Draft opens door to vital reforms

by David Granville

THE PUBLICATION in mid-November of draft legislation aimed at reforming the criminal justice system in the six counties has received a mixed reception from political parties and human rights campaigners in the six counties.

The appearance of the draft Justice (Northern Ireland) Bill and review implementation plan 20 months after the recommendations of Criminal justice review, established in June 1998 under the terms of the Good Friday agreement, marks the beginning of a four-week consultation period. The review group comprised senior civil servants, independent assessors and criminal-justice experts.

Announcing the publication of the government's response to the Criminal Justice Review report, British parliamentary under-secretary of state Des Browne claimed that the proposed changes would put human rights, respect for victims, fairness, impartiality, transparency and accountability at the heart of the new system.

It was not clear whether ministers' reference to 'victims' included individuals and families subjected to the violence meted out by British state forces throughout the conflict.

Under the plan, responsibility for administering the criminal justice system in the six counties will be transferred to the Stormont assembly following new elections in 2003. However, northern secretary John Reid immediately made it clear the transfer date is only a 'target' and that the transfer of powers from Westminster could be delayed depending on "security and other relevant considerations".

No-jury Diplock courts are set to remain and Whitehall officials have also stressed that ëanti-terroristí policing and the combating of organised crime will remain under Westminster control.

The question now is how far whatever finally emerges corresponds to the near-300 recommendations contained in the review report which called for the creation of a criminal justice system based on openness, accountability, human rights and equality.

The government's main proposals include:

  • the appointment a lord chief justice to replace the lord chancellor as the head of the judiciary in the six counties;
  • a new independent prosecution service;
  • a judicial appointment commission to hire and fire judges;
  • the appointment of an attorney general for the six counties along with a chief inspector of criminal justice and a Northern Ireland law commission;
  • the oath of allegiance to the Queen for newly-appointed judges to be replaced by an oath to the office to which they are appointed;
  • all crown symbols to be removed from the inside of court buildings -- symbols located on the outside of existing court buildings will remain.

The proposals also include changes to the youth justice system, including the introduction of a restorative justice system, based on the New Zealand model.

Both the SDLP and Sinn Féin have responded by giving the government plans a cautious welcome. Now they, along with all other interested parties, will be studying the proposals in depth before providing detailed responses.

With the Good Friday agreement continually under threat from opponents of change and equality, optimism it is understandable that any optimism is likely to be tempered by past experience and will go remain so until a full set of reforms finally make it on to the statute book.

Sinn Féin chairperson and spokesperson on justice issues Mitchel McLaughlin welcomed the publication of the draft legislation but warned that "the litmus test of the British government response and draft legislation will be whether it represents a transformation of the criminal justice system that will gain nationalist support and allegiance".

SDLP justice spokesperson Alex Attwood said that the proposals marked a further development of the Belfast agreement. "We will take particular interest in the details of the judicial appointments commission, the independent prosecution service, a neutral working environment, juvenile justice and other elements essential to a transformed criminal justice system," he said.

Unionists were divided on the plans with the UUP welcoming moves to devolve policing and criminal justice to the assembly while the DUP only saw them as a further attempt to water-down Northern Ireland's 'Britishness' (sic) .

The cautious approach by nationalists and republicans is understandable. As with the Patten recommendations, there is no guarantee that the wide-ranging reforms proposed by the criminal review will not be watered down at unionist insistence -- accompanied by threats to collapse the peace process.

However, the Committee on the Administration of Justice (CAJ), one of the leading independent human-rights groups in the six counties, has already raised serious concerns about the government's plans. The group described the draft Justice (Northern Ireland) Bill and the review implementation plan as "disappointing and unlikely to deliver the level of change envisaged by the Criminal Justice Review".

"There is no independent oversight of the recommendations of the review nor are there timescales within which changes will occur," said CAJ legal officer Paul Mageean. Once again we see the process of promised change occurring at the discretion of the very institutions subject to the change."

The CAJ also criticised the four-weeks consultation period as "woefully inadequate" as it failed even to comply with the Northern Ireland Officeís own equality scheme which promises a consultation period of "at least eight weeks" for such legislation and plans.

December 2001/January 2002

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This document was last modified by David Granville on 2006-09-12 11:30:58.
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