05 December 2005

'Joint approach' to justice plans

BBC

Community restorative justice groups and the police must work hand-in-hand, the NI justice minister has said.

David Hanson was speaking as draft guidelines were published, setting out standards for officially-sanctioned community restorative justice schemes. David Hanson's guidelines could be crucial to CRJ funding.

He said the schemes, which seek to bring victims and offenders together, were "not an alternative to policing".

"It is a mechanism whereby individuals can work with the community to tackle low level crime," he said.

"But it is not an alternative to policing."

"The draft guidelines make clear that the involvement of the PSNI is not negotiable."

Mr Hanson said on Monday that both loyalist and republican groups should cooperate with the police.

Consultation

The government is to consult on the guidelines over the next three months.

The guidelines apply to "low-level criminal offences". The proposals state that it would not be appropriate to include more serious offences, including sexual offences or cases of domestic violence.

In addition, the guidelines do not relate to non-criminal matters or to "anti-social behaviour" which does not reach criminal level.

There are 14 community restorative justice schemes currently in operation in republican areas of Northern Ireland and five in loyalist districts.

Supporters of the schemes argue that they provide a positive alternative to paramilitary beatings.

However, critics fear that they could lead to the creation of a two-tier justice system.

BBC NI political editor Mark Devenport said the projects followed similar lines by seeking to bring victims and offenders together and making offenders undertake community work.

However, while the loyalist projects cooperate with the police, those in republican areas do not.

Under the proposals, the police will have to be informed if community restorative justice groups want to handle a specific case.

'No obligation'

However in republican areas, there will be no obligation on those running schemes to contact police officers directly.

Instead, they can contact the Probation Board or Youth Justice Agency, which will pass a proposal by a community restorative justice group on to the police.

Alternatively, the proposal could be passed to an advisory panel featuring the PSNI and representatives of the scheme, Probation Board or Youth Justice Agency.

The police 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 handled by a community restorative justice scheme.

Under the government's proposals, the Public Prosecution Service must in reaching its decision take into account:

# If there was an admission of guilt, confirmed by a police investigation.

# The previous offending history of the offender; the gravity of the offence.

# The views of the victim and other information considered relevant.

All the projects are currently funded privately, but that finance is expected to run out in the spring.

Agreement on government guidelines is being seen as crucial to obtaining official funding.

The Policing Board said the government should not push ahead in this area until all political parties have endorsed the current policing structures.

Northern Ireland Secretary Peter Hain said the government would only back the schemes if they adhered to what he called "strict police principles".


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