Justice (Northern Ireland) Bill

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Clause 33

Discontinuance of proceedings before court appearance

Mr. Blunt: I beg to move amendment No. 176, in page 20, line 7, at end insert—

    '(c) the victim or victims of the offence, or in event of their being deceased or mentally incapacitated, their next of kin'.

The Chairman: With this it will be convenient to consider amendment No. 177, in page 20, line 8, at end insert—

    '(2A) Where proceedings against a person in relation to an offence are discontinued under subsection (1), the Director must give reasons for the discontinuance of proceedings to those persons listed under subsection (2), unless in the Director's judgement to do so would be against the interest of justice or the public interest.'.

New clause 2—Provision of reasons not to institute or continue proceedings

    '(1) Where the Director decides not to institute proceedings against a person or discontinues such proceedings he shall provide the Attorney General with reasons for his decision.

    (2) The Attorney General shall, if requested by a person properly connected to the matter, provide a copy of those reasons to that person unless to do so would be against the interests of justice or the public interest.'.

Mr. Blunt: This is an immensely important amendment, because it goes to the heart of victims' rights and the information that they receive during the prosecution process. Amendment No. 176 is designed to place a duty on the Director of Public Prosecutions, when he decides to discontinue a prosecution, to inform not only the person being prosecuted and the court, but the victim. Amendment No. 177 qualifies that by stipulating that the director must judge whether supplying the victim with the reasons for the discontinuance of the prosecution is against the interests of justice or the public interest.

Every Member of Parliament, once they have been here for more than a month, starts to receive representations from constituents concerning prosecutions of which the conduct, as far as the victim is concerned, is seriously in doubt. I would like to use an example from my own experience to illustrate my point, and to show why new clause 2 and the recommendation arising from the review do not go far enough.

I was burgled, and the item that was stolen had my name on it. Two villains were discovered attempting to enter another property. Unwisely, they had chosen to do that in the Chester square area, where the diplomatic protection squad of the Metropolitan

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police observed them going from door to door, attempting to force their way into various houses. They were arrested, their properties were searched, and my property was found in their possession.

Most people would have thought that that case would be pretty easy to prosecute, and that a charge of possession of stolen goods could have been proved, if nothing else. I went on and on about the case to the police officers who were handling it, asking them when it was coming up, what would happen with it and when those involved would be held responsible. To my great concern, I eventually discovered that the CPS had decided not to prosecute. Like many other victims in such circumstances, I was distinctly unimpressed by the CPS and its decision, and was very aggrieved. However, I would not have been in a position to judge had I not sought out the information.

The debate about how victims of crime should be dealt with is beginning to recognise that they have a right to a certain amount of information. That is reflected in clauses 67, 68 and 69, under which the Government will give victims of crime information about the sentences and the release dates of prisoners who have been sentenced for the offences that involved them.

Mr. McWalter: The hon. Gentleman makes a powerful case. Has he thought about the circumstances in which cases have been withdrawn because key witnesses have been intimidated? Such cases show the complications that might arise, because disclosing information might subject such witnesses to violent retribution by those who were angry with them.

Mr. Blunt: There are two separate issues. The first is that the victim has a right to know that proceedings have been discontinued, regardless of the reasons. With respect to the hon. Member for Newry and Armagh, a victim should not have to make an inquiry in order to obtain that information, as new clause 2 is framed. Just as a victim might be invited to be a witness at a trial, he should be told if there is not going to be a trial because the proceedings have been discontinued.

The second issue is the disclosure of the reasons for the discontinuance, and on that I agree with the hon. Member for Hemel Hempstead (Mr. McWalter). There are endless circumstances in which there could be concern about giving reasons. The review acknowledged that, and so did the Government in their response to the review. It is therefore appropriate that the test be for the DPP to come to his own conclusion about how best to serve the interests of justice and the public interest.

Mr. Browne: I want to be sure that the hon. Gentleman appreciates that the relevant clause is very restrictive in its application. It deals with the discontinuance of proceedings before a court appearance. Because of the way in which the system operates in Northern Ireland, there is a very short period between the proceedings being commenced by the police and handed over to the prosecutor and an administrative decision by the prosecutor as to

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whether the accused needs to appear before the court. That is what the clause is designed for; it is not about the discontinuance of prosecutions.

Mr. Blunt: If there is a better way, within the Bill, to ensure that we place a duty on the DPP to inform the victim of the discontinuance of proceedings and to give the reasons for the discontinuance, I shall be grateful for the Minister's advice. The Minister pointed to the hon. Member for Newry and Armagh, who muttered ''new clause 2'', so it might be useful to put that on the record. New clause 2 does not seem to place a duty on the prosecutor to tell the victim that proceedings have been discontinued. I would be happy to reformulate the amendment, but it is important that we establish the principle. I do not see a particular difficulty. Indeed, I am anxious to proceed by agreement, because all those who represent the victims of crime want a better flow of information.

Mr. Mallon: I largely agree with hon. Gentleman that the onus rests with the aggrieved person. However, the review specifies that

    ''the prosecutor should seek to give as full an explanation as is possible without prejudicing the interests of justice or the public interest.''

Are not those interests legally the preserve of the Attorney-General, rather than the DPP? Should not the Attorney-General be included to protect both those interests?

Mr. Blunt: I do not agree, because the Attorney-General will not be involved in the prosecution of individual cases. Decisions about the public interest and the interests of justice will be taken on individual cases. I deliberately phrased amendment No. 177 to allow for times when the DPP might come to such a conclusion. It states:

    ''Where proceedings against a person in relation to an offence are discontinued under subsection (1), the Director must give reasons for the discontinuance of proceedings to those persons listed under subsection (2), unless in the Director's judgement to do so would be against the interest of justice or the public interest.'.

I worded the amendment in that way so that the director's judgment could be tested by judicial review. People who were unhappy with the director's decision would at least have the opportunity to question it. The amendment would ensure that the DPP was under a duty to give his reasons to the victims of crime.

We have given the DPP a wide discretion to make such judgments, but if the victims of crime were sufficiently dissatisfied to want to take the matter further, it would be appropriate to test it before a judge. That would involve public interest immunity certificates, and the judge would have to decide what information it was appropriate to release. However, that is not a new situation, and it is well tested. It is probably the best way to ensure not only that the DPP has wide discretion but that his discretion can be tested. We do not want a blanket application of the DPP's personal test of what the public interest is or of what the interests of justice may be. It would be appropriate to refer such matters to a judge. I hope

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that that would give victims additional comfort if they did not receive information that they believed they were entitled to when proceedings were not continued.

Although the amendment is designed to deal with run-of-the-mill cases and the victims of crime whom we all represent from time to time, it also applies to the most high-profile cases. For instance, it would apply when the DPP declined to prosecute a member of the security forces if the alleged failure of the prosecution and judicial system to bring people to justice had caused significant dissatisfaction in the community. It

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would provide an extra test, which could reinforce confidence in the system. It would ensure that people were brought to justice in the most high-profile cases, which had caused enormous concern across the whole community, and in cases of burglary, aggravated traffic offences and the other wrongs that are regularly brought to our attention.

        It being One o'clock, The Chairman adjourned the Committee without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

        Adjourned till this day at half-past Four o'clock.

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The following Members attended the Committee:
Conway, Mr. Derek (Chairman)
Atherton, Ms
Blunt, Mr.
Browne, Mr.
Calton, Mrs.
Campbell, Mr. Gregory
Dobbin, Jim
Francois, Mr.
Garnier, Mr.
Hall, Patrick
Hayes, Mr.

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Hermon, Lady
Heyes, Mr.
Kilfoyle, Mr.
McIsaac, Shona
McWalter, Mr.
Mallon, Mr.
Merron, Gillian
Mole, Chris
Stringer, Mr.
Turner, Mr. Andrew
Woodward, Mr.

 
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Prepared 5 February 2002