Official Report (Hansard)

Session: 2007/2008

Date: 21 May 2008

COMMITTEE FOR FINANCE AND PERSONNEL

OFFICIAL REPORT
(Hansard)

Draft Presumption of Death Bill

21 May 2008

Members present for all or part of the proceedings:

Mr Mitchel McLaughlin (Chairperson)
Mr Roy Beggs
Dr Stephen Farry 
Mr Simon Hamilton
Ms Jennifer McCann
Mr Adrian McQuillan
Mr Peter Weir

Witnesses:

Mr Neil Lambe ) Departmental Solicitor’s Office
Mr Oswyn Paulin ) Government Legal Service

The Chairperson (Mr McLaughlin):

The Committee welcomes Mr Oswyn Paulin, the departmental solicitor and the head of the Government Legal Service, and Mr Neil Lambe, the principal legal officer in the civil law reform division of the Departmental Solicitor’s Office, to discuss the draft presumption of death Bill.

The Committee was briefed on 12 September 2007 on the Department of Finance and Personnel’s proposal to introduce legislation to address legal issues surrounding missing persons in Northern Ireland, with particular reference to obtaining death certificates. The issues raised by members at that meeting have been addressed in the Department’s paper. The Department has since undertaken a consultation on the draft Bill, which ended in mid-April. Today’s briefing is to update members on the outcome of the consultation before the Bill is introduced to the Assembly. Our information is that the Bill will be introduced just before the summer recess, with the Committee Stage due in late September 2008.

Paragraph 54 of the report on the draft presumption of death Bill states:

"Officials are currently considering a number of changes to the draft Bill to reflect the comments received during the consultation process."

I invite the officials to make their presentation, which will detail the progress on the changes being considered. As the Department is seeking legal advice, it may be helpful to consider a further briefing before the Bill is introduced to the Assembly.

Mr Oswyn Paulin (Government Legal Service):

The Department published the draft presumption of death Bill for consultation on 23 January 2008, and the consultation period ran for 12 weeks to 15 April. Seven written responses were received, and the views expressed are summarised in the consultation report that has been provided to the Committee. A further response has been received from the Association of British Insurers.

The response rate was poor. However, that is not surprising, given that the Bill is technical in nature and has an immediate effect on a very small number of people who are directly affected by the issues that arise when a person goes missing.

During the consultation, officials met several of the families of the disappeared to discuss their concerns. The document that has been provided to the Committee summarises the response to the January consultation, including the views of some of the families of the disappeared. It also highlights the attention that the subject of missing persons is receiving from the Council of Europe and the Law Reform Commission of Ireland.

Officials have been considering a small number of changes to the draft Bill that take the views of consultees into account and would effect other minor changes. The changes that the Department wants to make have yet to be approved by the Executive. The main changes involve: giving close relatives of the missing person greater standing to have an application made by them considered by the High Court; conferral on the Department of the power to alter the time periods referred to in clauses 1, 2 and 5; and giving the High Court a greater degree of discretion in its ability to make variation Orders.

Officials are continuing their discussions with colleagues on the feasibility of including a new disclosure of information provision. We are also working with the Association of British Insurers to consider the insurance provisions in clause 7 of the draft Bill. We are due to meet a representative of the insurance industry next week.

A revised Bill will be considered by the Executive Committee in June. Subject to their approval, we aim to introduce that Bill in the Assembly just before the summer recess. Officials will give evidence to the Committee again towards the end of June, and a pre-introduction briefing, a copy of the Bill and the explanatory and financial memorandum will be provided to members.

Mr Weir:

At first sight, your list of consultees seems extraordinarily long. Given that you received only a handful of responses, is that the usual list of consultees, or was it lengthened?

Mr Neil Lambe (Departmental Solicitor’s Office):

The majority of those consultees are either on the Department of Finance and Personnel’s equality list — and, therefore, must receive a copy of all departmental publications — or on the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister’s list of organisations that must receive a copy of any draft Bill that is published for consultation. There is also a core list of consultees that comprises individuals and organisations that the civil law reform division routinely includes in its consultations — for example, individual solicitors or solicitors’ associations.

Mr Weir:

Is it fair to conclude that the limited number of respondents suggests that, although specific changes will have to be refined, consultees did not seem perturbed by the general contents of the draft Bill?

Mr Lambe:

That is a very charitable conclusion to draw. There was little to criticise in the draft Bill, and those who commented on details did not say that it is on the wrong track.

It gives me confidence that we have modelled the draft Bill on equivalent Scottish legislation, which has been operating for some 30 years. It is likely, therefore, that there are no fundamental problems with the draft Bill.

The Chairperson:

As with the consultees, the Committee does not have a detailed response for you at the moment. As your work progresses, and before the Bill is introduced to the Assembly, there might be some value in your providing the Committee with a quick update, because we will have to give our views to the Department on the draft Bill’s development. We will consider that and write to you accordingly.

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