Gerard Devlin's family 'should have been consulted over charges change'
The Public Prosecution Service breached its own policy by failing to consult the family of a man stabbed to death before dropping murder charges, a High Court judge has ruled.
Gerard Devlin was stabbed outside his home in Ballymurphy, west Belfast in 2006.
Mr Justice Treacy said the decision to accept guilty pleas to lesser offences from those accused over the killing should have been explained to Mr Devlin's relatives before it was announced in court.
But he rejected further legal challenges to the decision to discontinue prosecutions for murder, the alleged failure to explain the decision afterwards, and the denial of access to investigation files and depositions.
Rights of victims
Five members of another family pleaded guilty to offences linked to the case.
Francisco Notarantonio, 24, of Whitecliff Parade, Belfast, was jailed for 11 years after admitting a charge of manslaughter.
Four other members of the Notarantonio family pleaded guilty to affray and received sentences ranging from a one-year suspended term to two years' imprisonment.
Lawyers for Mr Devlin's partner, Aine McMahon, who brought judicial review proceedings, criticised the failure to consult with the family before lesser pleas were accepted from the suspects on the day they were due to go on trial.
They argued that the challenge raises important issues about the rights of victims within the criminal justice system.
Delivering judgment, Mr Justice Treacy said he found it difficult to accept the pleas were unexpected.
"Whatever may be the exact position, the fact remains that the decision to accept the guilty pleas should have been explained to the family members prior to being announced in court," he said.
It was acknowledged that an apology has been issued, although the judge pointed out that concerns or suspicions of the family could have been allayed if the procedure had been properly followed.
"I do not accept that pressure of time... made it impossible to provide the explanation to which as a matter of published PPS policy they were entitled under the code of practice and the PPS Victims and Witness Policy," Mr Justice Treacy said.
However, the judge did not accept there has been any ongoing default in explaining the basis of the decision.
Dismissing the challenge to discontinuing the prosecution for murder, he stated: "In my judgment no public law basis has been established for disturbing the prosecutorial judgment which was made within the confines of the trial process itself."
Mr Justice Treacy also held there was "no compelling reason" for disclosing the contents of the investigation file or depositions to the Devlin family.
He concluded: "I am prepared to grant a declaration to reflect the court's finding that the PPS breached its own policy. The other grounds of challenge are rejected."
Mr Devlin's mother, Mary, was present for the judgment and later expressed anger at how the prosecution was handled.
She said: "We feel betrayed by the justice system.
"It's self-evident that the PPS did not consult us before the murder charges were dropped. It's hardly a surprise that the judge found in our favour for that.
"But we did not get a trial and justice was not served."