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Committee for Justice
END OF SESSION/LEGACY REPORT
April 2010 to March 2011
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:
The Committee has 11 members including a Chairperson and Deputy Chairperson and a quorum of 5. The membership of the Committee since 13 April 2010 has been as follows:
Lord Morrow (Chairman)
1. With effect from 24 May 2010 Mr Conall McDevitt replaced Mrs Dolores Kelly.
Following the devolution of policing and justice functions and the appointment of Mr David Ford MLA as Minister of Justice, the Committee for Justice was established on 12 April 2010.
The Committee is a statutory committee with a scrutiny, policy development and consultation role with respect to the Department of Justice. It also plays a key role in the consideration and development of justice related legislation.
Since the establishment of the Committee it has held 42 meetings in Parliament Buildings. One of these meetings was held in closed session to discuss the murder of Mr Bobby Moffett and the on-going security situation with the Minister of Justice and his officials. The Committee also went into closed session for short periods of time during 2 other meetings to consider legal advice and to briefly discuss a departmental policy proposal in relation to legal aid funding.
The Committee held two joint concurrent meetings with the Committee for Health, Social Services and Public Safety to take evidence from the Minister of Justice and the Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety on issues of a cross-cutting nature arising from the McDermott case.
During the period of this report the Committee undertook visits to H M Prison Maghaberry, Hydebank Wood Young Offenders Centre and Prison, Probation Board Headquarters and the Historical Enquiries Team Headquarters. The visits provided Committee Members with the opportunity to meet managers and staff from the organisations and also prisoners during the visits to Maghaberry and the YOC and to discuss a wide range of issues relating to the justice system.
The Committee for Justice visit to the Historical Enquiries Team Headquarters.
Key Activities, Outputs and Achievements
At its first meeting on 22 April 2010 the Committee received a briefing from the Minister of Justice and the Permanent Secretary to establish the key issues and priorities for the Department of Justice over the coming year. The Committee then undertook a series of background information briefings to gain a clear understanding of the role and remit of the Department of Justice and its key agencies, the NI Prison Service and the NI Courts and Tribunals Service. In addition, the Committee met with, and received briefings from:
The Committee identified tackling avoidable delay in the criminal justice system; improving services for victims; issues relating to the Prison Service including the very high cost per prisoner place; and Legal Aid reform as its priorities.
Primary Legislation – the Justice Bill
During the period of this report the work of the Committee was dominated by the Justice Bill, which when introduced into the Assembly, consisted of 108 clauses and 7 schedules covering a diverse range of policy areas.
While the Committee supported the broad principles of the Bill, particularly those that provided further support to victims and improved services for vulnerable and intimidated witnesses, as a result of detailed scrutiny the Committee recommended a range of key amendments. These covered the payment of expenses to members of Policing and Community Safety Partnerships (PCSPs); a reduction in the time period around which powers introduced in the sporting provisions of the Bill would apply to regulated matches; provided clarity around the definition of missile throwing at regulated matches; ensured that a small number of designated organisations would be represented on all PCSPs; provided for the Chair of the PCSP to always be an elected member; and provided clarity around the Attorney General’s nominated representative on the Crown Court Rules Committee and the Court of Judicature Rules Committee.
The Committee also agreed to recommend the removal of 4 clauses at Further Consideration Stage of the Bill. One clause placed a statutory duty on public bodies to consider community safety implications in exercising their duties. While the Committee supported the general principle it believed that the clause as drafted had too wide an application and raised the potential of costly legal challenges. The other 3 clauses related to alcohol at sporting events. While in no way condoning bad behaviour at sporting grounds the Committee did not believe that a strong enough case had been presented to justify the need for further criminal offences, given the legislation and powers that were already in place. The proposed provisions were viewed by the Committee as unenforceable and impractical and the Committee believed that the use of the current law together with self-regulation by the relevant sporting bodies was the better approach to take.
The Committee received the support of the Assembly during Further Consideration Stage for its recommended changes to the Justice Bill.
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. The Committee agreed handling arrangements for Court Rules that enabled it to decide the degree of consultation required for each Rule depending on whether the Rule was largely procedural/process related or not.
The Committee also noted that, while 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 not, at present, subject to any Assembly procedure.
Advice received from the Examiner of Statutory Rules indicated that the difference in scrutiny afforded to different types of Court Rules probably had more to do with historical origins than logic or principle. The Committee was of the view that changing the position so that Magistrates’ Court Rules and County Court Rules would also be subject to Assembly negative resolution procedure would be both logical and consistent and wrote to the Minister of Justice on the matter. The Minister agreed that it would be preferable for the same level of scrutiny to apply to all Court Rules and indicated that he would bring forward the necessary changes to achieve this.
The Committee considered and approved 10 statutory rules during the period of this report. Four of the rules dealt with police pay and conditions of employment, 5 dealt with court procedures and processes and one enabled Access NI to continue the procedure of not charging for standard and enhanced disclosure certificates for most volunteers who work closely with children and vulnerable adults.
The Committee closely scrutinised the quarterly in-year Monitoring Rounds prior to the Department finalising and submitting its returns to the Department of Finance and Personnel. Issues that the Committee paid particular attention included the costs of the PSNI hearing loss cases, how the in-year budget cuts of £22 million would be met, and the available funding for PSNI equal pay claims.
Draft Budget 2011-2015
The Committee took detailed evidence on the draft Budget 2011 – 2015 from departmental officials on 4 occasions between September 2010 and January 2011 and agreed its response to the draft proposals at its meeting on 27 January 2011.
While the Committee broadly supported the proposed key priorities of protecting front line policing, protecting other front line areas across the Department and protecting the voluntary and community sectors as far as possible, it raised concerns about the potential impact of the proposed savings plans on the front line services. In particular, it expressed concerns in relation to the Probation Board and the Police Ombudsman’s Office as both organisations indicated the likelihood of redundancies to achieve the required savings. The Committee asked the Minister to look again at the funding of these organisations and he responded by providing additional resources from within the Department of Justice budget which will alleviate the position and minimise the impact on frontline staff.
The Committee also highlighted a number of cross-cutting issues that contribute to the rates of offending and re-offending and sought a commitment from the Minister to raise these with the Executive with the aim of factoring them in when the overall budget for the NI Departments was being finalised. The Minister agreed to do so.
Equal Pay Issues
The Committee ended the 2010/11 mandate by taking evidence from departmental officials and a representative of the Northern Ireland Public Service Alliance (NIPSA) on the current position with regard to equal pay negotiations for Department of Justice staff and PSNI support staff. The Committee expressed concern regarding the length of time being taken to resolve this matter and encouraged the Department to engage in further dialogue to achieve a speedy resolution that would ensure that staff are treated equitably.
Programme for Government
The Committee rigorously scrutinised the Department’s draft addendum to the Programme for Government. The Committee did not agree the initial draft and raised a number of issues including the need for the key goals to be revised to ensure that they covered all the priority areas for the Department and the need for some of the targets, particularly those to increase confidence in the justice system, to be more ambitious and challenging. The Minister accepted the points raised and produced a revised addendum which the Committee agreed in September 2010.
Policy proposals relating to the Justice Bill
Prior to the introduction of the Justice Bill the Committee undertook pre-legislative scrutiny of an extensive range of policy proposals covering Special Measures, Sex Offender Notification, Court Boundaries, PPS Commencement Proceedings, Alternatives to Prosecution, Local Partnership Working on Policing and Community Safety, Offender Levy, Sports Law, Reform of Legal Aid, and Solicitors’ Rights of Audience.
The Committee recommended a number of changes to the proposals which were accepted by the Department and influenced the shape of the Bill. Examples included the introduction of a two-tier offender levy rate for custodial sentences, to reflect the greater harm caused to victims by those convicted of serious and violent offences and the extension of the arrangements for dealing with first time petty shoplifting to provide that a fixed penalty could be issued where the individual agreed to replace goods that had been eaten or inadvertently spoiled and not just where goods were recovered in a re-saleable condition.
Legal Aid Reform – Criminal and Civil
The Committee spent a considerable amount of time scrutinising various proposals for Legal Aid Reform and in particular criminal legal aid and took evidence from departmental officials and representatives from the Legal Services Commission, the Law Society and the Bar Council on a number of occasions. Key issues that the Committee considered included proposals for remuneration of defence representation in the Crown Court, assignment of two counsel in the Crown Court and the possible introduction of a fixed means test for criminal legal aid. While recognising the need to reduce the legal aid budget the Committee was determined that access to justice would be central to any decisions made in relation to changes and urged the Department, the Law Society and the Bar Council to work together to reach an agreed way forward on these issues.
Tribunal Reform in Northern Ireland
The Committee considered proposals for the Department of Justice to assume statutory responsibility for the administration of tribunals. Following consultation with other statutory committees and confirmation from the Department of Justice that responsibility would only transfer once satisfactory agreement had been reached with the relevant departments on the functions and, in particular, appropriate funding to be transferred, the Committee indicated that it was content with the proposal.
The Committee examined the performance of the Department in relation to a number of issues of significant public interest.
Reports by the Criminal Justice Inspectorate
The Committee considered a number of reports by the Criminal Justice Inspectorate on reducing avoidable delay in the criminal justice system, the handling of sexual violence and abuse cases by the criminal justice system and the NI Prison Service corporate governance arrangements. Departmental officials and representatives from the PSNI, the Public Prosecution Service and the NI Courts and Tribunals Service attended the Committee to outline the actions being taken in response to each report’s findings.
Concerns arising from the handling of the McDermott case
The Committee met jointly with the Committee for Health, Social Services and Public Safety on 2 occasions to take evidence from both Ministers on the issues. The Joint Committee placed on record its concern and support for the victims and survivors, welcomed the two independent reviews into the handling of the case by the Ministers, recommended that there should be full cooperation and coordination between the reviews and called for a wider review of policy in relation to public protection.
The erroneous release by the NI Prison Service of three prisoners
The Minister and the Director General of the NI Prison Service attended a meeting to explain the errors and outline what preventative actions were being taken to ensure such mistakes did not occur in the future.
Police Injury Pensions
The Committee questioned the department on delays being experienced by police officers in relation to appeals of payment levels relating to Police Injury Pensions and its role in the Appeals process. Following the evidence session the Committee welcomed the review of the process launched by the Minister and called on him to ensure that everything possible was done to speed up the appeals process.
Review of the Prison Service
The Review Team briefed the Committee on several occasions on progress with the Review of the conditions, management and oversight of Northern Ireland Prisons and the emerging issues. The Committee also questioned the Minister and the Director General of the Prison on the Review Team’s interim findings immediately after the publication of the report on 28 February 2011.
The Committee was briefed by the Department, either in writing or orally, on a number of proposed consultations before they were launched. The Committee raised issues in relation to two of them.
Review of Youth Justice
The Committee, having considered the terms of reference, timescale and make-up of the team tasked with carrying out the Review of Youth Justice and taken evidence from representatives of several of the key stakeholder groups, indicated to the Minister that it was not content that the proposed arrangements would be seen to produce an independent review. It also raised concerns regarding the proposed timescale which appeared to be too short and the need for the team to consist of expertise across the full range of areas. The Minister accepted the views of the Committee and, to address the issues highlighted, changed the make-up of the Review team to include an independent expert in additional relevant areas of youth justice and increased the timescale for completion of the review by 4 months.
Long Term Policing Objectives
In light of the views of the Committee that the draft consultation document needed to be reworded to ensure that it was presented in an accessible and easily understood format for public consultation, the Department made a number of revisions to the text to improve the clarity and accessibility of the document before it was issued.
The Committee’s approach to its work
In addition to taking evidence through oral and written briefings the Committee sought ways to adopt innovative approaches, provide opportunities for other groups to meet Committee Members and participate in events to widen the knowledge and understanding of the role and work of the Committee.
Justice Bill Evidence Event
In December 2010 the Committee held an evidence event in the Long Gallery in Parliament Buildings on the Policing and Community Partnership clauses of the Justice Bill. This enabled a large number of stakeholders to present their views on these clauses to the Committee. As was the practice adopted by the Committee at other Bill evidence sessions, departmental officials responded to the issues raised by the key stakeholders and answered questions from Committee Members. This approach provided the stakeholders with the opportunity to observe the Committee challenge and probe the Department’s position on areas of concern.
The Committee for Justice held a meeting in the Long Gallery on 16 December 2010 to take evidence from 21 organisations on the Policing Community Safety Partnership clauses of the Justice Bill.
The Committee held an informal reception in November 2010 which provided the opportunity for representatives of nine organisations to speak directly to Members of the Committee. The organisations in attendance represented a diverse range of interests and took the opportunity to raise issues of particular interest to them.
Committee representation at Conferences/Events
During the course of the reporting period the Chairman, Deputy Chairman and Members of the Committee attended a number of justice related conferences and events including:
Joint Committee meetings
The Committee held two joint committee meetings with the Committee for Health, Social Services and Public Safety as outlined earlier in the report.
Issues and Matters that the incoming Committee for Justice may wish to consider:
The implementation of the Budget 2011-15 by the Department including:
The Review of the conditions, management and oversight of all Northern Ireland Prisons
The interim report of the Prison Review Team was published on 28 February 2011 with the final report due in June 2011. The Committee has written to the Minister of Justice seeking further information on what recommendations, if any, will be taken forward before the final report is available and what plans he has to publicly consult on the findings and recommendations, particularly in relation to what the vision and purpose of the NI Prison Service should be.
Legal Aid Reform – Criminal and Civil – including:
The Review of Youth Justice
The Committee was briefed on progress with the Review in March 2011 and the final report is expected in June 2011.
The outcome of the following consultations/reviews that are currently on-going:
Mental Health Issues and Prisoners
The following visits that due to time constraints were unable to be undertaken during the period of this report:
Committee for Justice
Expenditure for the period 12 April 2010 – 24 March 2011
Committee for Justice
Committee meetings & visits
Committee Reports (excluding Bill and Inquiry reports)
Primary Legislation Scrutiny