Northern Ireland

Police Ombudsman under fire over collapsed criminal case

Police Ombudsman
Image caption A judge 'stayed' a case against two officers accused of perverting the course of justice

The Police Ombudsman has serious questions to answer over a collapsed criminal case against two officers, the Police Federation has said.

A judge said investigative failures meant they could not have a fair trial.

The judge "stayed" the case against the officers, who were accused of perverting the course of justice by making a false statement.

He had "considerable concern" about inaccurate information given to the defence by an ombudsman investigator.

The Police Federation of Northern Ireland (PFNI), the association that represents rank and file PSNI officers, said the case had exposed "significant and worrying shortcomings."

The Ombudsman's Office said it would take steps to address the issues that had been identified by the judge.

The case centred on allegations about an alleged confrontation between the officers and a man in Armagh City Centre in June 2014.

'Deliberate error'

The office of the Police Ombudsman investigated a complaint and recommended that the two officers were prosecuted.

But in his judgement, the judge said failings in the investigation "resulted in it being impossible for the defendants to receive a fair trial".

He said weaknesses in the investigative process meant it "would offend the court's sense of justice and propriety to be asked to try the accused in the particular circumstances of the case."

In particular, he expressed serious concern about a "deliberate error" by an investigator who made an inaccurate claim to one of the officers and their solicitor about the availability of mobile phone footage of the alleged incident.

"The court is left with considerable concern regarding the motivation for the investigator's response and cannot exclude the possibility that it was designed to elicit a particular response," he said.

'Under scrutiny'

The judge also said: "The Police Ombudsman (PONI) is charged with investigating the police and enjoys similar powers and responsibilities to the police.

"However, there is no corresponding organisation to monitor the work of the Ombudsman and its acts, errors and omissions instead fall to be scrutinised by the courts in applications such as the one under consideration.

"As the guard of the guards the actions of the Ombudsman must, in my judgement, be entirely above reproach.

"Its relationship with those under its scrutiny must be one of utmost good faith if it is to retain the confidence of our community."

Image caption PFNI chairman Mark Lindsay said he had numerous questions to ask

'Fell short of standard'

The federation said the judgement raises serious concerns for its members and demonstrated the need for PSNI officers to have a right of appeal against recommendations by the Ombudsman.

"The Office of the PONI is meant to operate to the highest standard of investigation.

"In this instance, it fell far short of that standard," said federation chairman Mark Lindsay.

"Where was the supervision in this investigation? How did these failures happen?

"Why were the legal representatives led to believe that the phone was still available?

"What assurance will there be that such failings will not be allowed to happen again?

"The Ombudsman's Office must openly address these questions to allay fears that the Office may be recommending prosecution of police officers where it is not justified."

The PONI office said: "We are currently examining very carefully the judgment in this case and the concerns raised by the judge.

"The office will take steps to address the issues he has identified."

It said that they will also discuss the matter with Mr Lindsay.