The Police Ombudsman has “serious questions to answer” over a failed court case against two officers arising out of an incident in Armagh city centre over three years ago.
The Police Federation for Northern Ireland – which represents rank and file officers – made the comment after a court this week ruled the officers would be unlikely to receive a fair trial due to investigative failures by the Ombudsman’s office.
Both officers had faced allegations of perverting the course of justice by making a false statement.
But proceedings were ‘stayed’ at Newry Crown Court.
The Police Federation NI said the Ombudsman’s office had to be challenged over what it called “significant and worrying shortcomings” in the case.
PFNI chair Mark Lindsay said: “If the standard of the evidence presented by the Ombudsman’s office had such shortcomings or was deficient, then officers must be able to access a meaningful and independent complaints process.
“The case was never stronger for a rigorous system that allowed officers the right of appeal against Ombudsman recommendations.
“There were significant and worrying shortcomings in this particular case, and that causes our officers justifiable concern.”
A judge at Newry Crown Court ‘stayed’ the case against the officers in which they were alleged to have perverted the course of justice by making a false statement.
The court ruled that due to the various investigative failures by PONI, the officers were unable to receive a fair trial.
The case arose out of an incident in Armagh city centre in June, 2014.
The PFNI supported the two officers by providing legal representation.
The PFNI said PONI failed to investigate the loss of a mobile phone, which contained video footage, and also failed to interview the officers in respect of alleged emails between them.
The PSNI said that during interview, the officers’ solicitor and one of the officers were “misled” about the continued availability of the mobile phone used to capture the video footage, an issue “central to the case”.
It was described by the judge who halted proceedings as a “deliberate error”.
Mr Lindsay said: “The investigative failures meant the defence was unfairly denied any opportunity to test the completeness and integrity of the video footage captured on the phone.
“The office of the Police Ombudsman is meant to operate to the highest standard of investigation.
“In this instance, it fell far short of that standard.”
Mr Lindsay said what had happened raised “serious questions”.
He added: “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.
“OPONI has to be fair to officers and, in my judgement, in this case it failed the test.
“It should look at its processes to make them fit for purpose, learn to follow evidence and not be afraid to state when the evidence falls short.
“That’s what’s expected of PSNI officers and no less is acceptable from PONI, their oversight body.”
“It is a requirement of the Ombudsman’s Office that it has the confidence of not only the public, but of police oficers.”
In staying the case, the phone footage, according to the judge, had been the “only evidence in this case”, adding that the importance of it could not be over-emphasised.
The failure by PONI to have verified the integrity of the footage which had been supplied by the complainant in this case meant the officers would not have received a fair trial.
The Police Ombudsman’s Office said they were 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,” a spokesperson said. “We would then intend to discuss these matters with the chairman of the Police Federation, Mr Lindsay, to address the issues which concern him.”