14 December 2005

Community justice plan 'full of holes'


13/12/2005 - 18:11:21

British government plans for neighbourhood justice schemes in Northern Ireland are riddled with shortcomings, it was claimed tonight.

During a meeting with Criminal Justice Inspector Kit Chivers about the British government’s community restorative justice protocol, SDLP policing spokesperson Alex Attwood MLA warned him he could be compromised by the government’s plans.

“The protocol is full of holes,” the West Belfast Assembly member argued.

“It proposes giving a role to the Criminal Justice Inspector, a role that is full of holes.

“The SDLP has urged the inspector, Kit Chivers, to pull back and refuse to allow his office to be compromised by participation in schemes governed by the protocol.”

Northern Ireland Office minister David Hanson’s plans for restorative justice schemes, which bring the perpetrators of low-level crime face-to-face with their victims to agree an appropriate penalty, have received a barrage of criticism from unionists and moderate nationalists.

Supporters of the schemes say they could provide a viable alternative to paramilitary punishment attacks.

However, critics of the plans fear republicans would like restorative justice programmes in their communities to act as an alternative police force.

Under the British government’s proposals, the PSNI will have to be informed if community restorative justice groups want to handle a specific case.

The protocols envisage most schemes referring a case they think they should handle to an advisory panel featuring the PSNI and representatives of the scheme, Probation Board or Youth Justice Agency.

However in republican areas where people refuse to work with the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI), there would be no obligation on those running schemes to deal directly with the police.

Instead they can alert the PSNI that they would like to handle a case by contacting the Probation Board or Youth Justice Agency who will pass the proposal on to the police.

The PSNI will then consider if there needs to be any action – such as fingerprinting – before referring the case to the Public Prosecution Service, which will ultimately decide if it should be dealt with by a community restorative justice scheme.

Mr Attwood identified a number of shortcomings in the plan.

He noted: “There is still no independent complaints system.

“The protocol does not cover what restorative justice claims is 95% of their work – what they define as ‘non-criminal’ and ‘anti-social’ work.

“Screening of volunteers, training and human rights requirements are inadequate.

“The proposed relationship with the PSNI is arms-length, ambiguous and evasive.”

SDLP justice spokesperson Alban Maginness MLA said restorative justice had a role to play in the justice system but the British government’s protocol was too flawed.

“Kit Chivers should be a voice for getting things right, not participating in what is wrong,” the North Belfast MLA said.

“The SDLP is urging the Criminal Justice Inspector to think again.

“His office is being presented as the guarantor of right practice. In reality, it runs the risk of rubber-stamping bad practice and low standards.”

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