Devolution progress report

Ford-3 The Department of Justice has made progress, particularly on prison reform. However, tribunal reform, the Prisoner Ombudsman’s powers and a women’s prison have not been finalised. agendaNi reports.

Fundamental reform of Northern Ireland’s prisons for the first time in over 30 years is the main achievement emanating from the devolution of policing and justice to date. Other successes since April 2010 include reform of the province’s legal aid system, a consultation on the future governance of the PPS and new long-term policing objectives (focusing on human rights, accountability, policing with the community and policing in a peaceful society.)

Prisons, youth justice and legal aid reviews and a Justice Act, which introduced an offender levy to go towards a victims’ fund, have also been undertaken since 12 April 2010.

The Hillsborough Agreement stipulated the following six objectives for a devolved criminal justice system:

• full provision of legal aid for disadvantaged people;

• a victims’ code of practice;

• reviews of alternatives to custody, the Prisoner Ombudsman’s powers, children in the criminal justice system and the prison regime;

• a sentencing guidelines council;

• a comprehensive strategy to manage offenders; and

• a women’s prison.

The first three have been undertaken while a consultation on a strategic framework for reducing offending will be published shortly and a consultation has been carried out on a sentencing guidelines mechanism (including the establishment of a council with statutory powers to publish definitive guidelines.) All 52 female prisoners are jailed in Hydebank young offenders’ centre and prison. The Northern Ireland Prison Service is carrying out an estates strategy review which will consider females in custody.

When he took up the role of Justice Minister in April 2010, David Ford set out four priorities (see page 38): prisons, justice delivery, access to justice and safer communities.

The mistaken release of three prisoners and a dirty protest by republican prisoners at Maghaberry prison were early problems for the Minister in 2010. The policy of 50:50 Catholic-Protestant recruitment to the PSNI ended in March 2011. Secretary of State Owen Paterson said it was the right time as almost 30 per cent of officers were from a Catholic background. At November 2011, 30.3 per cent of officers were Catholic while 67.5 were Protestant.

The murder of Constable Ronan Kerr in April by a dissident car bomb came in advance of the 5 May Assembly elections. His was the only paramilitary-linked death last year. PSNI statistics show there were 52 paramilitary bombing incidents and 40 casualties as a result of paramilitary-style assaults from April 2011 to 31 January 2012. One hundred and sixty firearms and 3,260 rounds of ammunition were found by police. The UK Government has pledged £199.5 million (and the Executive will allocate £45 million) to the PSNI to tackle terrorism until 2015.

Peter Robinson threatened to resign if the crown emblem was removed from the Prison Service uniform after the Justice Minister told the Assembly, last November, that changes were needed in the service’s culture, including how it looks and operates. However, the DUP can block any change under the St Andrews Agreement.

With three months to go until the legislation which underpins the DoJ runs out, the Assembly and Executive Review Committee has formally reviewed the options. OFMDFM has agreed to keep the status quo. Meanwhile, the Minister seems determined to implement extensive changes with 13 consultations currently underway and 24 consultations completed.

Director of Queen’s University’s Institute of Criminology and Criminal Justice Professor Shadd Maruna notes that there have been “some very real and tangible changes resulting from devolution, not least the transformation under way in the prison system.” The fact that prison reform has been instigated “after a decade or more of languishing” is “the most impressive achievement of the devolved justice ministry to date,” he contends.

Maruna argues that some members of the public “will legitimately question what has changed with devolution.” He says the most obvious example is “the PSNI’s deceptive and troubling practice of hiring former RUC officers as consultants. To many, this will feel quite literally like going back in time and does raise issues about who is in charge.”

Devolution has not yet “grasped the opportunity to stop and fundamentally re-think what sort of justice system Northern Ireland wants and needs as a society.” Instead, Maruna argues, “there has been a tendency to bring in expertise from across the water and seek guidance from England and Scotland in reforming some of Northern Ireland’s justice agencies.”

He points to the devolution in Scotland where they asked “big questions about what Scotland wants out of criminal justice” and reinvented the justice system around those goals. Maruna believes that Northern Ireland should use the opportunity “to draw on our strengths as a society and [that it] no longer needs to look to England or elsewhere for direction in creating a just society.”


Fundamental prison reform will require a co-ordinated and properly resourced programme of change, reinvesting resources to “refresh the service, its staff and managers”, and must be “based on a clear shared vision of what prison is for,” Dame Anne Owers concluded.

Following her “watershed” prisons review, a four-year ‘strategic efficiency and effectiveness programme’ for prison reform was launched on 28 July 2011. Over the next four years, the Prision Service will develop a staff exit scheme (which will begin this year), a new ‘core day’ to ensure that offenders can take part in as much rehabilitation work as possible and a target operating model to ensure that the right number of staff at the appropriate grade are on duty at the right time. It intends to redefine the role of the professional prison officer to focus on working with prisoners and reducing the risk of re-offending. A new support grade prison officer role will be established with responsibility for basic care, supervision, searching, security and control. Management structures will have an improved focus on performance management and personal accountability, and a fresh approach to training and development.

In December 2011, Ford announced a prisons reform oversight group, comprising Chief Inspector of Criminal Justice Michael Maguire, retired PSNI Assistant Chief Constable Duncan McCausland, former chief Human Rights Commissioner Monica McWilliams, Department of Justice Permanent Secretary Nick Perry and Patricia Gordon (a non-executive director of the Prison Service).

While a women’s prison has not been advanced, the department launched a strategy to manage women offenders in October 2010. It focuses on providing alternatives to prosecution and custody, reducing offending and developing a gender-specific approach to the management of women in custody. This includes the day release of suitable prisoners from the women’s wing at Hydebank to the INSPIRE Women’s Project (where they take part in personal development, counselling and parenting programmes under supervision), or support provided by the Women’s Community Support Project within the prison.

Safer communities

Work on a new community safety strategy is ongoing. A consultation ended in April 2011 and the Justice Committee was briefed on the strategy in October 2011. At that meeting, the head of the DoJ’s community safety unit, Declan McGeown, revealed that the strategy will focus on four pillars: building on the ‘partnership approach’ to anti-social behaviour; a stronger focus on early intervention and prevention; building shared communities by helping communities to deal with the problem of interfaces, contested space and hate crime; and more ‘partnership working’ in the Executive and through the new policing and community safety partnerships.

The Chief Constable is responsible for short-term policing objectives and priorities, but the Minister sets the long-view approach.

The long-term priorities require that policing:

• is delivered in a way that “protects and vindicates” the human rights of all;

• is a shared responsibility that involves “effective partnership” between police services, the public, and statutory, voluntary and private partners; and

• pro-actively responds and adapts to emerging changes in society.

The community must have an “effective, accessible and accountable” policing presence to “address its needs, enhance its confidence in the police, and to deter criminality and reduce harm.”

The Police Service must continue to be free from external interference in operational matters, be accountable within the rule of law, be answerable to the community through the Policing Board for operational decisions and locally through policing and community safety partnerships. It must also be held to account for the use of public money by the department and the Assembly.

Access to justice


A Victim and Witness Strategic Action Plan in 2010-2011 included a code of practice for victims of crime which enshrined victims’ expectations and stated that victims must be informed of progress on a case. The Justice Act includes special measures for vulnerable and intimidated witnesses such as allowing someone to support a witness as they give evidence. It also created an offender levy that contributes to a new ‘victims of crime fund.’

Legal aid

The legal aid budget is to be reduced from £104 million in 2010-2011 to £75 million in 2014-2015. The Legal Aid for Crown Court Proceedings (Costs) (Amendment) Rules (Northern Ireland) 2011 came into operation on 13 April 2011 and legislated for the removal of ‘very high cost’ cases which paid enhanced rates of legal aid. It also cut fees in other cases by 20 per cent for barristers and 25 per cent for solicitors. In addition, Jim Daniell’s access to justice report was released in August 2011 with 159 recommendations for the reform of criminal and civil legal aid costs and procedures.

The legal aid cuts prompted a strike by solicitors from March to August 2011.

A Public Accounts Committee report (in October 2011) on managing criminal legal aid noted that “it has taken a locally accountable minister to take meaningful action to address the weaknesses in the system and begin to change the culture that prevailed under direct rule.” However, it said that much more needs to be done “at a quicker pace.” Actions included closely scrutinising approximately 300 cases with an estimated value of £22 million that were still to be paid under the previous legal aid arrangements.

In January 2012 the Minister announced that a review of legal aid for cases in the magistrates’ courts is under way and that a review of the new Crown court legal aid fees will be carried out in early 2013. In February, he published further proposals to recover legal costs from wealthy defendants in Crown court cases. Following discussions with the legal professions, the Minister launched a consultation paper proposing the introduction of new fees to remunerate them for representing defendants in confiscation hearings and applications under proceeds of crime legislation.


The DoJ has said that no fixed date has been decided on for a new sentencing guidelines mechanism. An ongoing consultation on encouraging early guilty pleas outlines three potential changes to the current system whereby judges have the ability to reduce an offender’s sentence if they admit their guilt at an earlier stage. Offenders often do not admit their guilt until the trial has begun, but early pleas would reduce the burden on victims and witnesses and ensure a more efficient use of public resources. The three possible approaches are: increasing awareness of the current scheme; making procedural changes to present the case against the accused at an earlier stage; and creating a statutory presumption of credit.


Changes to the tribunals system are also underway. While devolution of justice allowed the transfer of statutory responsibility for tribunals from individual departments to the DoJ, the department wants more centralisation and has proposed either to stop reform now, to create a unified administration by bringing the remaining tribunals into the remit of the Northern Ireland Courts and Tribunals Service, or to set up an aligned system that would ensure the same procedures, appointment and training arrangements or an integrated structure with the power to hear all appeals. A consultation on reform is due once the department analyses responses to those proposals.

Report sponsored by G4S

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