End of Session Report 12 May 2011 – 31 August 2012

Committee: Justice

Session: 2011/2012

Date: Monday, 12 November 2012

ISBN: Only available online

Remit, powers and membership

The Committee for Justice is a Statutory Departmental Committee established in accordance with paragraphs 8 and 9 of the Belfast Agreement, Section 29 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998 and under Standing Order 48.

Statutory Committees have been established to advise and assist the appropriate Minister on the formation of policy in relation to matters within his/her responsibilities. Specifically, the Committee has power to:

  • consider and advise on departmental budgets and annual plans in the context of the overall budget allocation;
  • consider relevant subordinate legislation and take the committee stage of primary legislation;
  • call for persons and papers;
  • initiate inquires and make reports; and
  • consider and advise on any matters brought to the Committee by the Minister of Justice.

The Committee has 11 members including a Chairperson and Deputy Chairperson and a quorum of 5.

The membership of the Committee during the reporting period has been as follows:

Mr Paul Givan (Chairman)
Mr Raymond McCartney (Deputy Chairman)
Mr Sydney Anderson
Mr Stewart Dickson
Mr Tom Elliott [1]
Mr Sean Lynch
Mr Alban Maginness
Ms Jennifer McCann
Mr Patsy McGlone [2]
Mr Peter Weir
Mr Jim Wells

[1] With effect from 23 April 2012 Mr Tom Elliott replaced Mr Basil McCrea.

[2] With effect from 23 April 2012 Mr Patsy McGlone replaced Mr Colum Eastwood.

Key Activities, |Outputs and Achievements

Introduction

1. Following the establishment of the Committee for Justice in May 2011 it immediately began its work with a number of briefings from the Minister of Justice, departmental officials, NI Prison Service officials, NI Courts and Tribunals Service officials and the Chief Inspector of the Criminal Justice Inspectorate NI to gain a clear understanding of the key criminal justice priorities and issues for the coming year.

2. During the period of this report the Committee held a total of 44 meetings. One of the meetings was held in closed session during which the Committee took legal advice and discussed key issues and possible recommendations relating to its Review of Judicial Appointments. On four other occasions the Committee held a short part of the meeting in closed session - once to hear evidence from senior NI Prison Service officials on the NIPS Strategic Efficiency and Effectiveness Programme prior to its public launch and on the other occasions to discuss possible recommendations and the draft reports for its Inquiry into the Criminal Justice Services available to Victims and Witnesses of Crime and its Review of Judicial Appointments. The discussions that took place in closed session were in line with normal procedural convention.

2. The Committee held four meetings outside Parliament Buildings.  Meetings were held at the Millennium Forum in Derry/Londonderry and the Lagan Valley Island Centre in Lisburn to facilitate evidence sessions relating to the Committee’s Inquiry into the Criminal Justice Services available to Victims and Witnesses of Crime. The Committee combined these meetings with visits to Londonderry and Lisburn Courthouses to view the facilities available to victims and witnesses. Other meetings were held at the premises of the Probation Board for Northern Ireland in Antrim and Law Society House in Belfast. At both these venues the Committee took the opportunity to discuss key criminal justice issues with front line staff.

4. As part of its Inquiry into the services available to victims and witnesses the Committee also visited Laganside Courthouse and went to the West Yorkshire Witness Care Unit in Bradford to view first-hand the services and facilities that such units provide and identify likely benefits if similar Units were established in Northern Ireland. A visit to Forensic Science NI provided Committee Members with the opportunity to meet managers and staff and to view the agency at work.

Forensic Science NI visit on 24 November 2011

Primary Legislation

Criminal Justice Bill

5. Following the introduction of the Criminal Justice Bill on 25 June 2012 the Committee received a briefing on the principles of the Bill from departmental officials. The Committee subsequently agreed arrangements to seek written evidence on the Bill to assist further detailed consideration of the clauses and provisions during the committee stage of the Bill in the autumn.

Legislative Consent Motions

6. The Committee agreed to support a Legislative Consent Motion (LCM) to extend the provisions in the London Olympic Games and Paralympic Games (Amendment) Bill to increase the maximum penalty for the existing UK-wide offence of unauthorised selling of tickets for events at the 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games to £20,000 in Northern Ireland but highlighted a number of practical difficulties regarding the application of the legislation, particularly in a Northern Ireland context. A short report setting out the Committee’s deliberations and conclusions was issued to inform all Assembly Members in advance of the plenary debate. The LCM was subsequently agreed by the Assembly on 4 October 2011.

7. The Committee also agreed to support an LCM to extend the provisions in Clauses 21 and 32 of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill to Northern Ireland to allow government departments to share information in respect of an individual’s financial resources for the purpose of determining eligibility for civil and criminal legal aid, on the basis that there was a reciprocal arrangement to allow the sharing of information held by government departments in England and Wales with the Legal Services Commission in Northern Ireland. The Committee prepared a short report to help inform all Assembly Members in advance of the debate on the matter in plenary. The LCM was agreed by the Assembly on 17 October 2011.

Subordinate Legislation

Statutory Rules

8. The Committee scrutinised 26 statutory rules during the period of this report and agreed that it had no objections to the Rules. The Statutory Rules covered a diverse range of areas including legal aid for Crown Court proceedings, PSNI pensions, the enforcement of unpaid penalty notices, PSNI/PSNI Reserve Injury Benefit changes, the maximum period for Supervision and Treatment Orders, improvements to AccessNI’s operational service, the enforcement of football banning orders and bringing into operation the offence of corporate manslaughter as it applies to duties of care owed to persons in custody or detention.

9. When considering the proposal for a Statutory Rule to amend the circumstances where the court can assign two counsel to a defendant in a Crown Court case the Committee discussed the matter with the Attorney General for Northern Ireland and raised a number of issues which were accepted by the Department and resulted in the proposed Statutory Rule being substantially changed before it was laid in the Assembly. The Committee also highlighted an issue in relation to a Statutory Rule to regulate the practice and procedure of high hedge appeal proceedings and the need to specify a fee. The Department subsequently brought forward an amendment setting out the fee. The Department of Justice also amended a proposed Statutory Rule to introduce Recovery of Defence Costs Orders (RDCOs) to take account of concerns expressed by the Committee regarding the possibility of an assisted person’s dependants being evicted from the family home because of a RDCO.

Court Rules

10. Court Rules, which are frequently concerned with procedural matters and the process by which applications proceed through the courts fall within the remit of the Committee. The majority of Court Rules are made by Statutory Rules Committees and are allowed or disallowed by the Department of Justice. Rules made by the Court of Judicature Rules Committee, the Crown Court Rules Committee and the Family Proceedings Rules Committee are laid before the Assembly and subject to the negative resolution procedure. Rules made by the Magistrates’ Court Rules Committee and the County Court Rules Committee are currently not subject to any Assembly procedure.

11. During the reporting period the Committee considered and agreed a number of County Court and Magistrates’ Court draft rules in addition to those rules that were laid and subject to negative resolution procedure. The Committee also agreed proposals to consult on draft Rules dealing with costs in criminal cases in relation to Magistrates’ Courts and limiting costs for Environmental Judicial Review Applications.

Inquiries

Criminal Justice Services available to Victims and Witnesses of Crime in Northern Ireland

12. In June 2011 the Committee for Justice agreed to conduct an Inquiry into the Criminal Justice Services available to Victims and Witnesses of Crime in Northern Ireland as Members were aware of the difficulties and problems faced by victims and witnesses when they came into contact with the criminal justice system. The aim of the Inquiry was to identify the outcomes that the Department of Justice’s proposed new strategy for victims and witnesses of crime should deliver and make recommendations on the priorities and actions that needed to be included in the plan to achieve these. The Inquiry was launched at the end of September 2011 and over the next seven months the Committee received a wide range of written and oral evidence from victims and advocacy organisations, individual victims, witnesses and their families and the key criminal justice stakeholder organisations. The Committee also undertook a number of visits to view facilities for victims and witnesses as outlined earlier in this report at paragraphs 3 and 4.

Visit to West Yorkshire Witness Care Unit in Bradford on 15 March 2012

Visit to West Yorkshire Witness Care Unit in Bradford on 15 March 2012

13. The Committee made 30 wide-ranging recommendations in its Report which was agreed on 21 June 2012.  Key recommendations included the establishment of a Victim and Witness Charter providing statutory entitlements, mandatory training for all staff who interact with victims and witnesses, support for the introduction of Witness Care Units in Northern Ireland, the introduction of a minimum waiting time for witnesses and a statutory case management system to help ensure cases are dealt with as swiftly as possible. Other recommendations covered the need for better communication with victims and witnesses, accountability mechanisms to measure services provided to victims and witnesses and improvements to the physical environment available within courthouses.

14. During the debate on the report in the Assembly the Minister of Justice welcomed it and broadly endorsed the Committee’s findings and recommendations. He also gave an undertaking that the report would substantially inform the development of the proposed five-year strategy for victims and witnesses. The department subsequently responded formally to the report accepting 24 of the 30 recommendations in full and the other 6 in principle. The majority of the recommendations will be delivered in the first two years of the five-year strategy with the necessary legislative changes likely to be taken forward in the Faster, Fairer Justice Bill due to be introduced into the Assembly in early 2013.

Review of Judicial Appointments

15. Standing Order 49(A) required the Committee for Justice to undertake a review of the operation of the amendments made by Schedules 2 – 5 of the Northern Ireland Act 2009 to the process of judicial appointments and removals as set out in the Judicature (Northern Ireland) Act 1978 and the Justice (Northern Ireland) Act 2002 (as amended by the Justice (Northern Ireland) Act 2004, to report on its review by 30 April 2012 and include in its report any recommendations it had for changes to the way in which judicial office holders are appointed and removed.

16. Given the statutory requirement to report to the Assembly by 30 April 2012 the Committee had a limited amount of time to complete the Review. The Committee therefore undertook a targeted consultation with key stakeholders and confined its deliberations to a small number of issues including the appointment process for Appeal Judges, the composition of the Northern Ireland Judicial Appointments Commission (NIJAC), whether judicial appointments were reflective of the community in Northern Ireland,  the role of elected representatives in the Northern Ireland judicial appointments and removals processes and the remit of the NI Judicial Ombudsman in the investigation of complaints in relation to judicial office holders.

17. The Committee agreed its Report on the Review of Judicial Appointments on 26 April 2012.  Having considered the evidence received and noting that the Department of Justice and NIJAC were of the view that the arrangements created by the 2009 Act, while only in place for a relatively short period of time, appeared to be working satisfactorily, the Committee recommended that there should be no changes to the current process for judicial appointments and removals in Northern Ireland at this time. The Assembly subsequently endorsed the recommendation of the Committee following a debate on the report on 14 May 2012.

18. Given the restricted time available to complete the Review and the fact that a number of issues may merit further consideration, the Committee agreed to undertake a further review of the Judicial Appointments and Removals processes in due course.

Programme for Government

19. The Committee scrutinised in detail the Department of Justice’s commitments in the draft Programme for Government (PfG) 2011-2015 and recommended that improving the services to victims and witnesses of crime and reducing avoidable delay in the criminal justice system should be included as key priorities. The recommendations were accepted by the Minister of Justice. Following publication of the finalised PfG the Committee focused on the Department’s delivery plans and requested six-monthly progress reports to enable it to monitor and evaluate delivery of the key targets and objectives.

Budget Scrutiny

20. Regular briefings were scheduled on the Department of Justice budget and in particular the provisional outturn and its Savings Delivery Plans. Key issues for the Committee included the likely impact of the delivery of required savings on front line services, particularly in relation to a number of the arms-length bodies, and actions being taken to mitigate pressures, the financial position and progress with Desertcreat College and the costs associated with the Prison Service Exit Scheme and any impact on other areas of the budget. Given the high proportion of the overall budget allocated to the PSNI the Chief Constable and his senior officers attended in February 2012 to discuss financial plans, priorities and pressures.

21. The Committee also closely scrutinised the in-year Monitoring Rounds in June, October and January prior to the Department finalising and submitting its returns to the Department of Finance and Personnel. Issues the Committee paid particular attention to include the costs of the PSNI hearing loss cases, pressures on the legal aid budget and the continued availability of funding for PSNI equal pay claims.

Policy Scrutiny

22. The Committee examined numerous draft consultation papers and policy proposals on a wide range of criminal justice matters. Some of the key policy issues considered included:

Policy proposals relating to the Criminal Justice Bill

23. Prior to the introduction of the Criminal Justice Bill in June 2012, the Committee undertook pre-legislative scrutiny of policy proposals relating to DNA/ Fingerprint Retention, Sex Offender Notification requirements and two offences relating to human trafficking.

Prison Reform

24.  The Committee spent a considerable amount of time scrutinising the overall plans to implement the Prison Review recommendations and the NI Prison Service Strategic Efficiency and Effectiveness (SEE) programme to reform the Prison Service. Specific elements that were examined in detail included the Exit Scheme for prison officers, the new target operating model, revised corporate governance arrangements, development of an interim framework for the resettlement of offenders and proposals to consult on an outline prison estate strategy. This area of work will continue to feature in the Committee work programme during the next session.

Reducing Avoidable Delay in the Criminal Justice System

25.  The Committee continued to be very concerned about the length of time it takes for cases to go through the criminal justice system and took evidence on the causes of and actions being taken to address avoidable delay from Criminal Justice Inspection NI, senior departmental officials, the Director of Public Prosecutions and a senior PSNI officer on a number of occasions. The Chairman and Deputy Chairman also discussed the matter with the Lord Chief Justice. The Committee scrutinised specific proposals to encourage earlier guilty pleas and to reform committal proceedings. While generally content with the proposals the Committee suggested several changes which are under consideration. An issue that the Committee will return to during the next session is the proposed introduction of statutory time limits.  

Review of Youth Justice and Review of Access to Justice

26.  The Committee received briefings from the teams that completed the Review of Youth Justice and the Review of Access to Justice. Following consultation by the Department of Justice on the key findings and recommendations the Minister attended twice in June 2012 to discuss his response to each Review. The Committee intends to give further consideration to a number of the specific proposals arising from each review and monitor progress on the overall implementation plans over the coming months.

The Office of the Police Ombudsman for Northern Ireland

27.  In June 2011 the Committee took evidence from Mr Tony McCusker on his report into allegations of interference by Department of Justice officials in the Office of the Police Ombudsman (OPONI) and then questioned the Minister of Justice and his officials on the findings and actions to be taken to address key issues. This was followed by evidence sessions at the beginning of September 2011 with the Chief Inspector on the findings and recommendations of the Criminal Justice Inspection NI report on an Inspection into the Independence of the Office of the Police Ombudsman (OPONI) and with the then Police Ombudsman for NI, Mr Al Hutchinson, and the Minister of Justice on the key findings. Subsequently the Department of Justice produced a draft consultation document on the future operation of the Office of the Police Ombudsman which sought views on proposals to change the role, structure and powers of OPONI and on a range of issues relating to OPONI’s proposed administrative and legislative framework. Following a number of revisions to the wording and content of the draft consultation document in response to issues raised by the Committee the consultation exercise took place. The Committee will consider the results of the consultation when available and look at proposals for changes.

Sentencing Guidelines Mechanism

28.  The Committee considered policy proposals for a Sentencing Guidelines Mechanism. Whilst content that a Sentencing Guidelines Council should not be established at this time the Committee recommended that the membership of the public on the Judicial Sentencing Group needed to be increased and there needed to be a public, open, transparent selection process for the lay membership. Both recommendations were accepted by the Department of Justice and the Lord Chief Justice also indicated his support for an open, transparent selection process.

Community Safety Strategy

29.  The Committee, having considered the draft Community Safety Strategy, requested the views/comments of the other Assembly Statutory Committees given its cross-cutting nature and then referred a number of issues raised which the Department of Justice took account of when finalising the strategy.

Other Key Policy Areas

30.  Other key policy and performance areas scrutinised by the Committee during the 2011 – 12 session included:

  • Review of the NI Criminal Records Regime
  • Draft Strategic Framework for Reducing Offending
  • Policy changes to reduce fine default and improve fine enforcement
  • Policy changes to the upper age limit for jury service
  • Proposals to introduce an early removal scheme for foreign national prisoners
  • Issues of public concern following the conclusion of the R v Haddock and Others trial
  • The retention of human tissue samples by the PSNI and State Pathologist
  • Policy changes to Community Sentences
  • Proposals to extend mental capacity legislation to the criminal justice system
  • Administration of the Part-Time Police Reserve Gratuity Scheme
  • Revision of PACE Codes
  • Judicial Independence and how it impacts on Committee Members and MLAs generally with regard to making public comments.

31. The Committee also raised two issues with the Minister of Justice that it believed needed to be addressed. The first related to the need to amend the current position which does not permit the Director of Public Prosecutions to refer a sentence for a fuel laundering offence on the grounds that the sentence is unduly lenient. The Committee welcomed the Minister’s commitment to take legislative action to address this gap. The second issue concerned increasing the timescale within which an application must be made to the court regarding an unduly lenient sentence from 28 days to 6 weeks. The Minister gave an undertaking to consider this matter further and come back to the Committee with his position in due course.

EU Matters

32. The Committee for Justice has scrutinised 12 EU legislative proposals requiring a UK opt-in decision under Protocol 19 and a range of consultations and plans related to the implementation of other EU Directives/Conventions. Of particular interest to the Committee were the proposals on the legislative and other changes required as a consequence of the UK Government’s decision to opt-in to the EU Directive on Human Trafficking (2011/36/EU). The Committee agreed two new offences for inclusion in the Criminal Justice Bill and continues to consider what other areas may need to be covered in legislation. During the second stage of the Bill, when pressed by Members, the Minister gave a commitment that, if it was possible to find ways of strengthening the Bill in relation to human trafficking whilst complying with its overall principles, he would be prepared to consider them.

Engagement - Informal meetings/events

33. In addition to a large number of informal meetings with criminal justice stakeholder and interest groups and meetings with Lord Shutt, the Liberal Democrat Spokesman for Northern Ireland in the House of Lords and the Welsh Assembly Constitutional and Legislative Affairs Committee, the Chairman, Deputy Chairman and Members of the Committee participated in a range of justice related conferences and events including:

  • A joint Victim Support and NSPCC seminar entitled “Victim’s Voices”
  • Sponsoring the launch of two NSPCC policy research papers relating to crime victims
  • The Criminal Justice Inspection Conference on ‘The future of victim and witness care: from aspiration to reality’
  • The Attorney General’s Living Law Programme
  • The Belfast Solicitors’ Association CPD Event
  • A Colloquium on “speeding up justice” hosted by the Attorney General
  • A seminar with News Editors on ‘Bringing Open Justice to a new level’.

34. The Chairman and Deputy Chairman also held meetings with the Minister of Justice, the Lord Chief Justice, the Attorney General for Northern Ireland, the newly appointed Director of Public Prosecutions and the newly appointed Director of the NI Prison Service to discuss key criminal justice issues and priorities.

Key Priorities for the Next Session

35. The key priorities for the Committee in the next session will include:

  • The Committee Stage of the Criminal Justice Bill
  • On-going scrutiny of policy proposals for inclusion in the Faster Fairer Justice Bill and in due course the Committee Stage of the Bill
  • Policy proposals for the Mental Capacity Bill
  • The Department’s draft five-year strategy for victims and witnesses of crime and the implementation of the Committee Inquiry recommendations
  • Implementation of the Prison Review and NIPS Strategic Efficiency and Effectiveness Programme including the NIPS Estate strategy
  • Addressing avoidable delay in the criminal justice system including proposals to reform committal proceedings, encourage earlier guilty pleas and introduce Statutory Time Limits
  • Implementation plans for the Review of Access to Justice and Youth Justice Review
  • Further reform of criminal legal aid and reform of financial eligibility for civil legal aid
  • Future Operation of the Office of the Police Ombudsman for NI
  • Tribunal Reform
  • Amendments to Firearms legislation and fees
  • Future Regulation of the Private Security Industry
  • Governance and Accountability arrangements for the Public Prosecution Service
  • Implementation of the Community Safety Strategy
  • Review of the NI Courts Estate
  • Strategic Framework for Reducing Offending.

ANNEX A

Committee for Justice

Expenditure for the period 12 May 2011 – 31 August 2012

Budget area

Details

Expenditure

Committee Travel - committee members and staff travel and subsistence in relation to visits and meetings outside Parliament Buildings

Includes the cost of committee visits to:

  • Forensic Science Northern Ireland
  • Laganside Courthouse
  • West Yorkshire Witness Care Unit, Bradford
  • Research visit to Hull, England on behalf of the Committee for Justice to view the juvenile justice system

and 4 meetings held outside Parliament Buildings

£2728.31

Printing of committee reports

Includes the cost of committee reports on the:

  • Inquiry into Criminal Justice Services available to Victims and Witnesses of Crime (NIA 31/11-15)
  • Review of Judicial Appointments in Northern Ireland (NIA 38/11-15)

£1863.44

Advertising – the cost of public notices relating to committee inquiries, the committee stage of Bills and meetings held outside Parliament Buildings

Includes the cost of public notices in relation to the:

  • Inquiry into Criminal Justice Services available to Victims and Witnesses of Crime; and
  • Committee Stage of the Criminal Justice Bill

£2707.21 

General expenses

 

Cost of refreshments for committee meetings, working lunches, seminars, room hire, witness expenses and gifts provided by the committee during visits

£3542.09

Total Expenditure

£10841.05

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