Bringing out the best in justice

Writing for agendaNi, Attorney-General Baroness Scotland QC outlines her role and explains the changes due in the position when policing and justice powers return to Stormont.

I was very proud and pleased when I was offered the post of Attorney-General by the Prime Minister. The office is one of the most interesting any lawyer can hold and the challenges – and rewards – are many. Since 1972 my predecessors, and now I, have also held the quite separate office of Attorney-General for Northern Ireland.

The years since then have seen communities torn apart by violence, suspicion and betrayal. Communities, who in any civilised society could justifiably expect peaceful, secure lives for themselves and their families, with the opportunity to work to better themselves and to take advantage of the many opportunities life brings us, have instead seen disruption and loss.

Too many families have lost ones they loved or seen the future blighted by individuals whose creed of violence has so poisoned Northern Ireland. Nothing can change what has happened or bring back those who have gone. Instead the memory of what has gone before should inform what we do now and remind us all of how badly things can go wrong.

Rule of law

Throughout that time, the role of the Attorney-General for Northern Ireland has essentially been to support the justice system. Never is the rule of law more important or the integrity and fairness of the justice system so vital as when it is under attack by those who want to destroy it. I hope – we all hope – that those times are now behind us and we can begin to look for the good things that came out of those troubled years.

One good thing, one thing that will have a lasting impact on Northern Ireland, was the review of criminal justice that was brought about by the Good Friday Agreement. It is rare that we get the opportunity to take a holistic view of criminal justice. Rarely do the people of any country get the opportunity to become so involved in shaping their future justice system.

The Criminal Justice Review did that. It looked at all aspects of criminal justice and engaged in a series of workshops and public consultations that were and remain unmatched as models of engaging with communities. The review examined and adopted what was best from other jurisdictions but concluded with recommendations that we can be confident reflect the needs and wishes of the people of Northern Ireland.

The Government implemented those proposals in the Justice (Northern Ireland) Acts of 2002 and 2004. Many of the proposed changes have already been made and are now established parts of the criminal justice system, not least the flagship of the reforms recommended by the review: the creation of the Public Prosecution Service. The one final piece to the jigsaw is the devolution of justice matters.

The changes that followed the Good Friday Agreement are all about the people of Northern Ireland taking governance back into their own hands. Despite the many setbacks and the very real problems faced, the elected Members of the new Assembly have achieved so much.

Not only have they been able to reach agreement over so many matters which had previously bitterly divided them but they have done so whilst bringing their communities with them. The Assembly is already making a very real difference to the people of Northern Ireland and has brought about many reforms in the areas of health and the provision of care, library facilities, the regulation of charities and finance – to take only a few examples of the statutes that are now part of the law in Northern Ireland.

Governance

The powers of governance are balanced by the responsibility of accountability to the electorate. The history of Northern Ireland has made its needs unique amongst the different jurisdictions that make up these islands. It is right that the Assembly should now take on responsibility for justice. Only then can it be said that the Assembly truly serves the people it represents.

The devolution of justice functions will bring about many changes in the way the justice system operates and is maintained. My own responsibilities will change and I will no longer hold the office of Attorney-General. Rightly so, that office is to be returned to Northern Ireland to appoint its own law officer.

The First Minister and deputy First Minister have already indicated their intention to appoint John Larkin QC as Attorney General for Northern Ireland on devolution. His task in establishing the role of Attorney-General in a way that meets the needs of Northern Ireland governed by a fully functioning devolved administration with the widest range of responsibilities is a challenging one, but it is an opportunity that I can only envy.

Whilst my own role will change significantly, I and those that follow me, will still be part of the legal scenery in Northern Ireland as I take up the newly created office of Advocate-General for Northern Ireland. In that position I will continue to serve the people of Northern Ireland in respect of those matters that have been excepted from devolution. I look forward to that new role and to working with my colleague John Larkin.

There is a well known Chinese blessing about hoping to avoid living in “interesting” times. Whilst I understand the message it conveys, I have always considered it a rather negative view. Difficulties often bring out the best in us. I believe they will do so in Northern Ireland.

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