Mother’s dismay at failure to overturn decision to release daughter’s killer

A grief-stricken mother says she is “bitterly disappointed” after failing in a bid to persuade judges to order a review of a Parole Board decision to release a man convicted of murdering her 22-year-old daughter more than 30 years ago.

Marie McCourt, 77, of Billinge, Merseyside, said former pub landlord Ian Simms should not have been released before revealing where Helen McCourt’s body is hidden and has campaigned for a law change known as Helen’s Law.

The law would prevent the release of murderers who do not reveal the whereabouts of their victims’ remains.

She said a November 2019 Parole Board panel decision to release Simms, now 64, on licence was wrong and should be reviewed.

Two judges on Tuesday ruled against her.

Lady Justice Macur and Mr Justice Chamberlain, who had considered Mrs McCourt’s challenge at a virtual High Court in July, said they had decided to refuse to give Mrs McCourt permission to apply for a judicial review.

Judges decided that Mrs McCourt did have the legal “standing” to bring a judicial review claim but concluded that the Parole Board panel had made no “arguable public law error”.

They said the case had raised an important point, did a victim of crime, or a relative if the victim was dead, have the legal standing to seek a judicial review of a Parole Board decision to release an offender?

Helen McCourt murder
Helen McCourt murder

“I am bitterly disappointed,” said Mrs McCourt.

“This was my last chance to get my daughter’s killer to admit where he hid her body.”

She added: “I did my best, and so did my legal team but, sadly, this hasn’t produced the result we wanted in getting Simms back into prison.

“We are now discussing my next steps.”

Mrs McCourt said the decision that she had the standing to bring a claim was “one small victory”.

“Although I have lost my own claim I have successfully paved the way for any other family to now challenge a decision by the Parole Board,” she said.

“It is a small comfort but one that, I hope, will have implications for others – particularly in missing body murder cases.”

Judges heard how Mrs McCourt had campaigned for a law change.

They said, in “large part” as a result of that campaign, a Prisoners (Disclosure of Information about Victims) Bill had passed through the Commons and received a second reading in the Lords.

The bill had been become known as Helen’s Law, although it has not yet been enacted.

Mrs McCourt said the Parole Board panel had made “public law” errors in reaching a decision to release Simms.

She argued that the decision had been irrational and procedurally unfair, said the panel had failed to make “reasonable inquiries”, and had misdirected itself “in law”.

Lady Justice Macur and Mr Justice Chamberlain disagreed.

“… we have concluded that the panel’s decision involved no arguable public law error,” they said in a written ruling.

“The panel were acutely aware of the sensitivities in this case and adopted a careful and balanced approach both to the procedure to be adopted and to the assessment of Simms’ current risk.”

Helen McCourt murder
Helen McCourt murder

Judges heard that Ms McCourt was murdered in Billinge in February 1988, while on her way home.

Simms was found guilty of her abduction and murder after a trial at Liverpool Crown Court in March 1989.

He was given a life sentence, with a minimum term of 16 years.

Simms, who has always maintained his innocence and was released on licence in February, had said Mrs McCourt’s application should be dismissed.

Lawyers representing him argued that Mrs McCourt had no legal “standing” to bring a judicial review claim.

They also argued that the Parole Board decision involved no public law error.

The Parole Board was “neutral” as to the outcome of Mrs McCourt’s challenge.

Judges ruled that Mrs McCourt had a “sufficient interest in the matter” to challenge the decision – but only if she could identify an “arguable basis” for doing so.