PPS issues decisions on Covid funeral files

30 March 2021

The PPS has today issued decisions in relation to four police files submitted for consideration of potential offences under the Health Protection (Coronavirus, Restrictions) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2020.

The separate files each relate to alleged offending by a total of 33 individuals at funerals or associated events on a date in 2020 during which Government regulations were in place to help curb the spread of Covid-19.

After a thorough consideration of the evidence and information contained on each of the files submitted by the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI), decisions have been taken:

  • Not to prosecute 24 individuals reported in connection with attendance at a funeral or associated event in west Belfast on 30 June 2020 (namely the funeral of Bobby Storey);
  • To prosecute two individuals reported in connection with attendance at a funeral in County Tyrone in April 2020;
  • To offer a diversionary disposal to one individual reported in connection with attendance outside the home of a recently bereaved family in west Belfast in April 2020;
  • To offer diversionary disposals to six suspects reported in connection with attendance at a funeral in east Belfast in earlyJune 2020.

All decision-making in the above files involved an impartial and independent application of the Test for Prosecution by a team of experienced prosecutors. The evidence on each file was considered on its individual merits in the context of the specific Regulations in place on the date of the alleged breach.

Decisions on the Storey funeral file were concluded with the assistance of advice from experienced Senior Counsel.

Due to the high level of public interest in perceived breaches of the Coronavirus Regulations and particular concern around the events of 30 June 2020, the Director of Public Prosecutions, Stephen Herron, has today published a statement explaining why the Evidential Test for Prosecution is not met against any of the individuals reported in connection with the Storey funeral. 

The Director said: “I acknowledge the widespread public concern that events on 30 June 2020 appeared to involve breaches of the Regulations by individuals in positions of responsibility, as the numbers attending the funeral were large and not confined to close family.

“It is relevant that by the time of this funeral, the original Regulations of March 2020 had been amended on nine separate occasions through a combination of deliberate relaxation and re-working at pace to meet policy change. As a result, on the 30 June, the Regulations had become extremely difficult to navigate and, in certain respects, inconsistent.

“Furthermore, organisers of this particular funeral and police had engaged against the backdrop of evolving Regulations in an attempt to ensure that a balance was struck in the funeral arrangements between respecting the sensitivity of the occasion and minimising any risk to both public health and safety.

“Prosecutions can only be brought where the available evidence provides a reasonable prospect of proving, beyond reasonable doubt, a breach of the criminal law.

"As a result of the factors considered we have concluded that the prosecution could not prove any breach of the Regulations to the required standard. Whether considered alone or in combination, the two reasons outlined - that is the lack of clarity and coherence within the Regulations and the prior engagement between organisers and police - would pose an insurmountable difficulty if any of the reported individuals were prosecuted.  This is because they could all avail of a defence of reasonable excuse in terms of their actual or reasonably perceived compliance with a complex set of Regulations and/or their reliance on the prior engagement with PSNI.

“The law as it applied to the Storey funeral was changed significantly on the evening before the funeral and further amended two days later.  Even though prosecutions are not being brought on this occasion, they are being brought for breaches in relation to funerals at a point in time when the Regulations were clear and coherent.

“As has been evident in other jurisdictions, the law relating to permissible conduct in the course of the pandemic is not always clear cut and this can be challenging when it comes to enforcement of what are essentially health regulations in a criminal justice context.  

“Prosecutions can only be considered in light of the Regulations in force at the particular point in time of the alleged breach. It was necessary for all relevant facts and circumstances in this case to be considered carefully and independently following a thorough investigation.”

The Director acknowledged the sensitive and emotional role funerals play in our society.

“The restrictions in place over the last 12 months have had a significant impact on the way families and friends have been able to say goodbye to their loved ones,” he added.

“Many families may feel it was unfair they made sacrifices or compromises in funeral arrangements. We should not lose sight of the important role that these Regulations have played in reducing the transmission of the virus by discouraging social contact in large numbers.

“Throughout the pandemic, the Regulations have had clear value and all those who carefully abided by the letter and spirit of the law have played their part in protecting public health.”

ENDS

GUIDANCE:

  1. Please refer to the accompanying public statement for further detail on the decisions outlined above.
  2. PPS decisions are taken in accordance with the Test for Prosecution, which involves two stages. The Test for Prosecution is met if, in relation to an identifiable suspect, the available evidence is sufficient to provide a reasonable prospect of a conviction (the Evidential Test) and if prosecution is in the public interest (the Public Interest Test). Further detail is contained in the Code for Prosecutors which can be read by clicking the link.
  3. In relation to the County Tyrone funeral, two individuals will both be prosecuted for two offences, namely a breach of Regulation 5, contrary to Regulations 8(1)(b), and a breach of Regulation 6, contrary to Regulation 8(1)(a), of the Health Protection (Coronavirus, Restrictions) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2020.
  4. As a prosecution will be commenced in due course, the PPS would remind the media and the public that there should be no reporting, commentary or online sharing of information which could in any way prejudice these proceedings.  
  5. A diversionary disposal is an alternative to a prosecution and diverts an accused person away from the formal court process. For more information on this process, visit the Alternatives to Prosecution page by clicking the link.
  6. Media queries for the PPS should be referred to the Communications Unit by emailing ppspressoffice@ppsni.gov.uk inside office hours. The out of hours press officer can be contacted on 07920 271 804 or 07795 480234.