Developing devolved justice: Nick Perry interview

Nick Perry, Permanent Secretary at the Department of Justice, talks to Owen McQuade about the key components of a good criminal justice system and the main challenges facing local justice in this Assembly term.

Two years into the devolution of justice and the new department, “it sometimes feels shorter and sometimes longer than that,” according to Permanent Secretary Nick Perry. It has been a packed couple of years that has seen “the benefits of a local Minister, which gives us the opportunity to start reshaping the system to suit Northern Ireland’s needs.”

The period has seen the launch of several strategic initiatives. “A busy period and in the nature of any justice department, incidents sometimes come along that increase public anxiety, which have to be addressed,” observes Perry. In the wider context he sees devolution of justice as having “filled out” the Executive’s portfolio.

Effective justice

“Justice ought to be an issue that unites everyone,” he explains. “We all want our children to be safe, not to have our houses burgled.” However, there has been a diversity of views on justice and he sees the objective for the department “to take it to a common ground.”

For the justice system to work effectively, it has to be “affordable, efficient and quick.” Justice is a strategic issue which is interwoven with other policy areas. The link between social deprivation and criminality, for example, means that often “many of the perpetrators and their victims come from the same postcodes.” Justice interacts with areas right across government, with some offenders entering the prison system having reading ages of 11 or less and many with substance abuse problems. Training and jobs policy is another area which is intertwined with the justice system. Perry sees justice as very much part of ‘joined-up government’ as exemplified by the draft Programme for Government. An example of this joined thinking is demonstrated in the draft Reducing Offending strategy for which there is “no justice-only solution.”

With the present economic backdrop, Perry highlights the importance of “the resource issue” which he sees as “making resources go further”. This will be a challenge and he mentions the fact that per capita criminal legal aid expenditure in Northern Ireland is still amongst the highest in Europe.

Since devolution, the Department of Justice has been reorganised into four directorates to align with the Minister’s main priorities:

• Safer Communities Directorate;

• Access to Justice Directorate;

• Justice Delivery Directorate, including corporate functions; and

• The Northern Ireland Prison Service.

Perry and his team have been leading change in the department to not only make it more effective but “to build confidence with politicians and the community”. The integration of the department into the NICS has gone “surprisingly smoothly” and the new PfG has helped with the integration process. The department is joining into the shared services in the NICS.

Prison reform

Top of the Minister’s list is prison reform. “Prisons are the biggest single issue facing the department,” the Permanent Secretary states. “It’s a complicated picture: operationally, politically and organisationally.” The final report of the prison review team led by Dame Anne Owers presented “a model for a model prison service”. Many of the recommendations overlapped with other policy areas such as healthcare in the prison system. In tackling such issues, Perry says that the justice system will look to “form alliances, partnerships and agreements with other organisations.” An oversight group has been set up to monitor progress in implementing the recommendations of the report and there is also a prison staff severance scheme. He also touches on the report in December 2010 by the Criminal Justice Chief Inspector, Michael Maguire, into the Prison Service: “powerful analysis” highlighting the areas for reform.

Perry sees the task in reforming prisons as driving forward change over the next 3-4 years “against a political backdrop”. The key question is: “What is a prison service for?” and there is a need to “look at the balance between reform and punishment.” He says that “a lot of good work” has been achieved on the reforming side and highlights the Donard complex in Maghaberry prison with its focus on improving the health and education of prisoners. On the issue of vulnerable prisoners, he acknowledges that although progress has been made, there is more to be done.

Perry says that the reform will need a shift in the culture across the whole system and he says “reforming leadership” will be vitally important “but you also need change on the landings.”

The proposed changes to civil legal aid, complementing recent reforms of criminal legal aid, are an “important modernising framework”.

Jim Daniell’s report on access to justice “gives an excellent basis for progress.” The focus is not just on savings but cost-effectiveness. For example, it recommends the use of mediation to avoid ending up in court which is “good for everyone”. Again, as with many reforms to the system, implementation will take a lot of effort.

In standing back and looking at the justice system as a whole, Perry sees “encouraging” progress. The crime rate in Northern Ireland is two-thirds that of England and Wales. Confidence levels in the justice system are higher. There are “bright spots” such as the Woodlands juvenile justice unit in Rathgael, outside Bangor, which is considered the best in the UK.

On looking at the challenges, however, Perry observes that there are pockets of difficulty where communities’ experience is less positive: “Things are not, for example, so benign perhaps in North Belfast and it’s often down to that link between prosperity and lack of crime”. As discussed earlier, he emphasises the significant reform in prisons.

Delay in the system continues to be a major challenge. As we were meeting, the Minister was announcing to the Assembly that he would look to introduce statutory time limits. Although the exact detail of this has not yet been decided, “it would send a psychological signal to the system.”

On the cost of the system, he sees the changes to legal aid and prison reform as having the potential to reduce costs significantly: “Devolution helps us to address these challenges. It gives the moral authority to take on vested interests. A Minister backed by a local Assembly can take on the legal aid issue.”

With the integration of the DoJ into the NICS, cross-cutting themes can be better tackled, such as mental health in prisons. “There is a lot of capability in the system. We just need to harness it,” he remarks.


There are three operational estates in the criminal justice system: courts, police (the Policing Board’s responsibility) and prisons. The changes to the courts are currently out for consultation. He sees the objective of any rationalisation of estates as “A: to cut cost of the estate and B: to reinvest”. He notes that it will be “a challenge to reconfigure the prison estate in a period when capital is in short supply” and highlights the Desertcreat college and upgrading the forensic science laboratory as additional priorities.

Perry recognises that justice will consistently have a high profile: “There are difficult issues such as dissidents in prisons and, perhaps like health, things will always happen that make it into the media. Five of the top eight news stories on an average day will involve the justice system.” There are also increasing expectations from the public which only raises the profile of the justice system.

He also expects more emphasis on victims into the future. “Prosecutors [the Public Prosecution Service is a non-ministerial department and not part of the DoJ] represent the public interest and the state rather than the victims directly,” Perry notes, but victim and witness support is crucial “as without witnesses, the system doesn’t work.”

Profile: Nick Perry

Nick Perry has been the Permanent Secretary of the Department of Justice (DoJ) since 12 April 2010. Before that he was Director General of Criminal Justice & Policing in the Northern Ireland Office. His previous posts there included policy and finance roles, as well as being Principal Private Secretary to Mo Mowlam and Peter Mandelson

(1998-2000). He also worked in the Ministry of Defence (1984-1991) in London, and in HM Customs & Excise (1981-1984) in Belfast. Nick was educated at St Columba’s College and Trinity College Dublin. His interests include history and sport, though now mostly watching his children playing rather than doing anything himself.

Report sponsored by G4S

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