Justice (Northern Ireland) Bill

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The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Mr. Desmond Browne): In the first instance, I wish to make a slight technical point on amendment No. 224. It will not be the most important point that I shall make in the debate, but I cannot see how an amendment that addresses a matter of process sits well with a general statement on the overall aims of the youth justice system. However, although the amendment seems out of place, it does not detract from the point of principle that the hon. Member for Cheadle seeks to put before the Committee.

To some degree, the hon. Lady anticipates my response. It is the Government's position that the interests of a child subject to criminal proceedings should be properly represented by a lawyer of that child's choice. That facility will be available to all children subject to those processes under the Bill. In addition, the court will have available a pre-sentence report prepared by the probation officer, which will provide advice to the magistrates on the child's background and suggest the most appropriate outcome.

In those circumstances, the guardian ad litem scheme does not have a role. It provides an excellent service to young people in civil proceedings, most often when the interests of the child are not properly represented. The guardian ad litem in civil proceedings

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is often appointed in cases involving disputes between adults, and the child is not a party to those proceedings. That is why it is necessary to have someone to represent the interests of the child. In criminal proceedings, the child is clearly a party to the proceedings and has proper representation.

Amendment No. 252 would permit the guardian ad litem to attend a youth conference, and to act instead of a legal representative as adviser to the child. Although we are keen to ensure that the legal representative attends conferences only in an advisory capacity, his advice will sit within the wider criminal context of the case. We do not believe that a guardian ad litem, whose primary role in all other cases is to advise the court, would necessarily be best placed to provide the child with the advice that they need in those circumstances.

Yesterday, I met representatives of the Law Society of Northern Ireland to discuss several matters related to the Bill. I am content that it accepts the responsibility to provide appropriate training to lawyers, so that they can make a constructive contribution to the new processes that we are putting in place. It realises that that is a significant challenge. Our discussion on that and other matters was constructive. I am content that properly trained lawyers will provide the necessary advice and support, in the best interests of the child and of all aspects of the process.

When a child is already in contact with a guardian ad litem because of other proceedings, it is likely that the guardian will have a role in sharing information with the conference. It will be open for the guardian to attend the conference under new paragraph 3A(8) of the Criminal Justice (Children) (Northern Ireland) Order 1998, which is proposed in clause 57.

We have a responsibility to ensure that the rights of the child are protected during the conference, and we feel that that will be best achieved by allowing the child to be advised by a legal representative. In the light of that, I ask the hon. Member for Cheadle to withdraw her amendment.

Amendment No. 259 seeks to ensure that, if a child is eligible for free legal aid, that legal aid covers the appearance of a guardian ad litem when he accompanies the child at a diversionary conference rather than a solicitor. In Northern Ireland, such guardians are paid by the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety. They are not eligible for payment from the legal aid budget, so the amendment is flawed and I ask the hon. Lady not to press it.

Mrs. Calton: I am somewhat reassured by some of the Minister's comments, and am prepared to accept that the legal profession will receive specific training to deal with aspects of the problem. Perhaps the Minister would reassure me now that the solicitors or legal representation appointed will be appropriately trained to deal with every case in which there is a possibility that the child will be placed in custody. If the Minister wants to intervene, I will be happy to let him.

Mr. Browne: I happily accept the hon. Lady's invitation. She will realise that whom a person

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instructs is a matter for that person. It is incumbent on the Government to provide the appropriate support, if necessary, to the bodies that need to train their members. They have undertaken to provide that training, and will train solicitors with the necessary skills. The Government are not in a position to advise any individual child or adult who appears before criminal courts who they should or should not instruct to represent them. That is a matter of individual choice.

Mrs. Calton: Individual choice must be paramount, although in some circumstances it may not be in the best interests of the child for the full range of individual choice to be exercised. I accept what the Minister says, but I believe that children will fall through a gap. The system will not necessarily ensure that a child's best interests are represented. I hope that in all cases in which children come into contact with the criminal justice system, specialists who understand their specific needs fully and adequately represent them, but I am concerned that children will fall through the system. However, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

11.15 am

Amendment proposed: No. 284, in page 30, line 41, at end insert—

    '(3A) All persons with responsibility for the youth justice system shall have regard to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child.'.—[Mr. Mallon.]

Question put, That the amendment be made:—

The Committee divided: Ayes 3, Noes 19.

Division No. 18]

AYES
Calton, Mrs. Patsy Mallon, Mr. Seamus
O¨pik, Lembit

NOES
Atherton, Ms Candy Barnes, Mr. Harry Blunt, Mr. Crispin Browne, Mr. Desmond Campbell, Mr. Gregory Dobbin, Jim Francois, Mr. Mark Hayes, Mr. John Hermon, Lady Heyes, Mr. David
Kilfoyle, Mr. Peter McIsaac, Shona McWalter, Mr. Tony Merron, Gillian Mole, Chris Stringer, Mr. Graham Turner, Mr. Andrew Tynan, Mr. Bill Woodward, Mr. Shaun

Question accordingly negatived.

Clause 53 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 54

Reparation orders

Mrs. Calton: I beg to move amendment No. 225, in page 31, line 22, after 'otherwise', insert 'directly'.

The Chairman: With this we may discuss amendment No. 226, in page 31, line 22, at end insert

    'by virtue of presence at the scene of the crime or by close familial connection with the victim, i.e. mother, father, brother, sister, child.'.

Mrs. Calton: I have had a conversation with the Minister, and these amendments may not be necessary.

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I am not a legal expert, but I sought to limit the number of people who could be considered as victims. My first reading of the Bill suggested that someone who had been traumatised by watching television could claim to be a victim and that the child might have to apologise to them. I understand, however, that there may be a legal definition of the word ''victim'', which the Minister will no doubt share with us.

Mr. Browne: Amendment No. 225 adds nothing to the provision in the clause. Amendment No. 226 seeks to achieve the hon. Lady's objective.

There are definitions of victims in other legislation, where other circumstances may or may not apply. Hon. Members who represent the people of Northern Ireland will know that there is a great debate about who should be described as a victim. In another context, the Government's position was to say that they would not prescribe who should be described as a victim and that it was a matter for the person concerned.

The hon. Lady may have been misled in private conversations with someone into believing that there was a legal definition of a victim in this case, but there is not. The Government's position on the amendment is that it should be left to the good sense and direction of the court to determine who should benefit from reparations and that we should not seek to provide an exhaustive list. Applying good sense and discretion to the circumstances of any offence should make it clear who the victims are and to whom the provisions should apply.

Mrs. Calton: I am somewhat reassured. I have been engaged for many years in looking at matters from a child's perspective. The Minister will appreciate that on reading this part of the Bill from such a perspective, I thought of the matter in terms of hundreds of people who might regard themselves as victims and expect reparation. The Minister assures me that such a situation would not arise, and I am happy with that. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Mrs. Calton: I beg to move amendment No. 227, in page 31, line 25, at end insert—

    '(aa) a person professionally responsible for the child's education'.

The Chairman: With this it will be convenient to take the following amendments: No. 228, in page 31, line 32, at end insert—

    '(c) details of the child's educational provision.'.

No. 286, in page 31, line 32, at end insert—

    '(c) the educational, psychological and other needs of the offender'.

No. 230, in page 32, line 31, leave out 'if any'.

No. 231, in page 33, line 22, at end insert—

    '(d) a person professionally responsible for the child's education.'.

No. 232, in page 33, line 35, after 'case', insert 'including educational information.'.

No. 236, in clause 55, page 36, line 5, leave out 'if any'.

No. 239, in page 37, line 1, at end insert—

    '(d) the person professionally responsible for the child's education.'.

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No. 251, in clause 57, page 43, line 2, at end insert—

    '(e) a person professionally responsible for the child's education where the child is in receipt of education'.

No. 255, in page 45, line 19, at end insert—

    '(8) A youth conference plan must contain details of provision for the child's education where the child is in receipt of education'.

No. 256, in clause 58, page 49, line 6, at end insert—

    '(c) a report on the child's educational progress, including attendance and Key Stage test results where the child is in receipt of education.'.

No. 257, in clause 60, page 55, line 5, at end insert—

    '(d) a person professionally responsible for the child's education, where the child is in receipt of education.'.

 
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Prepared 12 February 2002