The Lord Chief Justice Sir Declan Morgan has given a rare broadcast interview addressing head on the alleged “perception “of partiality in recent bail decisions.
The interview opens a dialogue with the aim of educating politicians – in particular the DUP leadership – in the complexities of bail decisions on the Assembly’s own ground, the Justice Committee. The offer is also open for Peter Robinson to talk to him. The chief justice says nothing new of substance. But he clearly feels that the public controversy is serious enough for him to take the highly unusual move of explaining the nature of bail decisions taken by the independent judiciary directly to the Assembly and outside the customary venue of open court. It also marks a change of tone from the earlier judicial warnings to politicans in terms, to back off.
Judicial interviews and dialogue are not quite without precedent. His predecessor Lord (Brian) Kerr was interviewed about his role in April 2009 but this was a set piece and not in the eye of storm unlike Sir Declan’s interview.
When it was conducting a review of the system of judicial appointments almost exactly a year ago, Sir Declan Morgan told the Justice Committee: “The formal separation of our respective constitutional roles means that such appearances will be infrequent”. Will they become more frequent now? There are obvious risks in the offer he’ll be aware of. Will politicians on both sides be emboldened to demand regular explanations of controversial verdicts and sentences? Once expectations are raised can they be dampened down without attracting even louder complaint?
Obviously it does concern me that there may be members of the community who for one reason or the other question their confidence in the system of the administration of justice.
“That concern on my part is shown by the fact that I’m giving this interview, along with the various other steps that we’ve taken in relation to this, which include the letter which was sent to the justice committee recently and the fact that I’ll be meeting with the justice committee on a pre-arranged basis sometime after this.”
Sir Declan said he had been surprised by the controversy.
“I am in a way because you must remember that the judiciary in Northern Ireland for more than 30 years now have had to deal with some horrendously difficult issues.
“They have managed throughout that time to retain public confidence by virtue of the integrity and independence of their conduct, by their commitment to public service, and by their good judgement, so it is perhaps surprising that at this stage this issue should arise in this way.
“Now that issue has arisen, it’s important that I do what I can to bring as much information to bear on this issue as possible so as to reassure people.”
Sir Declan said he had no plans to meet Mr Robinson.
“Nor do I anticipate that we will be meeting to discuss the matter, although I would be perfectly happy to do so if he wished,” he added.
Peter Robinson said he welcomed the Lord Chief Justice’s “very open and helpful intervention on behalf of the judiciary”.
Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London