Northern Ireland

Northern Ireland victims 'must be notified of jail release'

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Media caption David Heasley said his brother's killer was released from prison without the family's knowledge

There have been calls for victims of violence in Northern Ireland to be notified automatically when the perpetrator is released from jail.

It follows complaints from a victim's family who did not know his killer had been released from prison until they came across him in the street.

Jim Heasley's family said they had been "completely ignored" by the system.

In England and Wales, victims are automatically informed, but in Northern Ireland they must fill out a form.

Mr Heasley, a 70-year-old pensioner from Lisburn, County Antrim, died as a result of an assault in his home town four years ago.

He was attacked as he walked home from his local pigeon club on 17 October 2010 and died in hospital from his injuries 10 days later.

Image caption Jim Heasley, 70, was attacked as he walked home from a night out with his friends at his local pigeon club

The man who attacked him later admitted manslaughter and was jailed for three years.

'Sick and annoyed'

The Heasley family had expected the prisoner to stay in jail until 2015, but were shocked when a nephew of the victim recently saw the perpetrator walking along a street in Belfast.

They had not been notified that he had been granted a form of phased day release from jail.

The victim's brother, David Heasley, told BBC Radio Ulster he felt "sick and annoyed that no-one ever thought of contacting us, to let us know, or to prepare ourselves".

"At no stage in this were the family's feelings ever taken into consideration, absolutely nowhere along the line," he said.

'Re-traumatised'

If the Heasley family lived in England or Wales they would have been automatically enrolled in a victim contact scheme and kept up to date with developments in the legal process.

However, in Northern Ireland victims have to "opt in" to a contact scheme, by filling out a form, asking that they be kept informed.

The Probation Board told the assembly's justice committee that it is currently unable to ensure timely and accurate notification to victims, simply because of the nature of the "opt in" system.

The former chair of the justice committee, Paul Givan, said victims were often "re-traumatised" when they found out a perpetrator had been released without their knowledge.

Image caption The former chair of the justice committee, DUP MLA Paul Givan, said it was "common sense" that victims should be informed when perpetrators were released from jail

"Obviously, there are lessons that need to be learned by the agencies responsible," Mr Givan told BBC Radio Ulster.

"That's why the committee recommended that there needed to be a victims' charter, putting into legislation the types of services that victims should be receiving.

"This also includes being advised when individuals who are in prison are being released on parole, over a Christmas period and indeed, whenever they are ultimately, finally discharged from their custodial sentence.

"The families should be advised of this. Many people would believe that should be common sense, but unfortunately, it hasn't happened."

Police failings

It is not the first time that the Heasley family has felt let down by the criminal justice system.

In the immediate aftermath of the attack, the police said they believed the pensioner had sustained his injuries as the result of a fall.

David Heasley made a complaint to the police ombudsman, who investigated and found there had been a series of failings in the initial police response.

In May 2012, seven police officers were disciplined over their handling of the manslaughter case.

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