Prisoner Ombudsman to secure new statutory powers

Published on July 17 2012

The Prisoner Ombudsman for Northern Ireland, Pauline McCabe, today confirmed that she has received assurance from Justice Minister, David Ford that a forthcoming review of arrangements for the operation and support of Criminal Justice Ombudsmen will place the Prisoner Ombudsman on a statutory footing.

Mrs McCabe made the comments within her 2011–2012 Annual Report, published today. She said:

“I am particularly pleased to announce that I have been assured that it is one of the stated aims of the Department’s review to finalise arrangements for placing the Office of the Prisoner Ombudsman onto a statutory footing. I am very grateful to the Justice Minister for his commitment to finally make this happen.”

The Prisoner Ombudsman’s Office was established in 2005 but does not have a statutory basis in legislation. The Prisoner Ombudsman reports directly to the Minister of Justice, investigating all deaths in prison custody and complaints from prisoners or prison visitors who remain unhappy with how their complaint has been responded to by the Northern Ireland Prison Service.

Releasing the report today, Mrs McCabe added:

“The issue of statutory powers is of longstanding significance to the actual and perceived independence of the Prisoner Ombudsman and my predecessor, Brian Coulter resigned in 2007 because of his extreme concern at a lack of progress in taking this matter forward. In 2010, the Hillsborough Agreement recognised the importance of implementing legislation and included a commitment to address this matter.

“Whilst we have made substantial efforts to ensure that the absence of legislation does not generally impede the Office carrying out its work, there are situations that require my staff go to great lengths to manage the gaps created by a lack of statutory structure and I welcome the fact that this will soon no longer be the case. Being placed on a statutory footing will positively impact the ability of the Prisoner Ombudsman’s Office to adequately meet human rights obligations in respect of investigations and improve efficiency and effectiveness by ensuring greater control over recruiting and deploying resources. It will also provide an extra level of assurance to statutory bodies, such as the Coroner and the PSNI, as to the extent they can rely on Prisoner Ombudsman investigations.

“I believe that the upward trend in prisoner complaints is indicative of the fact that prisoners and their families do already have confidence in the impartiality of the Office; however placing the Prisoner Ombudsman on a statutory footing will provide absolute recognition that the Office operates completely independently of the Northern Ireland Prison Service.”

A total of 373 eligible complaints were received from prisoners in Maghaberry, Magilligan and Hydebank Wood over the 12 month period ending in March this year - an increase of 14 per cent on the previous year. Complaints about staff were most commonly reported, followed by issues relating to general conditions, visits and lockdowns or access to regime activities.

During 2011-2012, the Prisoner Ombudsman’s Office also investigated and reported on the deaths of six prisoners. There are currently four ongoing investigations and the Prisoner Ombudsman is also undertaking the Office’s first ‘near death’ investigation following an attempted death by suicide at Maghaberry Prison. The number of deaths in Northern Ireland’s prisons since 2005 currently stands at 36.

Commenting on priorities for the year ahead, Mrs McCabe said:

“As I undertake my fifth, and final, year in the role as Prisoner Ombudsman, I remain committed to ensuring that the work of our office is geared towards fully supporting the change programme and driving forward the implementation of the full package of reform within Northern Ireland prisons.”