A JUDGE has accused lawyers handling Ards loyalist feud cases of breeding ‘a sense of injustice’ through ‘lopsided’ prosecutions.
According to District Judge Mark Hamill, one side of the feud is facing much lighter charges at a less serious court level than the other, despite both being accused of offences arising from the same incident.
Stating that he ‘isn’t going to choose one side of parasitic drug dealers over another’, Mr Hamill nevertheless insisted that both must be treated equally under the law instead of handling one faction ‘with kid gloves’.
If prosecutors don’t change their approach, he said, they will ‘engender a sense of injustice’ on the streets – a major issue, he added, when ‘we have enough problems on the ground in Newtownards’.
The judge has been dealing with a raft of men on feud-related charges at Ards Magistrates’ Court in recent months.
Most of those cases relate to an incident in Weavers Grange housing estate in April, during which a gang invaded the area to rip down paramilitary flags and banners relating to the other side of the feud.
Initially, almost everyone accused of being involved was charged with affray – a serious offence penalised by up to 10 years in prison – as well as a variety of smaller charges such as unlawful assembly and criminal damage.
In court last Thursday, Mr Hamill stated that in recent weeks one side of the feud has seen affray charges dropped, with their remaining less serious allegations to be prosecuted at Magistrates Court level.
But on the other side of the feud, the affray charges are staying in place and the allegations are to be handled by the Crown Court, where sentences are much higher.
The situation has come about, it was confirmed in open court, as each side of the feud is being dealt with by a different set of lawyers in the Public Prosecution Service (PPS).
Last week, Mr Hamill slammed prosecution lawyers for a lack of joined-up thinking, and called on them to get together to hammer out a single approach for all cases in the Weavers Grange incursion.
“You see the lopsided approach?” he asked PPS lawyers present in court. “You see the obvious confusion? Not only from the resident district judge, but from the average citizen of Newtownards.
“What is that going to engender other than discontent; a sense of injustice, a sense that something is wrong here, that the PPS seem to be favouring one bunch over the other.
“It’s a recipe for discontent, to put it as mildly as I can.”
The judge went as far as to state that all affray charges should be dropped, as to his mind video evidence of the incident wouldn’t be enough to convict anyone of such a serious offence.
“Affray, I can tell you now from the bench, will not cut the mustard,” he said. “It is not an appropriate charge.
“Very rarely do I comment on the nature of charges, but I’ve been forced into this by the complete lack of joined-up thinking from the PPS.
“I’ve seen the video evidence of the incursion into Weavers Grange; all day long, the appropriate charge is behaviour likely to lead to a breach of the peace.
“When taking murals from the side of buildings, all day long it’s criminal damage; all day long. They’re the appropriate charges – and I should not have to direct charges to the PPS.”
Mr Hamill demanded that ‘someone with a sense of justice’ in the PPS come up with ‘a uniform approach to both sides of this vicious feud’.
“I do not care what side they’re on,” he said. “I do care that they’re both treated the same.
“I want a uniform approach to policing and prosecution. I do not want a sense of discontent, and a well-founded sense of discontent, when one side’s treated with kid gloves, it seems, and the other side’s taken to the Crown Court.
“It offends my sense of justice.”