Northern Ireland

Communities may be able to give crime impact statements

James McDermott and Owen-Roe McDermott
Image caption The McDermott brothers were deemed mentally unfit to stand trial

Communities which have been plagued by crime could have the chance to tell a court about the impact on their lives.

It follows a review into the McDermott child abuse case in County Fermanagh.

James and Owen Roe McDermott were found to have abused generations of children but returned home having been found mentally unfit to stand trial.

A review into the circumstances surrounding the case found a gap arose between the verdict and the expectations of the Donagh community.

It was carried out by the Criminal Justice Inspection Northern Ireland (CJINI).

It recommended that community impact assessments could allow those affected by a crime to be heard by the courts.

Justice Minister David Ford said: "The impact of the McDermott case on the people of Donagh showed there is a need for better communication with local communities, and the CJINI report I commissioned highlighted the need to consider introducing community impact assessments.

"Their use clearly has the potential to give those communities most affected by crime a greater voice in the criminal justice process."

The minister said that further work now needs to be done following the publication of a feasibility study.

He said: "I have asked for more detailed proposals to be developed and for these to be put out for consultation in the near future.

"I want to hear directly from local communities and their representatives on their views on this issue as we take this work forward."

As well as the need highlighted by the McDermott sex abuse case, community impact assessments could be used in other situations such as a community that has been plagued by attacks on older people or the actions of so-called joyriders.

The statement would not directly influence the sentence but may help a judge to receive a picture of the impact offending is having on the people who live in a particular neighbourhood.

They may also assist the criminal justice organisations which will be supervising the offender or monitoring their behaviour.

The CJINI report reinforced the need for the voice of the survivors and the community to be heard and understood, and even though a community impact assessment would not have substantially altered the outcome in this case it would have flagged up the strength of feeling and concerns of the community at an earlier stage.

It said before the verdict the community had been content to let justice take its course in the expectation that the McDermott brothers would be removed from Donagh for a very long time, if not permanently.

The inspection found that there was a mismatch between the "official view", which was focused on managing the risks posed by the McDermott brothers, and the expectations of the community and survivors.

The Criminal Justice Inspector expressed the view that although the circumstances of the case were unique, the delivery of justice should not be divorced from the impact that it has on people and communities.

A consultation exercise on improving the use of Victim Impact Statements and Victim Impact Reports is currently underway.

It is proposed that further work on the potential use of community impact assessments could be aligned with this as part of a new Victim Impact Scheme.

'Useful tool'

Micheal Connolly, a survivor of the McDermott brothers' abuse who has waived his right to anonymity, has welcomed the proposals.

"The introduction of impact statements will be a useful tool in building a strong relationship between communities, their leaders and law enforcement agencies," he said.

"It will bring focus on those who commit serious offences within the community and prevent crimes against children which in the past have fallen below the radar of the authorities, especially in rural communities such as Donagh and it will also be instrumental in crime prevention.

"Impact statements will empower victims of crime and the communities in which they live and also give them the recognition and the voice they deserve."

However he added: "One reservation I have about the use of community impact statements is that it will need the full cooperation of the communities for the aforementioned to be effective.

"A small rural community like Donagh has been strongly discouraged from co-operating with the justice system in the past.

"This would appear to be a culture that has become ingrained within small communities and it is very evident that little has changed in the last 30-40 years."

More on this story

Related Internet links

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external Internet sites