19 January 2006

'Maintain momentum on CRJs'


THURSDAY 19/01/2006 15:46:24

Politicians in Northern Ireland were today urged to ensure that proposals for neighbourhood justice schemes avoid becoming the subject of a political football game.

By:Press Association

Lord Clyde, the Oversight Commissioner for judicial reforms in Northern Ireland, insisted the recent momentum for finalising guidelines on community restorative justice schemes should not be lost.

And in his fifth report examining the overhaul of Northern Ireland`s justice system, while he insisted overall progress had been encouraging there were still areas that need implementation.

The report stressed the role that community restorative justice schemes, which are currently privately funded, could play in dealing with low-level crime in some areas.

Lord Clyde, who has visited two schemes in West Belfast and Bangor, argued that while it was important there was discussion on the guidelines, the Government should avoid getting locked into an unduly extended debate.

He told PA: "It is an area, I think, which is of enormous importance, and I do believe community restorative justice can have, as the review group said, a role to play in the criminal justice system.

"The matter has moved at a fairly slow pace for the first two years of my oversight work.

"Time was taken working towards the production of guidelines. The matter has come much more into the public forum since the autumn with the (Criminal Justice) Minister (David Hanson) taking an active role by furthering the thing and preparing the guidelines to move the process forward.

"I do welcome these initiatives to make progress. On the other hand one has to be aware that there are a great number of sensitivities, anxieties, about this development, and one must respect those anxieties and concerns.

"But the review built in a considerable number of safeguards.

"I am simply waiting for the eventual emergence of the guidelines, and we will have to see in the next few months how it advances from there.

"Anyone would regret that the matter has been kicked about in a sense like that.

"It is far too important a matter to be treated as a game. I think everyone has serious concerns and serious proposals to make. I welcome the opportunity for the debate that has now been started."

Unionists, moderate nationalists and the Northern Ireland Policing Board have expressed concern at the Government guideline on the operation of community restorative justice schemes, which could receive state funding in the future.

While the Government has insisted that schemes operating in republican areas will have to refer cases to the police, some politicians and Policing Board members are worried that the PSNI has been given an arms-length role, with proposals referred to them by the Youth Justice Agency.

Community restorative justice schemes bring the perpetrators of low-level crime face to face with their victims, in their neighbourhood, to agree an appropriate penalty.

Lord Clyde said that while it was never easy to express statistically how much change had occurred in Northern Ireland`s courts and wider judicial system, significant progress had been made.

"We are far down the road," he said. "We have got a very substantial number of reforms which have been completely signed off and I am confident by the summer we will be further down the road."

Among the areas the Justice Oversight Commissioner has highlighted as requiring further progress were:

:: Moves to allow the Irish language to be used in courts.

:: The implementation of reforms to improve the information and explanations given to victims of crime.

:: Facilitating the temporary transfer of prisoners between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic.

Lord Clyde was also in his report awaiting progress on the proposed transfer of justice powers from Westminster to an executive at Stormont.

The recommendation of the creation of a single Department of Justice at Stormont headed by a locally-elected minister, will depend on whether an overall political deal is reached between the British and Irish Governments, unionist and nationalist parties.

SDLP justice spokesperson Alban Maginness said it was vital there were strong safeguards in the community restorative justice plans.

"Lord Clyde is right about the important role community restorative justice can play," the North Belfast Assembly member said.

"But we have to be careful. We must protect human rights and guard against paramilitary justice, paramilitary policing or state-paid vigilante gangs.

"We need to be sure that exiling, strong-arm tactics, threats and covering up of crimes by CRJ`s own members cannot happen. Nor do we want a culture of vigilantism to flourish.

"The SDLP did not accept the B-Specials. We won`t accept the (I)RA-Specials either."

Mr Maginness said his party was demanding:

:: A totally independent, statutory complaints system.

:: A direct working relationship with the police and not the systematic frustration of police investigations when
members of the Provisional IRA are involved in crime.

:: Proper training for dealing with crime and not dangerous amateur interventions in domestic violence cases.

:: The rule of law and not paramilitary control.

:: Everybody involved to sign up to the rule of law, instead of covering up for their own.

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