Justice (Northern Ireland) Bill

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Lady Hermon (North Down): I am delighted to see you back with us this afternoon, Mr. Pike.

I sympathise with the hon. Gentleman's compassion about contacting victims' next of kin, but will he discuss the increased burden of administration on the prosecution service, as well as the increased financial burden on it?

4.45 pm

Mr. Mallon: There probably will be such burdens, but I ask the hon. Lady and others to try to assess the damage done when there has been no explanation. Let me give the example of the murder of Pat Finucane. Despite nearly 15 years of investigation, no one is yet any the wiser. The same applies to the case of Robert

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Hamill, who was kicked to death in Portadown. Before hon. Members rise to speak, I should say that there are many other cases.

Inestimable damage has been done to the process of justice as a result of the failure to satisfy the public as to why prosecutions have not taken place. When that is weighed against an increase in cost or the administrative burden, I have no doubt where the balance lies. It lies in favour of an accountable system that is as transparent as possible and consistent with the interests of justice and of the public, and that above all makes the victim the priority. That would be utterly valuable. The hon. Member for Reigate spoke earlier of a personal incident.

Mr. Garnier: I do not know the answer to two questions, so I shall ask them. [Interruption.] The hon. Member for Cleethorpes (Shona McIsaac) is a tremendous adornment to our Committee; I am pleased that she can contribute so wisely to our deliberations.

Have the two cases to which the hon. Gentleman referred—Finucane and Hamill—not led to prosecutions because the investigations, no matter how long they have been going on, are continuing, or because a positive decision not to institute proceedings has been taken? If the former, they provide us with two examples that would fall outside his new clause.

That will do for the moment. I shall wait until the hon. Lady prompts me again.

Mr. Mallon: I thank the hon. and learned Gentleman for the question, but I am not sure that I know the answer. The Minister will be aware that circumstances prevented a prosecution from taking place in the Hamill case. Has information on that been made available to inform the philosophy behind the amendments? I suggest not.

When the negotiations on the Police (Northern Ireland) Bill were concluding, those two cases and others had to be dealt with outside the legal process. That was the only means used to try to deal with them. It is better for the DPP, Attorney-General and the judicial process to deal with such matters openly and transparently. If they have to be dealt with in political negotiations, that may involve judicial figures, but not judges, the DPP and the Attorney-General.

Mr. Garnier: The second question that I want to ask is what category of person does the hon. Gentleman contemplate being persons

    ''properly connected to the matter''?

Does he mean only the immediate family of the victim—or the victim himself in non-fatal cases? Or does he mean that victim interest groups may also have some standing in the matter? It is quite important, because the courts can sometimes get clogged up with cases that are brought in order to make a political point rather than to find out something that an individual or family needs to understand.

Mr. Mallon: Over a considerable number of years, I have not noticed the courts being clogged for that reason. I think primarily of the victims and their families, but also of the wider interest that will provide

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the context within which the Bill will work to the optimum. Of course, there will be victims' groupings—there is no scarcity of them—but there will not be any if the cases surrounding victims are dealt with transparently, openly and accountably. That is the surest way to ensure that there are no victims' groupings. I hope that that will put into context what I intend by the new clause.

Mr. Tony McWalter (Hemel Hempstead): I agree with my hon. Friend's response to the intervention of the hon. Member for North Down (Lady Hermon). It has been far too common for economic considerations to preponderate over the rights of victims, and I welcome his attempt to redress the balance.

Would my hon. Friend address the point that I made initially to the hon. Member for Reigate? Clearly, a prosecution could be withdrawn if publication of the reasons for withdrawal—such as the intimidation of witnesses—would compromise the safety or welfare of innocent persons. Would my hon. Friend not agree that under such circumstances his new clause goes a little too far?

Mr. Mallon: I thank my hon. Friend. He suggests that the new clause might go too far, yet the hon. Member for Reigate said that it did not go far enough. I think that they are both right in a certain contradictory sense. The reality is that when a witness to a crime is threatened with violence, it is often the crime's victim and the victim's family who suffer—along with the whole process of justice. It is conceivable that there will be such cases in future, but that pattern has not developed over the past 30 years, and I do not see it developing now.

Like the hon. Member for Reigate, I believe that we have the opportunity to address this serious concern in a way that would both strengthen the institutions of the state and build public confidence by ensuring that the justice system is transparent and accountable, and that there is a presumption of innocence. I seek support for new clause 2 and for the two amendments. I believe that they have a lot in common.

I was talking about the Bill to some friends at Munster. Sometimes we get too bogged down in the details. The real question is whether it will be possible to create a workable system of justice that will be supported by the people of Northern Ireland and give the quality of justice that we seek. If we ask that question, I have no doubt that the provisions are a large step on the way to gaining public confidence in that aspect of the Bill.

Mr. Browne: I am grateful to hon. Members for tabling the amendments and the new clause. It has given the Committee the opportunity to consider some very serious issues. I will treat them seriously, but if the Committee will bear with me for a few moments, I should also like to recount an anecdote. The hon. Member for Reigate told us about the villains who stole his good name, or rather something with his good name on it, and that reminded me of a young man charged with theft, whom I defended when I was a young solicitor. He was not the brightest individual. He stole an expensive pen and did what all of us do

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when we get hold of an expensive pen—he tested it. Unfortunately, he wrote his name on the desk blotter before he took off.

Amendments Nos. 176 and 177 are designed to require the prosecution service to give the court, the accused and the victim of the offence the reasons for the withdrawal of charges. I intervened on the hon. Member for Reigate to point out the context of the clause 33. I understand, on reflection, that despite what I said the hon. Gentleman still considers that the amendment is effective. It is important, however, to understand that the clause would operate in a comparatively small number of cases—arguably in only a tiny number—in which a person had been arrested under the Police and Criminal Evidence (Northern Ireland) Order 1989 and the prosecutor wished to withdraw the charges prior to the first remand.

The provisions concern the discontinuance of proceedings before the court appearance. In many cases, though not all, the withdrawal of the charge will not be the final decision on the case. In fact, the withdrawal of the charge may be designed to allow further preparation and necessary investigation, or consideration of the appropriate charge and marshalling of the evidence.

The withdrawal of the charge is likely to mean only that the prosecutor does not wish to pursue the matter at that point. That is why subsection (4) retains the option of prosecuting at a later date. The giving of reasons required by the amendment would be particularly inappropriate, because in the majority of cases the prosecutor, in deciding to withdraw, would be saying only that he had not yet made a decision about whether to prosecute the case.

Mr. Blunt: Plainly, in those circumstances, the victim of the offence has a right to know that proceedings have been stayed. The Minister has made a perfect case for the prosecutor exercising his judgment about the interests of justice. It would clearly not be in the interests of justice to explain the reasons for withdrawal in such cases. That makes the case for the amendment.

Mr. Browne: With respect, that is an ingenious argument. The hon. Gentleman cannot think of any circumstances in which reasons could be given. The amendment requires reasons but says that they do not need to be given in certain cases.

The clause is not designed to provide for the giving of information. It is designed to address the administrative requirements and consequences of the decision made by the prosecutor. It is designed to ensure that the accused, who must be told certain information, does not have to appear before the court and that the court does not schedule a hearing when the charge has been withdrawn. The purpose of the clause is not to require the information behind decisions to be given out. Arrangements for informing those involved in the case will be dealt with in the code

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of practice of the prosecution service. Clearly, various people will need to be told certain things but the code of practice will deal with that.

5 pm

Mr. Blunt: The Minister seems to be asking the Committee to accept that there should be a duty on the prosecutor to inform the person who is required to appear in connection with the offence—the defendant— but no duty to inform the victim that the proceedings have been discontinued. That is grotesque. I am sure that, with a moment's reflection, the Minister would agree that the victim should have that information.

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Prepared 5 February 2002