|Justice (Northern Ireland) Bill
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
Column Number: 306is 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
Column Number: 307instructs 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.
Amendment proposed: No. 284, in page 30, line 41, at end insert—
Question put, That the amendment be made:—
The Committee divided: Ayes 3, Noes 19.
Division No. 18]
Clause 53 ordered to stand part of the Bill.
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