Full McConnell trial cost figures emerge, but total unclear

Pastor McConnell pictured on the day of his acquittal at Belfast's Laganside court complex
Pastor McConnell pictured on the day of his acquittal at Belfast's Laganside court complex

An official figure can now be revealed for at least part of the public cost of Pastor James McConnell’s trial.

The Public Prosecution Service (PPS) said it spent £4,018 on the case, whilst the Courts Service said that it spent £4,473 in terms of staff time and use of court facilities.

Taken together, this makes a total of £8,491 for the failed prosecution of the north Belfast evangelist, who was acquitted last Tuesday of making “grossly offensive” remarks during an anti-Islamic sermon in 2014.

Although this is the first time since the trial concluded that figures have surfaced revealing the level of expense involved, the numbers do not tell the full story.

The PPS (which made the decision to proceed with the case against the pastor and attempted to secure his conviction in court) said that it could not identify all of its costs.

Instead, the figure it has given only covers how much it spent on outside legal help, hired specially for the case, as well as things like expenses payments for witnesses.

This means that the time which its own in-house staff had devoted to the case is not taken into account in the £4,018 total.

The PPS said that “in the absence of detailed records of time spent on individual cases, it is not possible to produce precise costs for a particular case, or even average costs for a particular type of case”.

It stated: “This is because the amount of time required to take individual decisions as to prosecution will vary depending upon a range of factors including the complexity of the case, the extent of the case papers and any other work in hand.”

It added “there is no business need for such detailed records to be maintained”.

This is in contrast to the Courts Service, which was able to give a breakdown of its £4,473 figure (£3,128 of which went on staff and the judiciary, while the rest was spent on facilities costs relating to the three-day hearing at the Magistrates’ Court including heating, cleaning and lighting).

When contacted on Monday, the PSNI saida Freedom of Information request must be submitted to try and obtain a figure for its own costs in relation to the case.

However, this can take weeks, and it is by no means certain that it will result in a figure being provided.

The PSNI has previously been able to provide breakdowns of some of its activities upon request, such as the cost of the security operation at the loyalist Twaddell Avenue protest camp.

Peter Weir, DUP MLA for North Down and a trained barrister, said the costs – even though they are not fully-known – are “very concerning”.

He added: “Certainly the costs are not going to go down from what has been said – it is likely to potentially increase.

“But even on the basis of what we know, it again underlines the fact that public money has been spent on something which should never have been brought to court in the first place, and I think there’s some very serious questions to be asked.”

The PPS said the decision to prosecute “cannot be influenced on the grounds of cost”, and that it is concerned only with making sure that test for prosecution is met – which it believes was so in this case.

It said that the costs were “in line” with others cases of this nature.

It added: “This case was properly brought by the PPS, entirely in line with our duty to put before the court those cases in which it is considered there is a reasonable prospect of conviction.”