A COMPREHENSIVE review of court orders rolled out in the wake of the Donagh case in 2010 found that out of 2,809 orders examined between 1997 and 2011, 517 (18.4 per cent) had some form of discrepancy.
That’s according to a newly published report by the Criminal Justice Inspector Brendan McGuigan into the accuracy and administration of courts orders imposed in Northern Ireland including those against sex offenders.
Back in May Justice Minister David Ford said ‘no legal loopholes’ had to be closed after the paedophile McDermott brothers were controversially released and returned to their former stalking ground of Donagh in 2010.
The brothers were subsequently voluntarily admitted to the Brook Lodge disabled care facility at Gransha sparking a further furore in Londonderry before their removal to a separate ward.
The controversay prompted a far-ranging review of court orders in Northern Ireland.
According to Mr McGuigan’s report it was established that between 1997 and 2011, 5.9 per cent of Sexual Offences Prevention Orders (SOPO) did not fully and accurately reflect the order made by the court (22 out of 372); 11 per cent of the court records where notification was required were not consistent with the relevant legislation (217 out of 1,953); 57 per cent of disqualification orders disqualifying a defendant working with children had neither been made nor were reasons given for not making the order (278 out of 484); and five cases were identified where licence conditions imposed on a sex offender were not accurately reflected in the court record.
Out of a total of 2,809 orders examined 517 (18.4 per cent) had some form of discrepancy.
As a result of these findings the Northern Ireland Courts and Tribunals Service (NICTS) and Lord Chief Justice were forced to respond.
The report says: “This was a particularly worrying outcome and the NICTS and the Office of the Lord Chief Justice (OLCJ) instituted a programme of action including additional training and a more robust checking mechanism with enhancements to the NICTS ICT system.”
This, says the local criminal justice watchdog, resulted in significant improvements, which led to a court order accuracy level of 99.2 per cent.
“The Donagh case highlighted a number of weaknesses and while the errors did not have a material effect on the outcome or the disposal of the case, they undermined public confidence in the criminal justice system at that time,” said Mr McGuigan.
“As a result, the NICTS undertook an extensive review of the factors leading up to the errors.
“It has sought to identify the main risks to the accurate recording of court orders and has invested in the development of its systems and how it engages with other criminal justice agencies” he said.
With almost 360,000 court orders issued each year and 302 different types of orders issued in January 2013 alone, Mr McGuigan stressed the work of the NICTS to improve its systems had a bearing on public safety.
“Over 70 per cent of court orders issued have a direct impact on individuals and/or the public at large to a greater or lesser extent, the inaccurate recording of a court order and its subsequent implementation, has the potential to have a catastrophic impact on an individual or a community if it is incorrect.
“In the most serious cases it could result in a prisoner mistakenly being set free or a sex offender being released without the appropriate license conditions being imposed, therefore we welcome the work undertaken to date,” said the Chief Inspector.
During the inspection CJI found that the number of detected errors in the 12 months prior to September 2012 stood at 0.8 per cent.
A review of high risk orders for sexual offences indicated that of 132 orders issued, there were five errors each (3.8 per cent) of which were quickly rectified by NICTS administrators in conjunction with the relevant Judge. There were no serious outcomes in any of these instances.
These results compare favourably with a previous review of sexual offences prevention orders issued between 1997-2011 where the error rate was 18.4 per cent.
“This inspection has shown that while the NICTS systems capture the majority of errors before any adverse outcomes occur, some are detected by other organisations such as the Northern Ireland Prison Service,” said the Chief Inspector.
“We would therefore concur that as the potential for errors will always remain, the NICTS should continue to strive for an accuracy rate of 100 per cent, particularly in serious cases where an error could have a significant impact on a person’s liberty or imprisonment or where protective measures need to be applied before an offender is released from custody.”
Mr McGuigan said the NICTS should continue its efforts to mitigate against the risks to accuracy posed by the movement of NICTS staff, and in particular of court clerks moving out of the agency, into the wider Northern Ireland Civil Service.
The Chief Inspector has also urged the organisation to explore how existing and new technology such as a secure mobile application could be utilised to improve the process and keep legal representatives updated on the status of their cases.
In conclusion the Chief Inspector said: “While the Inspectorate has made no recommendations in this report, Inspectors identified four areas for improvement which if implemented will serve to further strengthen the existing arrangements.”