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Abandoned Inland Waterways (Protection) Bill

David Heyes accordingly presented a Bill to make provision about the protection of abandoned inland waterways; and for connected purposes: And the same was read the First time; and ordered to be read a Second time on Friday 12 May, and to be printed [Bill 95].

30 Nov 2005 : Column 289

Orders of the Day

Terrorism (Northern Ireland) Bill

Not amended in the Standing Committee, considered.

New Clause 1

Mode of Trial on Indictment

'(1)   Section 75 of the 2000 Act (mode of trial on indictment) shall be amended as follows.

(2)   After subsection (1) insert—

"(1A)   The court shall consist of three judges of the Crown Court.".'.—[Lembit Öpik.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

1.45 pm

Lembit Öpik (Montgomeryshire) (LD): I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

I congratulate the Government on their sensible handling of the timetable for this legislation. This is one occasion on which there has been no issue of process, but there has been an issue of content. For that reason, I am sure that we can dispense with the business fairly quickly today, even though three important issues are up for debate. The first is the issue of the mode of trial.

Right hon. and hon. Members will recall that in Committee we had a debate about the specific question of how many judges should sit on the committees known as the Diplock courts. At the moment, as we all know, it takes one judge to operate the Diplock courts. The new clause seeks to alter the way in those courts operate by increasing the number of judges from one to three.

We had the option to table an amendment that would simply have repealed the entire Diplock court system, but we were aware that we would not have gained a consensus on that and also that there may still be a case for operating the Diplock court system because of the evils of intimidation and coercion that are well known in Northern Irish politics. However, Lord Carlile, who has informed much of our debate—the Government have listened to him considerably—suggested in his last report on the operation of part 7 of the Terrorism Act 2000 that three judges of the Crown court should sit in such trials, rather than one.

It is fair to recognise that Lord Carlile's assessment that Northern Ireland judges apply rigorous standards to the quality of evidence in non-jury trials still stands, but he suggested that a three-judge court would command greater confidence across the communities, without diminishing the credibility of the court system that we are discussing.

As we try to normalise Northern Irish politics and Northern Irish law, we believe that it is necessary to do all that we can to normalise the court system. So I agree with Lord Carlile that such a move would help to secure greater confidence in how the criminal justice system operates in scheduled-offence trials in Northern Ireland. We believe that the Government should seriously consider how best to move the situation forward and should certainly take on board Lord Carlile's suggestion.

Mr. Nigel Dodds (Belfast, North) (DUP): In the scenario that the hon. Gentleman envisions, with three
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judges sitting, would decisions have to be reached unanimously, or could they be reached by majority vote in cases of a difference of opinion?

Lembit Öpik: I was just about to come to that point, because it arose in Committee. My hon. Friend the Member for Solihull (Lorely Burt) said that she thought that the decision needed to be unanimous. On consideration, and after discussion with colleagues and others, I concur. A unanimous judgment would be a check step that would guarantee that the body of evidence was robust. The argument against a unanimous vote would be that a majority vote was sufficient insurance, because at least two judges would have to agree. In my judgment, it should be unanimous. However, those details do not have to be decided now as they could be dealt with by a statutory instrument that would establish the standing orders for the procedure.

In the previous debates on this point, the Minister cited cost as a reason not to have three judges. He said that in Lord Carlile's 2003 report

Lorely Burt (Solihull) (LD): May I develop the theme of costs? Lord Carlile was talking about 10 judges in 2003 and although only two years have elapsed since then considerable progress has been made, so one would hope that the necessity for the number of Diplock courts envisaged by Lord Carlile might be less than it was. I would also like to make the point that—

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst): Order.

Lorely Burt: I beg your pardon, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. I have not finished with the hon. Lady. She must understand that there is a distinction between an intervention and a speech. If she really wants to develop a point, perhaps she would be better off trying to catch my eye later in the debate.

Lembit Öpik: Nevertheless, the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Solihull (Lorely Burt) is valid. We are constantly told that the situation in Northern Ireland is normalising, so the estimate of 10 may be on the high side. There is a second point, which relates to other legislation that we have been discussing recently where the Government want to set up an entire, parallel quasi-judicial system to deal with on-the-runs, which will be a colossal expense. It is not acceptable for the Government to rail against the relatively modest investment in a three-judge Diplock court system while advocating an entire parallel system, at relatively high expense, for that other legislation.

Mr. Jeffrey M. Donaldson (Lagan Valley) (DUP): The hon. Gentleman will recall that during Second Reading of the Northern Ireland (Offences) Bill, the Secretary of State claimed that one reason why the Government were
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not able to go through a full judicial process for terrorists who were on the run was that it would create major problems in the judicial system in Northern Ireland. What implications does that have for his proposal that three judges should sit in such proceedings?

Lembit Öpik: I thank hon. Friends for their contributions, because as they make them we are covering all the points. In response to the hon. Gentleman, I recall the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland saying, only seven days ago, that he did not want to use the existing court structure because the on-the-runs legislation would "jam up" the courts, so if that is the state of shortage of judges in the Northern Ireland court system, the Government should be investing in extra judges in any case. There is a strong case for resolving both issues by ensuring that there are sufficient judges to administer the existing responsibilities and requirements of the judicial system in Northern Ireland, together with the on-the-runs—a matter that we shall discuss at another time—and the three-judge Diplock court system that we are proposing.

In essence, that is our case. We have given the Government some time to consider it and I hope that the Minister, on reflection, will accept that the new clause is wholly reasonable; the costs would be modest and it is very much in the interests of justice in Northern Ireland. Should the Government hold out against the new clause, it will be necessary for us to divide the House.

Mr. Laurence Robertson (Tewkesbury) (Con): We discussed this matter in Committee. The official Opposition have some sympathy with the point made by the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Lembit Öpik) and we have had various discussions about it.

I raised the point about unanimity in Committee although we did not discuss it much at that stage. We can see some difficulty with it. If there was a requirement for unanimity and there was a two-to-one vote in favour of the guilt of the person before the court, the majority verdict would obviously be guilty but the person would presumably be released. If there were no requirement for unanimity, I foresee further problems. If there was a two-to-one vote, there might be questions about which judge voted which way. Were they Unionist, loyalist, nationalist, Protestant or Catholic?

The initial appointment of the judges could also lead to difficulties. The number three does not divide equally, which is why it was chosen.

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