republican Joe Cahill, said as a teenager in 1997 she was raped by an IRA member.
Ms Cahill also claims that the police and PPS failed to properly investigate her allegations and was highly critical of the four-year time frame to get to court.
Ms Cahill waived her right to anonymity.
The alleged abuse happened between 1997 and 2000 when all the women were children. They made statements to police in 2010.
The review found that there were "shortfalls" in the service provided by particular team members and Counsel.
Mairia Cahill says she welcomes apology from PPS director Barra McGrory pic.twitter.com/tMMKOEplOz— Deborah McAleese (@DeborahMcAleese) May 22, 2015
The attempted prosecution never got to trial because the three women withdrew their evidence.
Sir Keir said the errors made it "almost inevitable" that the women would pull out of the process.
These mainly involve individual failures around strategic planning; management of the cases and in the communication and consultation with victims and witnesses.
The review into the three interlinked cases involving sex abuse and terrorist-related charges found "no improper motivation" in the decisions or actions taken by the team involved and that they were concerned to fulfill their professional duties.
The Director of Public Prosecutions Barra McGrory QC said: “I commissioned this independent review so that all concerns could be openly and objectively explored. I commend Sir Keir for the rigour of his approach and accept without reservation all of his recommendations.
“I take very seriously the failings identified particularly in the quality and timeliness of the decision-making at key points by senior members of this prosecution team.
“I want to take this opportunity to express as Director of Public Prosecutions a sincere apology to the three victims in these cases. It is clear that our service to them fell far short of the standard that they – and indeed the PPS – would expect. And I also want to say, to them and all other victims of sex abuse offences, that I am committed to ensuring that what happened in these cases will not be allowed to happen again.”
Speaking after the report was published Mairia Cahill said she was "let down by the PPS from the word go".
Reflecting on the key recommendations of the report, the Director said they were "difficult and complicated" cases and said he has put in place a "programme of changes".
This includes bringing forward plans to make a new centralised unit of senior prosecutors that will have a single focus on such serious prosecutions operational in a number of months.
He said: “I commissioned this review to ensure both the identification of issues in the handling and the prosecution of these cases and also any recommendations for improvement. This was to ensure that our service is consistently of the highest quality.
“Acknowledging the recommendations, I have already put in place a programme of changes to ensure compliance with the high standards we expect in the prosecution of all cases.
“This includes new requirements on the deployment of case management strategies; consultations with victims and witnesses and improved service level agreements with Counsel, all of which will be supported by intensive training for relevant staff.
“I also consider that these cases have demonstrated the importance of a formalised strategic case management approach. This acknowledges that while such practices exist informally, a new system is required to ensure a consistency of approach.
“I have also decided to bring forward plans for a new centralised unit of senior prosecutors that will have a single focus on such serious prosecutions. I intend that this unit will be fully operational in a number of months.”
He added: “I hope that our actions in commissioning a robust review and in our swift and determined response to its recommendations will assure the victims in these cases, and the wider public, that the PPS is committed to providing a high quality prosecutorial service to everyone in Northern Ireland.”
Ulster Unionist Leader Mike Nesbitt welcomed the findings of the report as a "total vindication" for Mairia Cahill. He also called on the Director of Public Prosecutions to consider his position.
Mike Nesbitt said: "It is quite shocking that Sir Keir Starmer should find so many faults within the PPS, from basic administrative procedures, through to a lack of strategic thinking and direction from the senior management. Most disappointing of all is the identified failures in terms of the PPS's communications with Maíria. Once again we see an organ of state lacking the empathy it should demonstrate to those it serves, especially vulnerable victims.
"It is highly regrettable that the system has once again failed the victim. The buck stops with Barra McGrory and he should consider his position. It is simply not acceptable to try to wash his hands, Pontius Pilate like, by claiming the case was opened before he took office or that he was not directly involved. He is a very well paid leader whose organisation has failed a victim who has taken terrible abuse for having the courage to publicly take on the IRA, without the support she deserved from the PPS.
"It is now essential that the Police Ombudsman publishes his review into the conduct of the police in this matter, so Maíria has the full picture of institutional failure and we understand the work required if we are to restore victims` confidence in our ability to properly protect them.”
DUP Chairman of the Justice Committee Alastair Ross MLA has said he will be writing to the Director of Public Prosecutions following the PPS being heavily criticised in Sir Keir Starmer’s report.
He said: "The findings in the Starmer review are not only alarming, but do huge damage to the credibility of the Public Prosecution Service.
"Whilst the report has just been published and it will take some time to digest all the detail, section 6 of Sir Keir Starmer’s review makes for very worrying reading indeed. One finding after another highlights failings in the Public Prosecution Service and how victims were let down, whether that be in unnecessary delays, a failure to follow up leads or in the lack of proper communication with those who were already in a vulnerable state.
Rarely has there been a clearer example of when justice delayed has been justice denied.
"All sexual abuse victims should be properly treated by our criminal justice system. It shouldn’t require this report. Human dignity should recognise how vulnerable some of these victims are. The fact that this report points to how victims were failed is shameful. I will be asking the DPP to appear in front of the Justice Committee to answer questions flowing from the report. I want to see what changes have been made and what action has been taken against those staff who have been identified as clearly failing in their duties?
"Whilst we should welcome the DPP’s apology and suggestion that changes have already been made, this offers little comfort to those who have been so badly let down by the PPS. All of the recommendations must now be followed through without delay.”
In considering “all aspects of the handling and conduct of the prosecutions by the PPS” the following findings were made:
• Finding 1: The cases reviewed were each difficult and complicated. They presented real challenges to the prosecution team. Members of the prosecution team showed concern to fulfill their professional duties, including their duties to MC, AA and BB.
• Finding 2: There is no evidence in the material reviewed to suggest that decisions or actions of members of the prosecution team were improperly motivated.
• Finding 3: There was insufficient case planning in these cases. This was partly due to an organisational shortcoming in relation to policy and guidance and partly due to a lack of strategic thinking and management by the prosecution team.
• Finding 4: The roles of some members of the prosecution team were not defined with sufficient clarity, particularly where they deviated from usual management structures. The respective Regional Prosecutors failed to provide active management and oversight of the cases.
• Finding 5: There was a failure by senior PPS staff and counsel properly to analyse how to treat the membership and investigation evidence in the sexual abuse case.
• Finding 6: The decision to proceed with the membership charges was not taken and endorsed at a sufficiently senior level in the PPS. Nor was sufficient consideration given by PPS staff and counsel to the potential impact of the membership cases on the sexual abuse case.
• Finding 7: The question of joinder in relation to the membership charge against Morris was not properly thought through by PPS staff and counsel.
• Finding 8: The time taken to reach decisions to prosecute in the membership cases was too long.
• Finding 9: The overall delay in the sexual abuse prosecution was unacceptable. It was regrettable that the listing date of the sexual abuse trial was postponed on a number of occasions and that delays were not more robustly opposed.
• Finding 10: The decision not to oppose the defence application to reverse the sequencing of the trials was a significant step. Leading Counsel should have provided his concluded views on the issue to the PPS and sought instructions in advance of the hearing on 8 October 2012. Leading Counsel and the Lead Disclosure Lawyer should have invited a consultation with MC, AA and BB before the decision was made, but failed to do so.
• Finding 11: Each case became weaker over time. Key witnesses pulled out, evidential leads were not pursued and the strength of having three complainants in the sexual abuse case was lost. There was a failure to reassess the merits of proceeding with each case at critical points.
• Finding 12: Communication with victims and witnesses was variable and at times inadequate. Failures to communicate contributed to a loss of faith by MC, AA and BB in the PPS conduct and handling of the cases.
• Finding 13: In view of the foregoing findings, we find that MC, AA and BB were let down by the PPS and counsel.
• Finding 14: Given the failings in this case, it was almost inevitable that first AA and BB and then MC would pull out of the process. Each of them was prepared to support their allegations at the outset, but as their cases became increasingly weakened and delayed, their willingness to continue understandably diminished.
• Recommendation 1: The PPS should introduce policy and/or guidance to improve case planning and strategic thinking in difficult and complicated cases.
• Recommendation 2: A flagging system for difficult and complicated cases should be introduced to highlight risks and ensure proper lines of accountability to senior management, including the Deputy Director and Director where necessary.
• Recommendation 3: When deviating from usual management structures, senior team members should take the lead in defining roles clearly.
• Recommendation 4: The PPS should introduce standard clauses in all instructions to prosecuting counsel making clear what is expected of them, what responsibilities they have and their role in decision-making.
• Recommendation 5: Measures should be introduced to improve the recording of decisions and consultations by the PPS and counsel.
• Recommendation 6: The PPS Victims and Witnesses Policy should be reviewed in light of this report, in particular with a view to improving communications and consultations with victims on major decisions.
• Recommendation 7: Once the PPS Victims and Witnesses Policy has been reviewed as recommended above, all staff should be required to undergo training on the requirements of the reviewed policy.
• Recommendation 8: All PPS staff and counsel working on rape and serious sexual abuse cases should be required to undergo training on the PPS Policy for Prosecuting Cases of Rape.
• Recommendation 9: All PPS staff and prosecution counsel should be reminded of the continuing obligation to keep the prospects of conviction under review, particularly when there are significant developments in the case.
• Recommendation 10: Between six and 12 months from the date of this Report, the DPP should commission a review of the implementation of these recommendations.