Shaping the justice system

Alastair Ross MLA speaks to Adam Morton about his role as Chair of the Committee for Justice and his hopes for the development of Northern Ireland’s criminal justice system. 

Replacing George Dawson in 2007, Alastair Ross won the East Antrim seat in 2011 and was appointed as Chair of the Committee for Justice in December 2014. Describing his role as Chair of the Committee, Ross admits that when he was appointed he had a massive task in getting to grips with the complexities of the criminal justice system. 

“To help me, I found it really beneficial to build relationships with the experts and the best way to do that is go out into the field,” said Ross. “So I have spent days with judges, barristers and solicitors. I have spent days at the court watching proceedings from the Appeal Court through to the Crown Court and I have spoken to witnesses as well. I think it is crucial that I immerse myself in it and really try to gain a better understanding of the system.”

Describing the role of the committee, Ross explains that its statutory function is to assist and support the Minister in fulfilling his role. The committee does this by meeting every Thursday afternoon to receive briefings and scrutinise policy and legislation brought forward by the department. Reflecting on the challenges that have faced the committee as a whole during his time as Chair, Ross expresses his satisfaction at the committee’s ability to work together.

“There are a number of politically contentious issues which could potentially be very difficult for the committee,” he admits. “What I have found over the last 12 months is how well the committee works together on issues that aren’t particularly politically slanted and we have really tried to take a balanced approach in how we look at things.

“There are also a number of challenging issues out there such as the legal aid issue, which has been very difficult for us, particularly with the bar council and law society at loggerheads. In a situation like that, our role is to encourage dialogue and ensure that the vulnerable in society won’t be disadvantaged, particularly in the area of family law. Of course, we also have to challenge the comments made from both sides about remuneration to ensure the tax payer is getting a good craic of the whip as well. 

“The ongoing issue at Maghaberry is also a concern. We have highlighted our concerns three or four times during the year and the recently published report from Her Majesty’s Inspectorate indicates the position of the committee. We had already expressed a lot of the concerns found in the report and welcome it as it has shown that we were right in terms of the concerns we had. Looking forward, we have to continually monitor the situation to ensure that it is being run effectively, prison officers are safe and that prisoners are engaged.

Innovation seminars

Despite these issues, Ross also highlights that one unique function of the committee is its ability to bring forward its own proposals and attempt to set the agenda. In January 2015 the committee launched its ‘innovation seminars.’ These seminars have, according to Ross, led to a number of ideas that the committee wants to see the department introduce in the next mandate.

The innovation seminars bring everybody within the justice sector together. This includes the Lord Chief Justice and representatives from the Bar Council, the Law Society and the community and voluntary sectors. Ross explains that with less money now available in the public sector, bringing those organisations that work at the coal face of Northern Ireland’s legal system together with the law makers can help save money and improve outcomes.

“The innovation seminars have really focused on current thinking and potential reform,” said Ross. “Different people have led each seminar. The Lord Chief Justice, the Bar Council and the Law Society looked at youth justice and how we can first of all prevent young people from getting into the formal criminal justice system by appropriate diversions or early interventions.

“There are a number of areas we have looked at that aren’t operating here but could be used to produce better outcomes and reduce costs. I really believe that these innovation seminars have been a great achievement and I think anybody in the sector will say it has been a great initiative. The seminars have, in my opinion, been a massive step forward and have really allowed us to attempt to set the agenda. I think they should be replicated by other committees as well. As representatives it’s important to acknowledge that we are not really experts in these things, it is about trying to bring the right people together and get people to give you advice and work together to find the right solutions. In terms of formulating and interrogating ideas and coming up with innovative thinking, this is the direction we need to go. Government should be the impetus for innovation, that’s a really key thing for us.”

Problem solving courts

One of the solutions that have arisen from these innovation seminars is the concept of problem solving courts. The idea behind problem solving courts, Ross explains, is an attempt to find a solution to problems that arise when social and legal issues merge. 

“Take for example what there is in America in terms of drugs courts, domestic violence courts and how successful they have been. They are less of a cost to the taxpayer but provide better outcomes for both victims and offenders. We have also looked at online dispute resolution systems that operate in Holland and Canada and we had a representative, Maurits Barendrecht, over from the HiiL Innovating Justice centre in Holland to show us how it operates.”

Ross is enthusiastic about the concept and is pleased to see that the Secretary of State for Justice, Michael Gove is also considering introducing them throughout the UK. “It is really encouraging to see other people take up similar ideas,” says Ross. “In 2012 Northern Ireland introduced a type of domestic violence court in Londonderry, it is not a fully-fledged court in the American sense of the word, but it does provide a wraparound service giving victims the necessary support in domestic violence cases.

“At present many domestic violence cases fall before they actually get to court because witnesses are scared to come forward and often withdraw their statements. We need to have system that encourages people to come to court to give their witness statements and that requires a different type of court setting. The idea behind a domestic violence court is to provide support mechanisms to victims that offer them support from the moment they make their statement to the moment they appear in court. 

“It is about allowing that person to tell their story in court so they don’t feel like they are being bullied by a defence barrister on the stand. It is about judges who have expertise in that area and understand the difficulties surrounding this type of crime. if we are able to put all that in place then I believe we will be able to get more prosecutions for domestic violence.”

“Similarly, drugs courts would be very useful as part of a problem solving initiative. Again this would involve bringing together judges with expertise in addiction issues, rehabilitation services and social services altogether in a court room so that many cases rather than sending you to prison will put you on a rehabilitation programme as part of your sentence and if you stay on the programme and turn your life around then that is your sentence. 

“In these types of crimes, it is all about outcomes. People talk about being tough on justice or soft on justice but actually what matters is what works to solve the problem and what doesn’t. If you have a system in place that offers better outcomes for everybody then that’s something we should look at and drugs courts and problem solving courts in general, seem to have better outcomes than traditional courts. It is something I think the criminal justice system in Northern Ireland needs to embrace and it is something that I think criminal justice systems across Europe are now moving towards as well.”

Victims Charter

One of the biggest successes for Ross during his time on the Justice Committee has been the Assembly’s support for the Victims Charter. Ross believes that whilst the majority of people never have to get involved with the criminal justice system those that do, especially the victims, often have a “really horrible journey.”

“Quite often victims are seen as an ‘add-on’ rather than being a key part of it. This perception leads to them not being given key information which ultimately ensures they have a lack of an understanding of the process,” says Ross. “Often victims were unsure of what would be required of them and ended up sitting around and in some cases, even sitting close to the supporters of those who allegedly perpetrated a crime against them. Having a victims charter on a statutory footing is a huge step forward in ensuring that victims know their rights and are kept informed of the proceedings of the justice system.

“This means the thinking of the justice system will be explained to them. They’ll know, for example, why a prisoner is being released and in some cases they are informed of why a case isn’t being brought forward for prosecution by the police or public prosecution service. All of that is hugely important, it is something my party had in its manifesto and is something we as a committee have all worked hard on together to ensure that victims are put at the centre of the criminal justice system rather than seen as just an add-on.”

Future

Looking ahead to the implementation of Northern Ireland’s latest justice Bill, Ross confirms that the Bill will have a wide ranging impact but will have a key focus on two or three main areas. He notes that a particular area of interest for the Bill is the collection of fines. When the Bill becomes law, individuals who aren’t paying fines will find the money owed deducted from their salaries and benefits. This will be a vital change as Ross claims at present a lot of money is lost every year in uncollected fines.

Another change that is set to be introduced is one that is likely to prove controversial as changes will be made concerning the provision of firearms. Ross confirms that an agreement had been reached between the police and the department that has seen a resolution reached around issues such as fees and the ages of young shooters.

Ross also acknowledges his desire to see the dangers of social media and other cyber-crimes dealt with by a provision in the Bill. “One of the things we as a committee did was hold a conference on justice in a digital age. The conference really highlighted difficulties around cyber-crime and social media for young people, image sharing revenge porn and all of that kind of stuff. It is an emerging difficulty for the criminal justice system and we probably will look as a committee to mirror the provisions that are in place in England around legislation to get prosecutions on the back of revenge porn.”

Reflecting on his role, Ross comments: “I have thoroughly enjoyed my time as committee Chair,” he said. “It is something I would like to do again, but if it is not me I would hope the committee makes the decision to continue on with the work we have started because I think it is proving to be very beneficial.”

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