Police chief defends supergrass trials

PSNI Chief Constable Matt Baggott
PSNI Chief Constable Matt Baggott

THE high cost of pursuing the supergrass case must not prevent similar prosecutions in future, Chief Constable Matt Baggott has insisted.

The murder trial of the men charged on the testimony of brothers and self-confessed UVF members Ian and Robert Stewart was one of the most expensive in the history of Northern Ireland, with the bill estimated to top £10 million.

Mr Baggott, who reiterated his support for the prosecutors’ decision to pursue the charges, said it was right to see if things could be done more efficiently, but he said money issues could never be allowed to rule out a prosecution.

“I think it’s right to look at the cost,” he told members of the Policing Board at its monthly meeting in Belfast.

“But you know something, I wouldn’t want to live in a system where when someone walks into a police station ... and our legal duty is then to pursue the process, then we say ‘oh awfully sorry, it’s far too expensive’.

“The offences we are investigating are the most serious - murder, blackmail, robbery, deep oppression of communities over many years and we do it through the justice system.

“So I don’t believe you should start with criteria around cost. It’s absolutely right to see if you could do it more efficiently, but if we did it in that way (on basis of cost) we would be in a bad place.”

With 14 senior barristers and 13 junior counsel representing the legal aid-supported defendants during the five month trial, along with the bill for the Crown’s one senior counsel and two juniors, and police and judicial costs, well-placed legal sources have estimated that the final bill could be £10 million.

Mr Baggott said it was important to make clear that the case did not collapse - the men accused of the murder of UDA chief Tommy English were just found not guilty.

“That’s a significant difference,” he said.

“That’s the way the system works, the police take their statements and provide witness accounts, the Public Prosecution Service (PPS) make the decisions, that’s their role within legislation, and then the whole integrity of witness evidence gets thoroughly tested through cross examination in due process.”

He added: “That’s called a judicial process in a democracy.”

The chief constable said the PPS made the right choices.“Because something ends up with a non guilty plea doesn’t mean to say it was wrong,” he said.

He added: “If we didn’t allow courts to test the evidence we would be in a totalitarian society and we’re not.”

Assistant Chief Constable Drew Harris also fielded questions about the trial during the meeting in the board’s Clarendon Dock headquarters.

Noting that the brothers were interviewed more than 300 times, he said the police took great care in dealing with the so-called “assisting offenders”.

He said the PSNI remained committed to using accomplice evidence as a way to bring criminals to justice.

But he said police could only do so much with the witnesses and could never replicate what would happen during trial.

“We can only take the process so far,” he said. “To actually school them would be wrong.”

He declined to comment when pressed by the DUP’s Jonathan Craig whether the brothers had lived up to the deal to tell the truth in the witness box.

Mr Harris said that was a matter the PPS was reviewing.

He said accomplice evidence was used “sparingly” and in the public interest.

“It provides one tool in which to address serious crime and serious criminality,” he said.

“Not to have it would allow those who seek to inflict serious harm, it would allow them to evade justice and that will not be tolerated.”