PPS statement in relation to BBC Northern Ireland story on sexual offences case

21 June 2022

PPS statement in relation to BBC Northern Ireland story on sexual offences case, broadcast on BBC Radio Foyle and BBC Radio Ulster on 20 June 2022 and 21 June 2022.

PPS Assistant Director Ciaran McQuillan, head of the Serious Crime Unit which deals with rape and sexual offences cases, said:

“We in the PPS are acutely aware of the devastating and lasting impact that sexual offences have on victims and their loved ones. We take our responsibilities to victims extremely seriously, and we want to ensure that whatever the outcome of a case, victims feel treated with respect and empathy at all times.

“The victim in this case experienced terrible sexual abuse as a child and we acknowledge her courage in reporting the offences, and the continued distress she understandably feels.

“The victim has raised several serious matters which have been carefully examined at a high level within the PPS.

“By way of background, a decision to prosecute the defendant for six counts of sexual activity with a child and one of rape was taken in December 2020.

“After the defence indicated in December 2021 that the defendant would plead guilty to the six charges of sexual activity with a child, we again considered the evidence and circumstances of the case. In doing so, we specifically considered the prospects of conviction for all seven charges if the pleas were not accepted in respect of the six counts of sexual activity with a child. The prosecution team met with the victim on 1 February 2022 to explain the nature and implications of the defence’s offer and seek her views.  We explained that, while a victim’s views are very important to us, they cannot determine the prosecution’s legal decisions which we are solely responsible for.  We understood this was difficult for the victim to hear, especially as she made it clear that she wished for all charges to proceed.

“Following this meeting and after careful consideration and having taken advice from senior independent counsel, it was concluded that accepting the offer to plead to the six charges was the appropriate course to follow, in line with our duty to put before the court only those cases in which there is a reasonable prospect of conviction.  It was concluded that the Test for Prosecution in relation to the rape charge was no longer met.

“This course of action was in line with the PPS’s duty to consider any formal offer from the defence for a defendant to plead guilty to a different charge or charges.

“We wrote to the victim to carefully explain in detail the basis for this decision. After this we also had a further telephone discussion with the victim.

“The defendant subsequently pleaded guilty to and was convicted of six counts of sexual activity with a child. He is due to be sentenced on a date to be fixed by the court. The charge of rape was not proceeded with and was ‘left on the court books’.  

“All decisions in this case were taken fully in line with the Code for Prosecutors, which sets out detailed guidance on our duty to consider pleas offered by the defence.

 “We accept that the victim was not happy with this outcome, however we remain satisfied that the decision to accept pleas to the first six offences was the correct course to take.

“We acknowledge that the victim has understandably found the prosecution and trial process very challenging. Our Serious Crime Unit prosecutors and senior counsel who handled this case are experienced and trained in dealing with sexual offence cases including the trauma experienced by victims. The prosecution team treated this victim with sensitivity and respect at all times, and kept the victim updated on multiple occasions about key developments in her case, by phone, letter and in several meetings. In any face to face meetings, we did everything possible to put this victim at ease and while we acknowledge her feelings, w
e do not accept she was treated disrespectfully at any time. We also signposted the victim towards independent organisations that can offer support including Victim Support NI.

“Delay is an issue across the criminal justice system, and particularly in sexual offences which often involve particularly complex evidence. We accept that this case took too long to reach its conclusion and I regret the impact this clearly had on this victim. The reasons for the delay are complex and reflect the pressures on all parts of the criminal justice system, exacerbated by chronic funding pressures and the impact of the pandemic. This is a cross system issue and we are working with our partner agencies including police, the Courts Service and the Department of Justice to improve the experience for all involved.

"Speaking generally, sexual offences are some of the most complex and grave offences that the PPS and the wider criminal justice system deal with. It can be daunting for victims of sexual abuse to come forward and speak about what has happened them. Our team of highly experienced and dedicated prosecutors is committed to working with all our criminal justice partners and stakeholders to improve how these cases are handled, including the experience of victims, across the system.”

Further statement in relation to delay in sexual offences cases

A PPS spokesperson said:

“As well as having a devastating impact on victims, sexual offences cases also present well recognised and complex challenges for the PPS and the wider criminal justice system. We recognise that some victims are waiting too long for their case to move through the system, and the impact this has on them.

“The reasons for this are varied and cut across the entire criminal justice system, and we are committed to working with our partners to address them. For example, we know that these types of cases are more frequently contested by the defendant than other offences, which requires a trial and witnesses to give evidence. This inevitably means that they take longer to reach a conclusion. Sexual offences cases also often involve particularly complex and extensive evidence including digital material, which creates challenges for police and prosecutors. This can generate significant requests for disclosure and obtaining and considering this material can take time.

“Other challenges include the backlogs caused by the Covid pandemic, and the clear detrimental impact this has had on victims and witnesses, along with the impact of pre-pandemic delays and chronic funding pressures.

“Our dedicated and highly experienced Serious Crime Unit is working with all our criminal justice partners including the PSNI’s Public Protection Branch, the Department of Justice, defence practitioners and the NI Courts Service to reduce avoidable delay across the system whilst maintaining quality and the integrity of the trial process, and improving outcomes for victims. This includes ongoing work to implement recommendations from the Gillen Review.

“In particular, we work closely with the PSNI’s Public Protection Branch to improve investigation file quality, early engagement with police and reduce avoidable delay in sexual offences cases.

“We remain committed to providing a high-quality service to victims, including keeping them updated about key developments in their case through our Victim and Witness Care Unit. We commend the bravery and fortitude of victims and treat them with respect and sensitivity at all times.”

Guidance:

  • The BBC story can be read online here. A follow up story on delay in the criminal justice system can be read here
  • The defendant in the case referred to will be sentenced at a later date and therefore proceedings remain live.
  • All decisions in this case were taken fully in accordance with the Code for Prosecutors which can be found here
  • More information on accepting pleas to different or lesser offences can be found in sections 5.9 – 5.16 of the Code for Prosecutors.
  • Speaking generally, the proper disclosure of unused material, made through a rigorous and carefully considered application of the law, remains a crucial part of a fair trial and essential to avoiding miscarriages of justice. The prosecutor’s duty of disclosure to the defence is set out in Part I of the Criminal Procedure and Investigations Act 1996 as amended by the Criminal Justice Act 2003. More information on disclosure can be found in sections 4.40 – 4.55 of the Code for Prosecutors
  • We are fully cognisant of our duties and responsibilities as set out in the recent Information Commissioner’s Opinion on the processing of victim’s personal data in sexual offences cases. We are continuing to work with our partners including the police to continually improve these processes. The Commissioner’s report can be read here
  • Court scheduling is a matter for the trial judge and Courts Service.
  • 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.