Official Report: Minutes of Evidence

Committee for Justice , meeting on Wednesday, 4 March 2015

Members present for all or part of the proceedings:

Mr A Ross (Chairperson)
Mr Raymond McCartney (Deputy Chairperson)
Mr Stewart Dickson
Mr S Douglas
Mr Paul Frew
Mr Seán Lynch
Mr Patsy McGlone
Mr A Maginness
Mr Edwin Poots

Justice Bill: Informal Consideration of Parts 1, 2, 6 to 9 and Amendments Proposed by the Attorney General for Northern Ireland and Mr Jim Wells MLA

The Chairperson (Mr Ross): We will move to the informal consideration of the Justice Bill. Many of you were here last week and know the process that we will go through. We will go through different elements of the Bill, and if people could indicate whether they are generally content or whether they want any further information from the Department, we can do that. We will have a mop-up session next week before we go through the formal clause-by-clause scrutiny.

We will move to Part 1 and schedule 1, which deal with the single jurisdiction for County Courts and Magistrates' Courts. I remind members that, following the oral evidence session with departmental officials, the Committee agreed to write to the office of the Lord Chief Justice to request further information on the nature of the consultation that will be carried out on the directions and who will be consulted. The response will be circulated as soon as it is received. At the meeting of 10 December, the Committee also agreed to write to the president of the association of county court judges to requests its views and comments on the provisions. A response on that is still awaited as well.

I will open the session up to members. Could members indicate whether they are content with clauses 1 to 6 and schedule 1 to the Justice Bill or whether they wish to obtain any further information?

Mr McCartney: We do not require any information, but there may be some issues that will require some explaining. We do not need any more information. We certainly know the issues.

The Chairperson (Mr Ross): OK. There are no other comments, so we will move on.

Part 2 and schedules 2 and 3 deal with the committal to trial. The relevant papers include further information, which was requested during the oral evidence sessions with officials, that the Department provided on the number of cases that have not proceeded to trial.

I will again open it up to comments on whether members are content with clause 7 to 16 and schedules 2 and 3 to the Justice Bill or whether any additional information or clarification is required.

Mr A Maginness: When you say "content", do you mean whether we are in full agreement with a clause?

The Chairperson (Mr Ross): It is informal. It is about whether we are generally content or whether the Committee wants to —

Mr A Maginness: OK. You are just testing the waters.

The Chairperson (Mr Ross): Yes. If the Committee felt very strongly opposed to something or wished to amend something, we would perhaps want to indicate that. Parties will take their own view when it goes to the Floor, but, as a Committee, if there are issues, we can flag them up. That will give us a chance to get those addressed before we go to the formal clause-by-clause consideration. Are there any comments, or are we generally content?

The Department has also highlighted the fact that the Public Prosecution Service (PPS) has suggested that clause 12 could usefully be amended to enable the direct transfer of a co-defendant who has been charged with a non-specified offence.

If the Committee is minded to accept the need for the amendment, it will be put forward at Consideration Stage. That is just for information. Are we content to support the proposed amendment?

Mr A Maginness: I am not saying that we are opposing the intent of the clauses, but we have concerns about them. I just want to make that clear.

The Chairperson (Mr Ross): That is fine. Is any additional information required?

Mr A Maginness: No, it is just a matter of consideration and argument.

The Chairperson (Mr Ross): That is fine. OK, members?

Members indicated assent.

The Chairperson (Mr Ross): Are we happy enough to give consideration to the PPS amendment if it comes forward?

Members indicated assent.

The Chairperson (Mr Ross): OK. Part 6 is on live links in criminal proceedings. I refer members to the relevant papers, including further information that the Department provided following the oral evidence session.

The Committee sought clarification from the Department following its oral evidence session. A copy of the Department's response is in the packs. I will open up the discussion, if members can indicate their views on clauses 44 to 49. Does anybody require further information? Are members generally content?

Members indicated assent.

The Chairperson (Mr Ross): OK, if everyone is happy enough, we will move on to Part 7, which is on violent offences prevention orders (VOPOs). I refer members to the relevant papers in their information packs, including further information provided by the Department relating to VOPOs and information disclosed as part of the Access NI check, which was requested during the oral evidence session.

Are members content with clauses 50 to 71, or do they require any other information? Are you happy enough to move on?

Members indicated assent.

The Chairperson (Mr Ross): I suggest that, over the next few days, parties maybe look at some of these issues for a mop-up session so that we can address any concerns.

We will move on to Part 8 and miscellaneous provisions. I refer members to the papers in their information packs relating to clauses 72 to 76, which cover jury service. Do members require any information or clarification, or are they content with clauses 72 to 76?

Members indicated assent.

The Chairperson (Mr Ross): I refer members to the papers in their information packs relating to clauses 77 and 78, which cover early guilty pleas. Can members indicate whether they are generally content with clauses 77 and 78 or whether any additional information is required?

Mr A Maginness: Those clauses include the duty on the solicitor, do they not?

Mr A Maginness: We would have concerns about that.

The Chairperson (Mr Ross): Are there any other comments?

I refer members to the papers in their information packs relating to clauses 79 and 80, which cover avoiding delay and criminal proceedings. Again, do members have any comments on clauses 79 and 80, or do they need further clarification or information?

The Chairperson (Mr Ross): Are members generally content?

Members indicated assent.

The Chairperson (Mr Ross): I refer members to the papers in their information packs relating to clauses 81 to 85, which cover the public prosecutor's summons, defence access to premises, powers of court security officers and youth justice.

Again, I open it up to members to comment on clauses 81 to 85.

Mr Douglas: Can I just check this, Chair? Some of these clauses are just technical, is that right?

The Chairperson (Mr Ross): No real issues were raised during the oral evidence sessions. Happy enough?

Members indicated assent.

The Chairperson (Mr Ross): Part 9 is on supplementary provisions. I refer members to the papers in their information packs, including further information from the Department on the purpose and effect of clause 86. I will open it up to members.

Clause 86 is that amendment that Departments stick in at the end of Bills that seems to give them huge scope for doing stuff that we have not gone through. If members are generally content, I would be minded to oppose that. I do not see the necessity for it. Perhaps we can have a discussion on the mop-up day. It is a bad habit that I think Departments — all Departments, not just this one — are getting into.

Mr Frew: If nothing else, asking them for a justification for having it in will keep them on their toes. They do not seem to be able to give us any justification.

The Chairperson (Mr Ross): We will move on to the formal consideration of amendments that the Attorney General proposed. We had a brief discussion on this last week. I refer members to their papers on the Attorney General's proposed amendment to the Coroners Act 1959. Further correspondence has been received from the Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety dated 25 February providing information on the look-back exercise on serious adverse incidents (SAIs). That indicated that, of the 1,417 serious adverse incidents reported from 1 January 2009 to 31 November 2013, a death resulted in 777 cases, and of those, 18, or 2·3%, were reported to the coroner more than three days after the date. The letter sets out further details on the 18 cases and on a number of initiatives that the Department of Health is taking forward to strengthen and enhance public assurance and the process on the scrutiny of the death certification. The initiatives include the roll-out of a regional mortality and morbidity review system and the introduction of an independent medical reviewer, similar to that being introduced in Scotland from May 2015 and that will provide additional safeguards and assurances. Members indicated last week that they wished to take some time to consider this. Do members have a view of whether they are inclined to support it?

Mr McCartney: We are inclined to support it.

Mr McGlone: To support the Attorney General's amendment? Yes. I know, Alban, that you are the spokesperson.

Mr A Maginness: We still have some concerns about it. There are good points in what the Attorney is saying, but we have to weigh that against what the Health people are saying. Anyway, we will have to —

The Chairperson (Mr Ross): Return to this? Is that what you are suggesting?

The Chairperson (Mr Ross): I think that the additional information is useful.

Mr Poots: I would be somewhat reluctant. I think that traditionally the health service has sought to cover up where it has fallen down. It has been in the process of change, but it still has not got there. We have tried to encourage it down the route of more openness and transparency, because with the likes of the O'Hara review, which has just been completed, one can see the failings of not being open, honest and frank at the outset.

The SAIs were set up as a learning, not a punishment, process. It may be that something fairly minor has gone wrong or something very significant. It is there to say that, "Because you did not do the following, that led to a worse outcome for this individual than would otherwise have been the case". They should not be negatively perceived. We want as much openness, honesty and frankness from our staff as possible. I am somewhat reluctant to support this if it were to lead to people not being as upfront as they might otherwise be. Otherwise, we would not have that learning. I want as much openness as possible, but at the same time, I am not convinced that this will extract further openness. I am not saying that the Attorney General is wrong on this, but I am not convinced that he is right either. I am not in a position where I can —

Mr A Maginness: Can I just say that there is a difference between SAIs and an accident report? An accident report is a piece of evidence that you can scrutinise. The SAI is a learning experience for the professionals involved. That was its original purpose; it was not intended to create an evidential basis. That is the difference between the two. I have an open mind on this, and I think that others —

Mr Poots: The Attorney General's concern came on the back of the fact that there had been around 20 deaths in Coleraine. There is absolutely no doubt that some of those should have been reported.

Mr McGlone: Whatever about the learning curve in hospitals, my one concern in all this is that, clearly, information that should have been provided to families or to the next of kin has so far been withheld or set to the one side. What the Attorney General is doing may clarify that situation to give people what they require, which is openness on how their loved one passed away, be it a child through to a mum or dad or whoever. The question that we have to ask ourselves is this: if the situation at the moment is that that has not been 100% delivered, why not? What is before us today is whether what the Attorney General is proposing can help to deliver that. While I have an open mind, I am veering at this stage more towards the latter, which is that the Attorney General's proposal could help people who are in difficult circumstances already to establish the truth about the death of their loved one.

Mr Frew: To be clear, my understanding of it is that the Attorney General could call on anything that he suspects he wants to look at. It is not just adverse incidents; it could be any death. Whilst I can see the rationale for that, there is the aspect to it that means that, if he can call anything in, there could be a grip of fear going across the health service about what we should make people aware of that they should write down and record. I worry that that practice would ultimately diminish the transparency. Whilst I think that we all want to get to a position where there is more transparency, it is about how we get there.

The Chairperson (Mr Ross): The best vehicle to do it.

Mr Frew: Yes, and that is what I am still querying.

The Chairperson (Mr Ross): We will take the decision that the Committee is still open-minded on this, and we will return to it. If members can concentrate their minds, maybe in the next number of days, the Committee will try to come to some sort of view. Because this is slightly different, in the sense that the Committee would have to take it forward because the Attorney General is asking us to, I think that some sort of decision needs to be taken.

Mr McCartney: On a technical matter, is there a possibility of a sunset clause on this amendment? Can a sunset clause be written into this? In other words, you could review it every 12 months. If it is overdone, or if the Health Department puts itself in that advanced position —

The Chairperson (Mr Ross): We will get advice on that.

Members, we will move on to Mr Wells's proposed amendment. The Committee initially took evidence on that amendment. Are members of the view that we should include views on it in our Committee report? That could be useful, given that the criticism the last time was that there was not any consultation on it. Now that there has been consultation on it, I am presuming that another Member will bring it forward.

Mr Lynch: I was just going to have Jim continue this.

The Chairperson (Mr Ross): Mr Wells could not bring it forward, but I imagine that somebody else will. It might be useful to include in the report the comments that were made in the evidence session, if members are happy enough to do that.

Mr Poots: We could make it a Committee amendment if we so desired.


Mr McCartney: The Committee could vote on it, and


Mr Poots: It depends on whether there is a majority on the Committee.

Mr McCartney: Of course, absolutely.

Mr Poots: I understand that. It could be a Committee amendment.

Mr Frew: Whether people support it, I think that the Committee should comment, because we have certainly looked at it and have consulted on it. It is not as though we are blind to it.

The Chairperson (Mr Ross): We will discuss that again in our mop-up session about the options that there are for it. As long as members are satisfied —

Mr A Maginness: At the moment, we are sympathetic to the amendment. We have not made a formal decision yet.

The Chairperson (Mr Ross): Members, we will arrange a short meeting for lunchtime on Tuesday 10 March to complete the informal consideration and proposed amendments. Formal consideration will take place on 11 March. If members make an effort to be at the meeting on 10 March and to have a think about some of the issues that we have not yet resolved, that would be very useful.

Mr McCartney: Will you be looking to propose amendments on 11 March?

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