Victims offered support after PPS decision to set aside 15 Magistrates’ Court convictions

23 September 2020

The Magistrates’ Court convictions of 15 individuals for certain sexual offences between 2009 and 2017 are to be set aside as a result of a legislative error which caused them to be invalid.

The Public Prosecution Service (PPS) initiated a review of all cases potentially impacted after prosecutors became aware of a technical change to the law made in 2009 which inadvertently meant that certain types of sexual offences could no longer be prosecuted in the Magistrates’ Court, and could only be dealt with by the Crown Court. The issue was not identified by any of the parties involved in the progress of each case through the courts at the time. As a result of this review, it was identified that the issue affected 15 cases in which there were 17 victims.

The cases in which there will be an application to rescind convictions involve:

  • 14 victims where the relevant offence was indecent assault on a female contrary section 52 of the Offences Against the Person Act 1861;
  • One victim where the relevant offence was indecent assault on a male contrary to section 62 of the Offences Against the Person Act 1861;
  • Two further cases where the relevant offence was unlawful carnal knowledge contrary to section 5(1) of the Criminal Law Amendment Act 1885. 

Working in partnership with Victim Support NI and Nexus NI, and with the support of the Department of Justice (DOJ), the PPS has put in place a support package for the 17 victims affected. The PPS will now be considering whether fresh prosecutions should be taken against the 15 defendants.

PPS Assistant Director Ciaran McQuillan said:  “We are truly sorry to have to inform all affected by this unforeseen and undetected error in the law. This development will have come as a great shock and disappointment to the victims.  It will also cause uncertainty for the defendants involved.

“The PPS has arranged for delivery of letters to all those affected with a detailed explanation of how the situation arose and the steps we are now proposing to take. In recognition of the cross cutting nature of this issue, we have worked together with the criminal justice partners involved to identify the scale of the problem and the actions needed to address it.

“We have made significant efforts to minimise the shock and upset these victims will clearly be feeling but we appreciate that this will be distressing news for many of them.

“To support them through this challenging time, we have liaised with Victim Support NI, an independent charity which supports and advocates for victims of crime, who will be available to assist the victims should they need additional information and help.  We have also arranged for Nexus NI, a charity which provides counselling for victims of sexual violence and trauma, to offer counselling support if victims wish to avail of this. We thank both organisations for their invaluable assistance.”

Ciaran McQuillan added that a fresh decision in each case will be taken within as short a timeframe as possible and that engagement with the victims would be an important part of that process.

 “Speaking generally, the PPS works hard alongside criminal justice partners to robustly prosecute sexual offences where the Test for Prosecution is met.  Victims should not allow the unusual circumstances which led to this development to diminish confidence in coming forward to report their experience. Victims can continue to come forward in the knowledge that they will be treated with sensitivity and respect,” he added.

ENDS

For guidance

  1. Please refer to the accompanying guidance document for further detail on the issue 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. 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.
  4. It is understood by the PPS that the Department of Justice is considering whether to legislate to rectify the situation. Queries on this, and the background to the relevant legislation, should be referred to the Department of Justice press office via email at press.office@justice-ni.x.gsi.gov.uk
  5. Given the possibility of future live proceedings in each case, the PPS would ask that there is no reporting, commentary or sharing of information on-line from other parties which could in any way prejudice these proceedings.