Select Committee on Armed Forces Written Evidence

Memorandum from the Police Ombudsman for Northern Ireland


  1.1  The office of Police Ombudsman for Northern Ireland was established on 6 November 2000 by Part VII of the Police (NI) Act 1998. The primary statutory duty of the Police Ombudsman is to secure an efficient, effective and independent complaints system, and in so doing attempt to secure the confidence of the public and of the police in that system. The system involves dealing with complaints from members of the public, and with matters brought to the attention of the Police Ombudsman by the Secretary of State, the Northern Ireland Policing Board, the Chief Constable and the Director of Public Prosecutions. In addition to this matters are referred by the Criminal Cases Review Commission, HM Coroners and members of the magistracy and judiciary. The Police Ombudsman has a power to investigate any matter without any complaint or referral if she thinks that it is in the public interest to do so.

  1.2  The remit of the Police Ombudsman extends to five Police Constabularies: the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI); the MoD Police; Belfast International Airport Police; Larne Harbour Police and Belfast Harbour Police and to the Serious Organised Crime Agency which was established under the Serious Organised Crime Act 2005.  The police cannot investigate any matter where the conduct of a member of the police force may have resulted in a death of another. Section 55(2) Police (Northern Ireland) Act 1998 and Section 55(3) state that the Police Ombudsman has to investigate such a matter and cannot refer it back to the police.

  1.3  The Office is situated in Belfast and provides a 24 hour, 365 days a year "on call" investigation facility. The Office has forged working relationships not only with the Police Service of Northern Ireland but also with the Director of Public Prosecutions, the Forensic Science Agency, Her Majesty's Coroners, the Criminal Justice Inspector, Her Majesty's Inspector of Constabulary, the Health & Safety Executive, the Surveillance Commissioner, the Justice Oversight Commissioner, the Social Services Boards and Trusts, the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission, the Equality Commission and the Commissioner for Children and Young People.

  1.4  Allegations requiring investigation range from incivility to collusion or involvement in murder. The current work of the Office covers some 5,000 allegations a year. This presents a significant challenge to a relatively small office. Some of the investigations are extremely complex. The office has a staffing complement of 128 staff and a budget of £7,643,000.

  1.5  Whilst the legislation provides a general time limit of 12 months within which a complaint must normally be made, Regulation 6 of the RUC (Complaints etc) Regulations 2001 provides "exceptions for certain complaints". This gives the Police Ombudsman wide "retrospective powers" in three categories of circumstances, two categories of which demand, by law, mandatory investigation. This means that in such cases, the Police Ombudsman must investigate, irrespective of when the incident occurred if the tests set out are satisfied. There are inherent evidential difficulties in investigating an incident years after it has occurred. The Office has received many of these "retrospective" allegations. Some are deemed out of remit for a variety of reasons, or are resolved to the complainant's satisfaction after preliminary enquiries. However, others do require investigation.

  1.6  All Investigators in the Office have the powers of a Constable for carrying out investigations. Powers of arrest are used sparingly, with the overwhelming majority of investigations being completed with co-operation of police officers and others involved. Whilst the powers are infrequently used, they are essential to ensure confidence in effectiveness of investigations. Provisions contained in the Police (NI) Act 2000 and Regulations ensure that Investigators can access material required for investigations, from PSNI. Some of the material required is extremely sensitive and secure arrangements have been made to ensure its safe handling within the Office. The Security and Law Enforcement Community have expressed confidence in the way sensitive information has been handled by the Office. Co-operation from PSNI is generally excellent, with it having been noted that officers are being more prepared, as time has gone by, to provide evidence against colleagues who have acted inappropriately. This is a healthy sign and an indication of confidence in the Police Ombudsman's investigative processes.

  1.7  Investigations are conducted thoroughly in accordance with the law to ensure an effective "search for the truth". The final recommendations for criminal or misconduct proceedings are also evidence-based. Investigation processes are based on best practice, and the use of relevant forensic, medical, technological and other expertise. Apart from the misconduct of officers, all investigations review whether any policy, practice or training issues were a factor in the incident. This has led to numerous recommendations to the PSNI, something welcomed by the Chief Constable. An example would be training, policy and practice deficiencies in the police use of force generally, and particularly firearms and batons. A series of recommendations have been instrumental in the reduction of complaints stemming from the use of force from 52% to 36% of all complaints.

  1.8  Generally the Office has been and continues to attract wide levels of support right through the community in Northern Ireland. Independent survey figures show that :

    —  86% of people are aware of the office.

    —  85% believed the Office to be independent.

    —  78% believed the Office to be impartial.

    —  78% thought that the Office would help the police do a good job.

  Of complainants who had used the Office internal satisfaction surveys show that 75% would use the system again.

  1.9  Given its statutory obligation to secure confidence of the police and the public in the complaints system, the Office, using a variety of means eg an extensive outreach programme, continually strives to increase levels of public and police confidence.


  2.1  The Police Ombudsman is responding to a recent request from the Committee and this response is necessarily brief. However it is the view of the Police Ombudsman that any such system would have to be adequately resourced and empowered. There would need to be a very clear statement as to the remit of the independent complaints mechanism. Who can complain? What time limits apply? What type of conduct is subject to investigation? Who can be investigated—civilian staff or all staff?

  2.2  The following powers would be necessary to enable an independent military complaints system to work properly and to contribute:

    —  The power to appoint staff.

    —  The power to conduct investigations and research.

    —  Police and Criminal Evidence Act powers—arrest, search, seizure of materials etc.

    —  An unqualified right of access to all documentation and materials held by the organisation under investigation.

    —  Powers under the regulation of Investigatory Powers Act to conduct surveillance.

    —  Legal provision as to confidentiality.

    —  The power to recommend criminal prosecution to the Public Prosecution Service.

    —  An ability to interview and take witness statements from serving officers.

    —  An ability to interview and take witness statements from retired military officers.

    —  It should be a criminal offence to obstruct an investigation.

    —  An ability to recommend, and in relevant circumstances direct, disciplinary action.

    —  The power to present disciplinary cases to a tribunal.

    —  An ability to recommend changes to military policy and practice.

    —  An ability to recommend training.

    —  An obligation to report and proper levels of public accountability of the complaints mechanism itself.

  2.2  To be effective the independent military complaints mechanism would have to have robust but positive working relationships with other agencies such as:

    —  The police.

    —  The Security Service.

    —  Military Investigations Departments.

    —  The Public Prosecution Service.

    —  Forensic Science Agencies.

    —  HM Coroners.

  2.3  To secure maximum co-operation from other agencies such a mechanism would have to demonstrate:

    —  Proper protection of sensitive material.

    —  Appropriate levels of staff vetting.

    —  Proper systems to protect:

      —  Complainants.

      —  Witnesses.

      —  Subject officers.

    —  Immediate response to serious incidents.

    —  A secure physical location.


  3.1  In addition to the matters outlined briefly above, those responsible for the conduct of investigations into matters occurring before the time applicable under the normal remit will have to take into account particular issues. What follows is predicated upon an assumption that those issues might well be the most serious of cases and may well involve investigation into deaths.

  3.2  There are additional difficulties, beyond those normally encountered in investigation, in conducting "old" investigations:

    —  Officers subject to investigation may have retired—it will be necessary to make explicit the jurisdiction of the independent complaints mechanism.

    —  Serving officers may be posted to other jurisdictions making interview etc more time consuming by virtue of the need to visit those locations.

    —  Retired officers, whether witnesses or suspects may have to be located (and this can be a lengthy process) before investigation can occur.

    —  Forensic investigative opportunities may have diminished with the passing of time. (Conversely recent forensic science developments may enable investigation now which was not previously possible).

    —  People tend to forget detail which can result in them appearing to be less credible witnesses.

    —  Recovery of documents may be difficult. Previous investigation files and associated exhibits would need to have been securely kept. Other documents such as incident logs and, for example, records of military checkpoints, details of posting of officers, video and CCTV footage, etc may be difficult to retrieve. We have experienced lengthy delays in retrieving evidence of this nature.

    —  There may be resistance within the military to the investigation and this may result in obstruction of or enormous delay to the investigation.

    —  There may be a false sense of loyalty to the organisation to which the officer belonged which may result in a "blue wall."

    —  There may be hostility to the investigating organisation from within the community generally—deriving again from a false sense of values which fails to recognise that those who act criminally must be dealt with in the interests not only of the public but also of all officers who act with integrity.

    —  There would have to be provision for measures such as the double jeopardy provisions of the Criminal Justice Act 2003 to be made applicable to the new complaints mechanism.

  3.3  Finally for such an organisation to be effective and efficient it would require a level of commitment by government in terms of funding and political support. It would also require high levels of co-operation from the military and other agencies.

March 2006

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