Fifteen sex offenders in Northern Ireland are to have their convictions rescinded due to an error in drafting updated legislation.
Their offences involved 17 victims, 11 of whom were children at the time, and include 15 convictions for indecent assault and two for unlawful carnal knowledge. They took place between 1973 and 2009.
The North’s Public Prosecution Service (PPS) announced on Wednesday that prosecutors had become aware of a change in the law in 2009 which had unintentionally removed certain types of sexual offences from the list of cases that could be prosecuted in the Magistrates’ Court. The offences could therefore only be dealt with by the Crown Court.
The mistake in drafting the legislation was made before the devolution of justice powers to the Northern Executive in 2010, when justice matters in Northern Ireland remained the responsibility of the UK government.
The PPS said it initiated a review of all cases, and had established that between 2009 and 2017, 15 defendants had been prosecuted and convicted in Magistrates’ courts in Northern Ireland despite the court having no power to hear the cases.
Sex Offenders’ Register
One of the offenders was jailed and the others were handed suspended prison sentences.
The legal status of these convictions was carefully considered, the PPS said, and it had concluded that the convictions are not valid. It will therefore apply to rescind the convictions.
One of the offenders remains on the Sex Offenders’ Register, but will now be removed.
Prosecutors are now considering whether fresh prosecutions should be brought against the 15 defendants.
The PPS has notified the victims in each case, and said it was working with victim support groups to ensure immediate support and counselling was available.
Assistant director with the PPS, Ciaran McQuillan, said he was “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,” he said.
“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.
“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,” he said.
Mr McQuillan said that a fresh decision in each case would be taken as quickly as possible, and engagement with the victims would be an “important part” of that process.
“The PPS works hard alongside criminal justice partners to robustly prosecute sexual offences where the test for prosecution is met,” he said.
“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.