Session: 2012/2013

Date: 19 November 2013

ISBN: Only available online

Committee: Justice

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 Assembly Standing Order 48.

The Committee has a scrutiny, policy development and consultation role with respect to the Department of Justice (DoJ) and has a role in the initiation of legislation.

The Committee has the 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 Stewart Dickson

Mr Alex Easton 1

Mr Tom Elliott

Mr William Humphrey 2

Mr Sean Lynch

Mr Alban Maginness

Ms Rosie McCorley 3

Mr Patsy McGlone

Mr Jim Wells

1 With effect from 4 October 2012 Mr Alex Easton replaced Mr Sydney Anderson

2 With effect from 4 October 2012 Mr William Humphrey replaced Mr Peter Weir

3 With effect from 13 September 2012 Ms Rosie McCorley replaced Ms Jennifer McCann

Overview

1. During the Assembly session 2012-13 the Committee for Justice completed a substantial work programme during which it scrutinised a wide range of criminal justice issues including those referred to it by the Department of Justice and others of public interest. The Committee also completed the Committee Stage of the Criminal Justice Bill; considered a large number of statutory rules and undertook follow-up work in relation to its Inquiry into the Criminal Justice Services available to Victims and Witnesses of Crime in Northern Ireland to ensure the recommendations were fully implemented.

2. Details of Committee expenditure during this reporting period are included at Annex A.

Meetings

3. The Committee held 37 meetings, two of which took place outside Parliament Buildings at the Woodlands Juvenile Justice Centre in Bangor and HM Prison Magilligan in Limavady. On both occasions the Committee took the opportunity to tour the facilities and meet senior managers, staff and inmates. One meeting was held entirely in closed session and on eight other occasions a short part of the meeting was held in closed session. The closed sessions were scheduled in accordance with normal procedural convention to enable the Committee to take privileged legal advice on a range of issues; to take advice on and discuss a Committee amendment to the Criminal Justice Bill and to hear part of the evidence from NI Prison Service officials on new search technology which was classified for security and commercial in confidence reasons.

4. Of particular note was the attendance of the Lord Chief Justice of Northern Ireland, the Rt Hon Sir Declan Morgan, at the meeting on 2 May 2013 when he gave evidence to the Committee on a range of issues including; the work of his sentencing group; judicial appointments and increasing the pool of women candidates; reducing avoidable delay in the Crown Court and Magistrates’ Courts; and increasing understanding of the role of the judiciary. The Lord Chief Justice and the Committee agreed that he would attend on an annual basis to discuss issues of mutual interest.

Visits

5. In addition to the tours of Woodlands Juvenile Justice Centre and HM Prison Magilligan, Members of the Committee have visited:

  • The Young Offenders’ Centre at Hydebank Wood to observe the Full Body Imaging Scanner in operation which informed the Committee’s consideration of the evaluation of the pilot project.
  • The Sexual Assault Referral Centre at the Rowan, Antrim which provided an opportunity to view the new facilities and meet representatives of the key partner organisations including the PSNI to discuss the services now available to victims of a sexual assault.
  • The Public Prosecution Service Headquarters and the new Witness Care Unit which provided an opportunity for a briefing on the work of the Public Prosecution Service and the progress being made to improve the services for victims and witnesses of crime through the roll-out of Witness Care Units.

6. The Committee also undertook a fact-finding visit to England in March 2013 during which it met with the Chairman and Members of the Westminster Justice Committee to discuss issues of mutual interest including; prison reform and youth justice; visited the Supreme Court and met with the President, Lord Neuberger, and Lord Hope and Lord Kerr to discuss the judicial system and the role and remit of the Supreme Court including cases relevant to Northern Ireland; and visited HM Prison Woodhill, a Category A prison which serves both Crown and Magistrates’ Courts, to view the facilities and meet with the Prison Governor and senior managers to discuss a range of issues relevant to the Prison Reform Programme in Northern Ireland.

 

Members of the Justice Committee meet with Lord Hope and Lord Kerr, Justices of the Supreme Court.

Primary Legislation

Criminal Justice Bill

7. The Criminal Justice Bill provided for changes to the law on sex offender notification requirements; the introduction of two new offences aimed at preventing and combating human trafficking and protecting its victims; and the establishment of a new legislative framework for the retention of fingerprints and DNA samples and profiles.

8. The Committee stage of the Bill began on 3 July 2012, enabling the Committee to invite written evidence over the summer period and commence oral evidence sessions and detailed consideration of the clauses and provisions of the Bill in September 2012. The Committee received 27 written submissions, 21 of which provided substantive commentary on the three policy areas covered in the Bill, and took oral evidence from 8 organisations and from Department of Justice officials.

9. The written and oral evidence raised a number of issues and concerns, particularly in relation to the human trafficking clauses and the proposed new Fingerprint and DNA Retention Framework, which the Committee covered in detail in its report on the Criminal Justice Bill which was published in December 2012 and is available online at http://www.niassembly.gov.uk/Assembly-Business/Committees/Justice/Reports/Report-on-the-Criminal-Justice-Bill--NIA1011-15/.

10. Whilst the Committee supported the introduction of the two new human trafficking offences in the Bill, it recommended that the Minister of Justice give consideration to the term of imprisonment that could be handed down to someone convicted of human trafficking. The Committee was concerned about the possibility that, under the Bill as drafted, conviction of human trafficking offences would attract a sentence of less than six months, or a fine, and felt very strongly that this did not reflect the gravity of the offences. In response to the Committee’s concerns, the Minister of Justice brought forward amendments at Consideration Stage of the Bill to make human trafficking offences indictable only, which mean that offences will be heard in the Crown Court, where the maximum term of imprisonment is 14 years and these were supported by the Assembly. The Committee also expressed the view that it wished to see the strongest possible legislation introduced in Northern Ireland in relation to human trafficking and indicated that it would give consideration to making further legislative provision in this area in the context of a Private Members’ Bill due to be brought forward by Lord Morrow MLA.

11. The Bill also provided an opportunity for the Committee to abolish what it believed to be the archaic offence of scandalising the court. The Committee brought forward amendments at Consideration Stage of the Bill to make provision for the repeal of the offence and received the support of the Assembly.

Mental Capacity Bill

12. In February 2012 the Department of Justice and the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety agreed to jointly bring forward a Mental Capacity Bill which will apply to the civil and criminal population. In May 2012 the Justice and Health Ministers met with the Chairpersons and Deputy Chairpersons of both the Justice and Health Committees to discuss options for scrutiny of the Bill.

13. In January 2013, after careful consideration, the Committee for Justice and the Committee for Health, Social Services and Public Safety agreed that an ad hoc joint committee should be established to undertake scrutiny of the Bill. The membership of the ad hoc joint committee would be drawn from members of both committees and should be formed once the results of the consultation on the draft Bill were available for consideration which was likely to be in 2014.

14. The Justice Committee subsequently received further information in relation to the proposed introduction of the Bill and expressed concern regarding delays in the timetable in relation to the justice provisions. The Committee intends to keep a ‘watching brief’ on progress in relation to this Bill.

Financial Provisions Bill

15. This Bill, which the Committee for Finance and Personnel is taking the lead on, adjusts statutory limits and addresses other routine financial matters for various departments including the Department of Justice.

16. In June 2013 the Justice Committee considered the relevant justice related provisions that would place the Northern Ireland Police Fund and the Police Rehabilitation and Training Trust on a statutory footing and revise the method used for changing the interest paid to clients of the Court Funds Office (CFO) and was content with the proposed changes.

Subordinate Legislation

Statutory Rules

17. The Committee considered 24 statutory rules during the period of this report. One rule relating to the appointment of designated organisations to Policing and Community Safety Partnerships, was subject to the draft affirmative procedure and the Committee recommended that it be affirmed by the Assembly. The other rules were subject to the negative resolution procedure and, following scrutiny, the Committee agreed that it had no objections to the rules.

18. The Statutory Rules covered a diverse range of areas including; safeguarding arrangements for people working with children or vulnerable groups; enhancement of notification arrangements for sex offenders; changes to support the operation of the 2007 Hague Convention on the international recovery of child support and other forms of family maintenance; provisions for visitors’ firearms permits, revisions to PACE Codes; jury service forms; PSNI pensions; and provisions to ensure the public has access to a court procedure to challenge decisions on environmental matters which is not prohibitively expensive.

19. Where necessary the Committee sought additional information and clarification from the Department of Justice and other key stakeholders before reaching a decision. For example with regard to the County Courts (Financial Limits) Order to increase the civil jurisdiction of the County Court and the general jurisdiction of district judges in the County Courts, the Committee sought additional information on the resource implications and the capacity of the County Courts to manage the additional workload before agreeing that it had no objection to the proposed rule.

20. Three of the statutory rules brought into operation guidance prepared by the Attorney General for Northern Ireland under Section 8(1) of the Justice (Northern Ireland) Act 2009 for Forensic Science Northern Ireland (FSNI) and the State Pathologist’s Department on the exercise of their functions in a manner consistent with international human rights standards and for named criminal justice organisations in relation to the protection of the right to life to assist them in discharging their duty to protect the lives of those in their employment against the criminal acts of third parties. The Committee consulted with the Chief Executive of FSNI, the State Pathologist, the PSNI and the Minister of Justice on the draft guidance prior to the introduction of the statutory rules.

Court Rules

21. 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.

22. The Justice Committee considered and agreed that it was content with 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 rules covered a range of issues including time limits for compromise agreements in Industrial Tribunals and Fair Employment Tribunals and procedures for the use of intermediaries in criminal proceedings.

23. On 21 March 2013 the Committee considered options to take forward amendments to the court rule making procedures to ensure that all rules are subject to the same level of Assembly scrutiny as recommended by the first Justice Committee when considering the Justice Bill 2010 (now the Justice Act (Northern Ireland) 2011). The Committee agreed that it was content for provision to amend the Court Rule making procedures to be included in the Northern Ireland (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill and noted that this would require a Legislative Consent Motion.

Inquiries

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

24. In September 2012 the Committee considered a formal response from the Minister of Justice to the report on its Inquiry into the Criminal Justice Services available to Victims and Witnesses of Crime in Northern Ireland http://www.niassembly.gov.uk/Documents/Justice/7890.pdf . The Committee was pleased to note that twenty-four of the thirty recommendations contained in its report, including the key ones relating to the establishment of a Victim and Witness Charter providing statutory entitlements and a statutory case management system to help ensure cases are dealt with as swiftly as possible, had been accepted in full by the Minister of Justice with the other six recommendations accepted in principle. All would be reflected in the Department’s proposed new five-year Strategy for Victims and Witnesses.

25. The Committee subsequently considered the draft Strategy before it went out to public consultation in October 2012 and the final revised version of the Strategy and draft action plan in March 2013. Having considered the final version of the Strategy and the draft action plan for 2013 – 2015 the Committee was of the view that its Inquiry recommendation to introduce a maximum waiting time for witnesses had not been adequately addressed and it should not be left until 2016 – 2018 for implementation. The Committee therefore advised the Department that it wished to see this recommendation properly implemented.

26. The Minister of Justice responded to the Committee’s concerns by proposing to put in place standards for waiting times for witnesses on an administrative basis in years 1 and 2 of the Strategy (2013 – 2015) and develop a bespoke monitoring system to assess performance, with the standards to be included in the Statutory Witness Charter which would be introduced in years 3 to 5 of the Strategy. The Committee was content with this revised approach and also recommended that performance figures for each court in relation to witness waiting times should be published.

27. A number of Committee Members attended the launch of the new Victims and Witnesses Strategy, ‘Making a Difference http://www.dojni.gov.uk/victims-strategy-2013-15.htm in June 2013 and the Committee intends to review progress on the implementation of the Strategy and action plan on a six-monthly basis.

28. The Committee has also considered a range of policy proposals from the Department to deliver its Inquiry recommendations including options to place case management on a statutory basis and proposals to formalise the use of Victim Personal Statements.

Budget Scrutiny

29. The Committee held five evidence sessions on budgetary matters covering the provisional outturn figures, the allocation of monies across the various departmental functions, achievement of savings delivery plans, the financial forecasting performance data for 2012/13 and each of the monitoring rounds in June, October and January prior to the Department finalising its return to the Department of Finance and Personnel.

30. Key areas the Committee concentrated on included legal aid funding pressures and in particular the rise in civil legal aid costs, the PSNI budget and associated pressures, the costs relating to the hosting of the G8 summit, the impact of the delivery of savings on the provision of front line services and the funding of the NI Prison Service Exit Scheme.

31. Of particular concern to the Committee was progress with and delivery of the Desertcreat Training College capital project. Two separate evidence sessions were held with key officials from the PSNI, the Department of Justice and the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety to discuss problems with cost overruns, governance arrangements, additional funding requirements and slippages in the timetable for completion of the project.

Policy Scrutiny

32. The Committee scrutinised numerous draft consultation papers and policy proposals covering the wide remit of the Department of Justice and requested further information and clarification where necessary. Some of the key policy issues the Committee focused on are outlined below:

Policy proposals relating to the Faster, Fairer Justice Bill

33. The Committee undertook pre-legislative scrutiny of a range of policy proposals due to be included in the Faster, Fairer Justice Bill including proposals to extend the use of live links in criminal and related proceedings, proposals for Violent Offender Orders, proposals for the use of live links in weekend courts and a revised approach in relation to community sentences following concerns raised by some Committee Members.

34. When considering proposals to encourage earlier guilty pleas the Committee recommended that a requirement should be placed on the defence team to inform their client of the benefits of an early guilty plea and to advise the court that this had been complied with. The Minister of Justice accepted the suggestion and indicated that he would include provision for a statutory duty to this effect in the Bill.

Criminal and Civil Legal Aid Reform

35. The Committee continued to spend a considerable amount of time scrutinising a range of departmental consultations and proposals for further reform of both criminal and civil legal aid. Areas covered included legally aided representation in the civil and family courts, an alternative approach to money damages cases, a review of the 2011 Crown Court fees, revised fees for Magistrates’ Courts cases, a review of financial eligibility for civil and criminal legal aid and a review of levels of remuneration in civil legal aid cases. The Committee took evidence from departmental officials on a range of the proposals and continued its on-going dialogue with the legal profession representatives to assist its scrutiny of each individual proposal.

36. The Committee also requested the views of key stakeholders on the likely implications/impact of the whole package of proposed changes to assist its consideration of the overall reform package in a holistic manner.

Amendments to Firearms Licencing Fees and Legislation

37. The Committee considered proposals to increase firearms licensing fees and make other miscellaneous amendments to firearms legislation. Given the size of the increase in fees the Committee invited evidence from the main firearms and sporting stakeholder organisations. This evidence raised a number of issues and concerns regarding the proposed fee increases, other changes and lines of communication between PSNI Firearms Branch and the firearms organisations which the Committee referred to the Department for further information and clarification. Having considered the response from the Department the Committee decided in June 2013 that it was not in a position to support the proposed fee increases and other changes at that time and that it wished to engage further with the Department and the stakeholders on the matter.

Future Operation of the Office of the Police Ombudsman for Northern Ireland

38. In April 2013 the Committee took evidence from the Chief Inspector and the Police Ombudsman for Northern Ireland on the findings of the Criminal Justice Inspection Follow-Up Report on the Independence of the Office of the Police Ombudsman and the recommencement of historical investigations by that office.

39. The Minister of Justice subsequently attended to outline a proposed new powers package for the Police Ombudsman’s Office which included a number of legislative proposals and some administrative measures. The Committee agreed to consider the matter further when the results of a consultation on the proposals were available.

Rationalisation of the Functions of the Office of the NI Judicial Appointments Ombudsman

40. An area of interest to the Committee was the proposals for rationalisation of the functions of the Office of the NI Judicial Appointments Ombudsman. Having considered the options and discussed the matter with the NI Judicial Appointments Ombudsman the Committee agreed to the proposal to retain the current duties and powers of the Ombudsman but to combine the role with that of the proposed Public Services Ombudsman.

Performance Scrutiny

The Marie Stopes Private Clinic in Belfast

41. Given the public interest in and concerns raised regarding the opening of a Marie Stopes Private Clinic in Belfast the Committee agreed to scrutinise how the clinic would comply with the criminal law relating to abortion in Northern Ireland.

42. Having received briefings on the criminal law relating to abortion in Northern Ireland and the relevant legislation the Committee took oral evidence from representatives of Marie Stopes International and the Belfast Clinic regarding the delivery of services provided by the clinic and how it was complying with the criminal law in relation to abortion in Northern Ireland.

43. The Committee subsequently received advice on options to legislate to prevent private clinics carrying out abortive procedures in Northern Ireland and restrict such procedures to National Health Service facilities.

Prison Reform

44. The Committee continued to closely monitor progress to deliver the Prison Reform Programme and received regular up-date briefings from NI Prison Service officials on the implementation of the Prison Review recommendations including the corporate governance arrangements, the prison estates strategy, the exit scheme, the assessment and testing of new search technology, the target operating model and related issues, staff recruitment and stakeholder engagement.

45. The Committee took evidence from the Prison Officers’ Association and the Independent Members of the Prison Service Review Group in May 2013 following which the Committee raised a number of issues and concerns regarding the delivery of the reform programme with the Department and the Prison Service.

Reducing avoidable delay in the criminal justice system

46. The Committee took evidence from departmental officials on performance in relation to the length of time it takes for cases to go through the criminal justice system, the identification of key blockages, initiatives to address the problems and the early findings from the Youth Engagement pilot project. The Committee again expressed disappointment at the lack of progress being made both overall and particularly in some types of cases were performance had declined despite a number of measures having been implemented to improve the system. The Committee intends to continue monitoring performance in this area.

EU Matters

47. In February 2013 the Committee for Justice considered the 2013 European Commission work programme and agreed its EU priorities for the year ahead which covered a number of legislative and non-legislative proposals including Special Safeguards in Criminal Proceedings for Suspected or Accused Persons who are Vulnerable, a Framework for Administrative Measures for the Freezing of Funds, Financial Assets and Economic Gains of Persons and Entities Suspected of Terrorist Activities inside the EU, proposals for Fighting Money Laundering and Service in the Member States of Judicial and Extra Judicial documents in civil and commercial matters.

48. The Committee also scrutinised a number of other EU legislative proposals requiring a UK opt-in decision including a proposal to amend the Annexes to the EU’s approval of the 2007 Hague Convention on the International Recovery of Child Support and other Forms of Family Maintenance and a draft directive on protection of the Euro and other currencies against counterfeiting by criminal law and replacing Council Framework Decision 2000/383/JHA.

49. Of particular interest to the Committee was the EU Directive on Human Trafficking and the measures the Department intended to take to implement it and the UK 2014 Block Opt-Out decision for Pre-Lisbon Police and Criminal Justice measures. The Committee noted the unique position of Northern Ireland as the only region within the United Kingdom to share a land border with another Member State and was concerned about the likely effect of an opt-out decision, particularly in relation to the potential loss of the European Arrest Warrant.

Engagement – Informal Meetings/Events

50. The Committee continued its engagement with a wide range of criminal justice stakeholders and interest groups through informal meetings and events, this provided Members with the opportunity to discuss and explore criminal justice policies and issues.

51. The Committee also sponsored the launch of the Annual Report on the Public Protection Arrangements in Northern Ireland in Parliament Buildings on 23 October 2012 and participated in a lunch with the Minister of the Interior of the Republic of Yemen and senior Yemeni leaders.

52. During the session the Chairman and Deputy Chairman held meetings with the Minister of Justice, the Lord Chief Justice, the Chairman and Deputy Chairman of the NI Policing Board, the Chief Inspector of Criminal Justice Inspection NI and the Chairperson and Chief Executive of the NI Probation Board to discuss key criminal justice priorities. They also participated in the Attorney General’s Living Law Programme.

Key Priorities for Next Session

53. The Committee’s key priorities for the next session include:

  • The Human Trafficking and Exploitation (Further Provisions and Support for Victims) Bill
  • The Legal Services Bill
  • A further Bill to be introduced by the Department of Justice with the working title of “Faster, Fairer Justice Bill”
  • The Legal Aid Reform programme and related subordinate legislation
  • The NI Prison Service Reform Programme
  • Amendments to Firearms Fees and legislation
  • Implementation of the Victims and Witnesses Strategy
  • The Desertcreat Training College capital project
  • Tribunal Reform
  • The Future Regulation of the Private Security Industry
  • Implementation of the Access to Justice and Youth Justice Reviews
  • Work to reduce avoidable delay in the criminal justice system
  • Reform of the Office of the Police Ombudsman for Northern Ireland

54. The Committee will also give consideration to the topic for its next Inquiry.

ANNEX A

Committee for Justice

Expenditure for the period 1 September 2012 – 31 August 2013

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 /meetings to:

  • England to visit the Justice Committee at Westminster, the Supreme Court and HM Prison Woodhill
  • HM Prison Magilligan, Limavady
  • Public Prosecution Service Witness Care Unit, Belfast
  • Rowan Sexual Assault Referral Centre, Antrim
  • Woodlands Juvenile Justice Centre, Bangor

Total cost

£6,995.66

Printing of committee reports

The cost of the Committee Report and CD Roms on the Criminal Justice Bill

Total cost

£1,837.55

General expenses

Cost of refreshments for Committee meetings, seminars, room hire, witness expenses and gifts provided by the Committee during visits.

Total cost

£2,493.46

Total Expenditure

£11,326.67

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