Progress in key areas at Department of Justice

30 January 2019 - by Gráinne Walsh

This week, as part of our policy series, we are looking at matters awaiting ministerial approval at the Department of Justice.

In November 2018, the Belfast Telegraph published a list of 164 key decisions delayed by the collapse of the Northern Ireland two years ago. Twenty five of these lie with Permanent Secretary Peter May and his team at the Department of Justice. Interestingly, nine of those outstanding matters relate to public appointments.

An absence of political members on the Policing Board was one of the issues that prompted the move to grant the Secretary of State, Karen Bradley MP, additional powers under the Northern Ireland (Executive Formation and Exercise of Functions) Act 2018.

Usually appointed by the Justice Minister following an election, the lack of an Executive saw this process stall, in spite of the critical role the body plays in overseeing the work of the PSNI.

The Act, which came into force on 1 November 2018, covers public appointments to the Northern Ireland Judicial Appointments Commission, the Northern Ireland Policing Board, the Probation Board and the Police Ombudsman, accounting for the swathe of extensions to the terms of existing members of other public boards.

On 29 November 2018, the Secretary of State filled the positions reserved for political appointees to the Policing Board and the Probation Board. The DUP is now represented by MLAs Keith Buchanan, Joanne Bunting, Gary Middleton and Mervyn Storey. Sinn Féin’s delegation comprises of Gerry Kelly, Linda Dillon and Philip McGuigan. The other MLAs on the panel are John Blair (Alliance), Dolores Kelly (SDLP) and Alan Chambers (UUP).

The Police Ombudsman will be appointed by the Secretary of State in July, when the incumbent, Dr Michael Maguire, concludes his term.

While the recent car bomb in Derry is a chilling reminder of the need to activate the Executive Action Plan for Tackling Paramilitary Activity, Criminality and Organised Crime, other issues on the Belfast Telegraph’s list include effecting some of the outworkings of legal aid reform commenced by former Justice Minister David Ford, as well as the implementation of the personal injury discount rate, judicial pensions and the Criminal Finances Act 2017.

At a strategic level, the Gillen Review of Civil and Family Justice, which considered current procedures for the administration of civil and family justice and which launched in September 2017, also remains pending.

The second independent assessment of the criminal justice system, established after the Ulster Rugby rape trial, again headed by Mr Justice Gillen, deals with serious sexual offence cases. The preliminary report published in November includes more than 200 recommendations, 35 of which may require legislation.

With the publication of the final version expected before the end of this year, we can expect the list of outstanding decisions resting on Peter May’s desk to keep growing. However, there may be room for progress in those areas that don’t require legislation – that’s where we should focus our attention to ensure that momentum isn’t lost.