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Standing Committee Debates
Justice (Northern Ireland) Bill

Justice (Northern Ireland) Bill

Column Number: 193

Standing Committee F

Tuesday 5 February 2002

(Afternoon)

[Mr. Peter Pike in the Chair]

Justice (Northern Ireland) Bill

Clause 33

Discontinuance of proceedings before court appearance

Amendment moved [this day]: 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'.—[Mr. Blunt.]

4.30 pm

The Chairman: I remind the Committee that with this we are considering the following: 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. Crispin Blunt (Reigate): I welcome you to the Chair, Mr. Pike, and extend a welcome to the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Lembit Öpik).

Before lunch, the Minister intervened in my speech to emphasise just how limited the amendment was.

Lembit Öpik (Montgomeryshire): I thank the hon. Gentleman for his concern and for his evident delight at my return, but such is my confidence in my hon. Friend the Member for Cheadle (Mrs. Calton) that I have only popped into the Committee to check up on things.

Mr. Blunt: In previous sittings, it has usually been the Minister who has been speaking when we have adjourned for lunch. On one occasion during consideration of a previous Bill, he was able to go and consult his notes on the issue of national insurance numbers and find some arguments that he did not have in the morning. I am glad to say that, on that issue, the Government are now acceding to the wish of the majority of the parties represented on that Committee.

Having had a chance to go and consider the substance of the Minister's intervention before lunch, I have reinforced my conviction that amendments Nos. 176 and 177 should be accepted. They place a duty on

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the prosecution to disclose the discontinuance of proceedings when the prosecution has responsibility for handling a case and when the Director of Public Prosecutions has the ability to discontinue proceedings without the victim being aware of it. Of course, once the proceedings have gone to court, they have, in a sense, become public. Therefore amendments Nos. 176 and 177 deal with the situation in which the victim has no capacity to know what is happening and place a duty on the prosecutor to tell the victim.

I also took the opportunity to look at new clause 2, tabled by the hon. Member for Newry and Armagh (Mr. Mallon), which I will press to a vote if he does not. The new clause covers the wider position when the responsibility shifts from the police to the prosecutor to the court, at which point a judge could direct that proceedings be discontinued.

My amendments address the situation where the prosecutor is firmly in the lead and the victim would otherwise be unable to get a handle on the process or understand what is happening. New clause 2 would put a duty on the prosecutor to provide information when someone requests it. In circumstances where a victim has no direct involvement in the process before a case goes to court, it is reasonable to place a duty on the prosecutor to give the victim the information, but once the case has gone to court and gone public, it is reasonable for it to be up to those with a necessary interest to request that information from the prosecutor.

Amendments Nos. 176 and 177 and new clause 2 stand together as a group and should all be supported by the Committee so that such a duty will be placed on the prosecutor. I want to draw to the Committee's attention the whole background to the issue. If Committee members look at chapter 13 of the review, as well as chapter 4, which deals with the specific requirements on the prosecution, they will see that the entire shape of the debate about the rights of the victim is moving in the direction of giving victims information. The presumption in the review is that victims should get the information that the amendment would make it a duty on the prosecutor to provide. The amendments would provide an opportunity for the House to place a duty on the prosecutor to provide victims of crime with information about the discontinuance of proceedings. New clause 2 provides the opportunity for those who request that information

    ''if requested by a person properly connected to the matter''.

Mr. Edward Garnier (Harborough): In order fully to understand my hon. Friend's proposal, can we assume that, under amendment No. 177, the reasons given by the director for discontinuing and the director's judgment are matters that can be tested in court?

New clause 2(2) states:

    ''The Attorney-General shall, if requested . . . provide a copy of those reasons to that person unless to do so would be against the interests of justice or the public interest.''

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Can we also assume that the Attorney-General—or someone, at least—would have to set out why to continue a prosecution would be against the interests of justice or the public interest, which would also be justiciable?

Mr. Blunt: That would be my assumption. As I said earlier, the process must be justiciable and subject to judicial review. That would address the concern that high-profile prosecutions, such as those against the security forces in Northern Ireland, simply do not happen.

Finally, I draw the Committee's attention to paragraph 13.47 of the review, which states:

    ''We recommend that wherever possible victims should be informed and consulted about the development of their cases. But when and how to consult them, particularly those who are witnesses, must be a matter for the professional judgement of the prosecutor.''

Nothing in the amendments that I have tabled violates the question of judgment that it is proposed is given to the prosecutor, who may make a proper judgment about the

    ''interest of justice or the public interest''.

The amendments capture entirely the tenor of the review and the wider debate about the involvement of victims of justice, and would give victims the information that they deserve at the beginning of the prosecutorial process, especially when it has been decided that prosecutions are not going to happen. The amendments are also consistent with other parts of the Bill that we shall discuss, including those relating to youth justice and information about the release of sentenced prisoners. They would make the Bill consistent and place victims at the forefront throughout the criminal justice process.

Lembit Öpik: I would prefer to speak after the hon. Member for Newry and Armagh in order to hear his views, but I shall put my question in the hope that he will address it in his comments.

Although I have a great deal of sympathy with what the hon. Member for Reigate said about the importance of including victims' needs explicitly in legislation, I think that there is one difference of substance between amendments Nos. 176 and 177 and new clause 2. My interpretation is that there is conditionality in new clause 2, in the sense that the Attorney-General should inform persons connected with the case about why it was dropped only if they requested that information, and so long as it would not be against the interests of justice or the public interest. The Liberal Democrats believe that that condition makes sense and does not contradict the intention expressed by the hon. Member for Reigate (Mr. Blunt). I hope that the hon. Member for Newry and Armagh will clarify first whether our understanding is correct and, secondly, what he considers to be the relation between amendments Nos. 176 and 177 and new clause 2.

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Mr. Seamus Mallon (Newry and Armagh): I shall try to address the point raised by the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire. It is an attempt to adhere to recommendation 49, paragraph 4.167 of the review, which states that

    ''where information is sought by someone with a proper and legitimate interest in a case on why there was no prosecution, or on why a prosecution has been abandoned, the prosecutor should seek to give as full an explanation as is possible without prejudicing the interests of justice or the public interest.''

The review says that the information should be sought, but that does not necessarily mean that that is the only way in which to handle the matter. The hon. Member for Reigate argued that it should not wait to be sought, but should be dealt with without being sought. That is the reason for the wording in the new clause.

In general, I would be at ease with the two amendments of the hon. Member for Reigate. I have a little problem in that they apply to two types of case, in one of which the victim, an individual, has not had redress or satisfaction. Even in an individual case, there could be an issue of public interest and the interests of justice. Under the Bill, that is the responsibility of the Attorney-General, who should present a report to the First Minister and Deputy First Minister, acting jointly. They are to present the report to the Assembly. I included the Attorney-General in the new clause to cover such circumstances. If it were left with the Director of Public Prosecutions alone, not using the Attorney-General as a conduit, there might be difficulties. I await the Minister's comments, but I believe that the provision would give people the right to a response that would set out the reasons for the DPP's decisions in as much detail as the DPP considered to be appropriate.

The review group considered, in paragraph 4.164, that

    ''Giving reasons for decisions to the public or interested stakeholders such as victims or the relative of victims is the most direct form of accountability in the explanatory sense.''

That type of accountability is at the heart of the amendments and the new clause. There is a further dimension in that public confidence in the prosecution service would be greatly enhanced if people could understand the reasons behind a decision not to prosecute. That would be particularly so in Northern Ireland. The overall effect would be in the best interests of justice.

 
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