Justice (Northern Ireland) Bill

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Mr. Mallon: I am sorry for intruding. How would the Minister define, in the context of the Bill, those with responsibility for the administration of justice?

Mr. Browne: Principally, the Government have responsibility for the administration of justice. The Bill establishes the framework that will apply when responsibility for the administration of justice is partly devolved to the Administration and Assembly of Northern Ireland. Those are the people who will have that responsibility. I am not sure whether the Bill provides a clearer definition: I shall look further into it and mention it later in our proceedings.

I hope that I have made the Government's view of the amendment clear. The Government object to nothing in the aims and objectives or in the principles of the profession articulated in our debate so far. We agree that aspirations should be set for the administration of justice. Having said that, and in the Bill's context, it makes sense to reduce those aspirations to a statutory expression because we may be entering an area that involves unpredictable consequences. Until those consequences are exhaustively examined, the Government will have to resist the amendment.

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Mr. Blunt: Obviously, I am disappointed that our array of arguments has failed to convince the Minister, but I note that he has yet to see the Law Society for a discussion about his concerns. I do not share his concerns, also articulated by the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire, about the consequences for regulation. The answer lies in what the Minister said about his own experience on the Council of the Law Society of Scotland. He argued that self-regulation was important because the profession used it as a means of guarding its independence. The hon. Member for Montgomeryshire produced the test: what happens when a member of the legal profession has obviously not been independent? Will the Government then have to introduce a vast array of regulations to sustain the profession's independence?

The whole Committee is agreed on the intention behind the amendment and the principle that the legal profession must be independent. Trying to define exactly what ''independence'' means causes the same difficulties faced by the Minister in trying to define all who have the responsibility for the administration of justice. Many people working for the Court Service in many different capacities have such a responsibility in sustaining the court system in Northern Ireland—or anywhere else, for that matter. Duties can be interpreted widely and people know what independence means.

Lembit Öpik: On the specific point about the definition of independence, two schools of thought appear to prevail. Some members of the Committee believe that it is unnecessary to pin a definition down; others feel that the matter represents an Achilles' heel in the amendment. What would happen if lawyers started suing each other in pursuit of a proper definition? I might lose a case and argue that my lawyer had not acted independently. Is that not a serious difficulty; will it not then be a duty to define independence more clearly?

Mr. Blunt: The hon. Gentleman would have restitution of those circumstances anyway within the framework in which people are able to make complaints against lawyers. In the end, people can take legal action against lawyers, and it is the profession that insists on protecting its independence within its own codes. That goes to the point of the only effective question on the consequences, which the hon. Gentleman asked. He asked what would happen if were there a problem: would the Government have to produce a vast raft of regulations to take over from the Law Society and Bar Council the responsibility for regulating their professions? The answer should be no, for all the reasons that the Minister made clear about the importance of the profession guarding its independence and the ability of self-regulation to do that.

However, if it became clear that the professions were incapable of sustaining their independence or they were not exercising their functions independently, the Government would have to address the problem, whether through regulations or in other ways. That is precisely why the duty should appear in the Bill. If the

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legal profession's independence were questioned, the Government would have to introduce regulations to re-establish it.

Mr. Garnier: I will provide an example that may be helpful to my hon. Friend's argument; if it is not, he can reject it straightaway. Does he believe that, if we were considering the Justice (Zimbabwe) Bill and clause 1 were framed exactly as clause 1 of this Bill, the Government would not want to include the words ''and the legal profession''? I appreciate that the facts of life in Zimbabwe are wholly different from those in Northern Ireland, but I wonder whether my hon. Friend would find it helpful to use that as an example to illustrate the point that I tried to make in my over-lengthy and feeble intervention.

Mr. Blunt: I am extremely grateful to my hon. and learned Friend, because his point was helpful. It would be self-evident that, if one were trying to pass laws in the extreme example of Zimbabwe, one would be anxious to sustain and protect the independence of all parts of the judicial system as hard and fast as one could. One must wonder whether laws in Zimbabwe are terribly important to those who are responsible for the administration of justice under the current regime. However, before you call me to order, Mr. Conway, I should like to say that that is a separate issue which I do not intend to pursue further. However, the example was appropriate.

The Minister's objections in trying to find consequences that flow from the amendment violate the common-sense use of language. People know what independence is and that the judiciary and legal profession should be independent. That point is not at issue. We know that the legal profession will jealously and properly guard its self-regulation, but in the circumstances of self-regulation going wrong, there will be a duty to put it right. I would not want to advocate that, because of the consequences that would flow from it. I note that the Minister will be meeting the Law Society, and I hope that he can clarify that that will happen before Report, because it is important. I am happy to take an intervention, because if he has the chance before Report to reflect on the amendment, meet the Law Society and take account of our discussion, I am prepared to withdraw the amendment to return to it on Report. If the Minister will not meet the Law Society before Report, I will press the issue now.

Mr. Browne: To my knowledge, we have offered 4 and 11 February as meeting dates, which will be when the Committee is still sitting. I am not sure whether those dates are convenient for Law Society representatives, but if the hon. Gentleman continues to speak I may get more information.

Mr. Blunt: I shall not speak for long because we should finish discussing the amendment and make progress. The Minister is facing a strong alliance.

Mr. Browne: I am told that the meeting has been agreed for 18 February, so neither 4 nor 11 February could have been accepted.

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Mr. Blunt: The meeting with the Law Society will therefore presumably be before Report stage. I hope that, in deciding when to bring the Bill forward for Report and Third Reading, the Government business managers will take account of that meeting on 18 February, which should give the Minister time to bring forward the amendment in his own name, if he wants to do so as a consequence of the meeting. On that basis, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

12.15 pm

Mr. Mallon: I beg to move amendment No. 81, in page 1, line 6, at end add—

    '( ) The judiciary shall decide matters before them impartially, on the basis of facts and in accordance with the law, without any restrictions, improper influences, inducements, pressures, threats or interferences, direct or indirect, from any quarter or for any reason'.

I recognise that there will be reactions to the amendment, but I hope that they will not be overladen with accusations of non-existent implications. We have had an interesting debate in which it has become clear that a definition of line 1 of the Bill is required, on two counts: what is meant by those with responsibility for the administration of justice and by independence? Maybe it is naivety on my part or an overzealous desire to establish meaning, but I believe that we should try to define what is meant by the impartiality of the judiciary and the legal profession.

The amendment reads:

    ''The judiciary shall decide matters before them impartially, on the basis of facts and in accordance with the law, without any restrictions, improper influences, inducements, pressures, threats or interferences, direct or indirect, from any quarter or for any reason''.

That is clumsy and wordy, but it is accurate. No member of the Committee or anyone outside it could disagree with it in trying to arrive at a definition of impartiality. No one could quibble with any of those phrases or with the totality of them. However, I fear that there will be those who say that impartiality surely means what it says. I understand their position; from line 1 of the Bill, nothing in the Bill so far means what it says, because of the lack of definition. That is not unique.

The amendment is taken, almost word for word, from United Nations basic principles on the independence of the judiciary. It is, therefore, not based on any great inspiration on my part. It is clearly reflected in the basic principles of the United Nations. The definition would impose a duty of independence on the judiciary and the legal profession, and protect them from any attempt to encroach on their independence from any quarter.

That brings us to a point that was alluded to in a previous debate. Do we all believe that there are no tensions, and never will be, between the various parties described in the Bill who are responsible for the administration of justice? Will there never be times when strong tensions arise? Have there not been times over the past 30 years in Northern Ireland where great tensions have existed between those parties? If we honestly ask ourselves those questions, and are not

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afraid to answer them, we must say that there will always be such tensions, especially unrest and violence. There will always be tension between the various strands of Government and the administration of justice. That is inevitable. Human nature and necessity demand it. Are we living in a world in which we say to ourselves that those tensions will never be there? They will always be there.

I could give examples, but I do not want to because of the inference that I am making a judgment about the past. Many members of the Committee know from what has happened more than once on the Floor of the House that those tensions exist. There is no such amorphous quality about those who are responsible for administering justice in this country, Northern Ireland or, indeed, Zimbabwe. Those tensions are the very nature of the way in which the entire political administrative system works. We should remove ourselves from the ivory tower where it is said that those tensions do not exist. They do, and they will.

There is enormous potential for other tensions in devolution and for making the administration of justice in Northern Ireland a function of a Northern Ireland Administration, while elements of security remain outside the responsibility of that devolved Administration. Those are but two of the ways in which more definition would not imply anything about the legal profession or the judiciary, but would reinforce the integrity of their position, and protect them. Those tensions are inevitable, because, however fair the wind blows in Northern Ireland, it will not blow away the residue of a bitter past in a short period.Would that it were different, but, if we are taking a new step and creating something for the future, let us do it in a way that will protect the capacity not just of the judiciary and legal profession but of the amorphous group known as

    ''Those with responsibility for the administration of justice''

to act impartially.

I do not believe that there can be any quarrel with the wording of the amendment or its constituent phrases. The legislative draftsmanship may look, and probably is, clumsy. However, I would rather be clumsy and protect that which we seek to protect than be technically correct and leave gaps.

 
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