Northern Ireland’s justice system is facing major challenges with a new director still to be appointed to lead the Public Prosecution Service, which in recent years has come under severe public criticism.
Attorney General John Larkin has responsibility for appointing the next director for the PPS but refuses to be drawn as to when a new appointment will be put in place.
“I obviously hope that could take place as soon as possible, but there is a procedure ongoing and it’s probably best that I say not too much more about that.”
PUBLIC CONFIDENCE AND THE PPS
In recent years the families of a number of murder victims have publicly claimed they have been failed by the PPS.
The family of murdered schoolboy Thomas Devlin were highly critical of the original PPS decision not to prosecute two men for murder.
The PPS had twice refused to prosecute two men for the 15 year-old’s murder in August 2005.
PPS officials initially stated that the available evidence meant there wasn’t a reasonable prospect of conviction.
However that decision was overturned after the Devlins insisted on independent advice from legal counsel in England who stated there was “compelling circumstantial evidence” against both men.
In June 2010 both men were convicted of the teenager’s murder.
The schoolboy’s mother, Penny Holloway, later said her grief had been compounded by the “spectacular, public and abysmally abject failure of the PPS to properly carry out its function”.
Today Mr Larkin has rejected the suggestion that the void in the appointment of a new director has been damaging to the reputation of the PPS.
He has also defended the work of the PPS and its current acting director Jim Scholes.
However he maintains that there are major challenges ahead facing the incoming director.
“Far from saying that there aren’t issues – there are problems from time to time as there will always be with individual cases and any new director will want to have a hard look at that.
“But I’m inclined to the view that one of the biggest problems at the moment is lack of information, lack of accurate information on the part of the public and that the more the public learns, I think, I would hope, the more that public concerns will be assuaged.”
CHALLENGES OF THE PPS
He says the new director will be faced with a number of challenges.
“The first thing is public expectation; the second is deciding what direction the new individual would wish to impose and the third is, having decided what that direction is, finding the money to do it.
“We’re all working in an era of increased stringency in public finance and therefore it’s going to be difficult to affect change.
“If, for example, a new director wanted to use in-house lawyers in the courts more often, particularly in the Crown Court, then there would probably be difficulties about training and recruitment of the additional lawyers required if additional lawyers were indeed required – I cite that as an example, as a purely abstract example … without knowing what the intentions of any new director might be in that regard.
“I think that’s some of the background to how difficult it may be, but I do return to the issue about public perception, public information, that there’s going to be a major piece of work in simply trying to create the space for the relaying of accurate information about what the PPS does and, for the most part, does very well indeed.”
Unlike Sir Basil Kelly in the 1970s and English Attorney General, Dominic Grieve QC, the Attorney General in Northern Ireland has no powers to challenge sentences which are unduly lenient or initiate criminal proceedings.
Until the re-establishment of the Attorney General for Northern Ireland that power did exist and was was exercised by the Attorney General in England, most recently Baroness Scotland.
However under the guidelines for the new Attorney General, Mr Larkin can only appoint a director to the Public Prosecution Service and remains without powers to challenge PPS decisions.
Asked about the subject in today’s interview, he says: "I think that’s an ongoing conversation, and as I understand things I think the Justice Minister, has indicated in assembly answers that he’s going to consult on options for change in that regard.”
While Mr Larkin insisted that the reduced oversight powers had been appropriate during his first year in office, he indicated that he could see no reason that the attorney’s full powers could not now be restored.
“I don’t think it’s a question of sooner rather than later.
“I think it’s a question that you now have a statutory independent attorney, that there doesn’t seem to me to be any particularly good reason that the superintendence (oversight power of PPS), that one was happy enough to give to a political attorney, should not exist now in our present context.
“But I am also a big believer that one shouldn’t legislate in haste, save when it’s genuinely required to do so, therefore a certain period of reflection and hard thinking about the issues, is probably worthwhile.”
Describing the restrictions which limit him from challenging PPS decisions as a “legislative lacuna”, the Attorney said:
“At present my responsibilities with respect to the PPS are pretty low key.
“I appoint the director and at the other end of the employment spectrum I might also appoint a tribunal which might then make a recommendation to me about the removal of a director.
“I am consulted by statue on the code for prosecutors and on the director’s annual report, but outside of that it’s hard to see what my responsibilities are.
“The Attorney and Director, to use the language of the statue, may consult one another on matters for which the attorney is responsible, but I think there is a legislative lacuna that in fact the attorney is not responsible for anything other than to be consulted on the two matters to which I have referred to and on making the appointment of a director.”
OPENING UP THE COURTS
Mr Larkin also spoke in favour of giving the public greater accessibility to the courts system and said he could see no reason for television cameras to remain banned from all hearings.
Earlier this month the Scottish court service granted permission for a Channel 4 documentary to film High Court proceedings and the Director of Public Prosecutions in England and Wales, Keir Starmer, backed the filming of some hearings.
Asked about whether he felt judges and judicial decisions should be more open and transparent, the Attorney General said:
“Well I think the question is a large question and I think at one level it’s very easy to answer yes to it.
“Let me give a single instance; the hearings of the UK Supreme Court are televised and you see, you have available during the course of the working day, the entirety of the proceedings, from 10.30am in the morning until four o’clock in the afternoon and that’s magnificent.
“Now it’s easy to do that for the Supreme Court because their procedures are very tightly run (and) focused.
“It’s an appellant argument, there are no witnesses.
“I’m not sure if it would be so easy to do that, for example, in the Crown Court and indeed I can think of a number of reasons why it would be inappropriate to do so.
“But in general terms I think that it is incumbent on all the participants in the criminal justice system to make sure that their rules are properly understood.”
Questioned whether he would be in favour of some court cases in Northern Ireland being televised, the Attorney General replied:
“I think where you have the conditions, as you currently have for the UK Supreme Court, it is televised, you can go back to the office and go on the Supreme Court website, click on the link and you can watch what’s on today.
“That’s also a facility that is from time to time available for the European Court of Human Rights in Strasburg, but these are courts which are confined solely to appellant advocacy, there’s no witnesses giving evidence, no witnesses that might be scared by the camera, for example, and therefore it’s reasonable straightforward.
“In principle, where those conditions apply, I don’t myself see any real reason why proceedings, for example, in the Court of Appeal (Northern Ireland), that didn’t involve the calling or hearing of witnesses, could not be, with appropriate safeguards, televised.”
Questioned as to how he thought the judiciary in Northern Ireland would react to television cameras being granted access to the courts, Mr Larkin said:
“They will speak to their colleagues in London as to how the Supreme Court has handled the issue and my impression is that the Supreme Court is handling the issue very well.
“You don’t have the least sense of playing to camera.
“Indeed, I have appeared recently in the Supreme Court and I have to confess that I was completely unaware that the proceedings were televised, they are that unobtrusive.”
Mr Larkin said that while serious issues needed to be addressed before cameras could be allowed inside Northern Ireland courtrooms, the argument in principle had now been won.
“It wouldn’t be possible given the present structure, and there would have to be quite a bit of work done before it would occur, but what we’ve seen with the new court that is the UK Supreme Court, they’ve done it and therefore I think the principle has probably been conceded.”
Questioned whether he believed the decision to open up the courts to the cameras would lead to a more open and transparent system, he said:
“I think if you go on to the Supreme Court website you see top class advocacy and you see judges who are, patently, striving to achieve the right result.
“I think it would be a huge boost of confidence for any member of the public who actually spends a bit of time observing the hearings in the Supreme Court.”