“role must be complementary to and not parallel to the work of the police, the PPS and the court”

The House of Commons Northern Ireland Affairs Committee has published its report on the draft protocols for Community Restorative Justice schemes – BBC report here. Full Committee report here [pdf file] Adds NIO Criminal Justice Minister David Hanson is “considering their findings very carefully, and will announce the way forward soon.”The report includes minutes of evidence sessions and the draft protocols. But here are the conclusions and recommendations [added emphasis throughout]

Conclusions and recommendations

1. The requirement in the draft Protocol for CRJ schemes to refer offences directly to the PSNI is critical to building public confidence in the work of the schemes and the wider criminal justice system in Northern Ireland. We welcome the Minister’s commitment to ensuring that the requirement for cooperation with the police is non negotiable and will be fully enforced. While we recognise that a political resolution to the issue of policing has not yet been achieved, we are disappointed that CRJ Ireland has decided not to formalise its relationship with the police by signing up to the draft Protocol, particularly since it expressed to us in public session an unambiguous wish to cooperate more fully with the police. Securing and sustaining confidence in CRJ schemes requires them to communicate fully and directly with the PSNI. (Paragraph 44)

2. The draft Protocol proposes that the advisory panel may be established so that the suitability of cases can be discussed in detail. We received evidence from the Public Prosecution Service, the PSNI and others that this would introduce an additional layer to an already complex referrals process. We recognise the importance of the work that the advisory panel would do, but are persuaded by this evidence, because we believe that inordinate delay would mitigate the effectiveness of the schemes. However, we believe that there should be a formal consultative process involving the police. (Paragraph 48)

3. We heard strong evidence that the Public Prosecution Service requires discretion when weighing the individual circumstances of each case referred to it, and that having a definition would impede this. We also acknowledge that in coming to a decision on any particular instance, the prosecutor would necessarily have to take into account not merely the crime itself but the record of the perpetrator. We welcome the Minister’s assurance that the non-criminal aspects of CRJ schemes, which make up the majority of their workloads, will be subject to proper inspection by the Chief Inspector of Criminal Justice. (Paragraph 54)

4. If the Protocol is to have the desired effect, it is essential that the Government monitor its workings very closely, conducting regular periodic reviews (at least once a year) of the type of offences that are being dealt with by CRJ schemes. (Paragraph 55)

5. We recognise the extremely valuable work being carried out by CRJ schemes in local communities in Northern Ireland and the cost-effectiveness of that work. We regret that the debate on the schemes’ work and their funding has become so heavily politicised. NIA has demonstrated its commitment to engaging with the police and has been successfully, although inadvertently, granted funding by the Department of Social Development (DSD). We recommend that the Government provide gap funding to those schemes that would qualify under the draft Protocol and that involve the PSNI. We believe that public funding should be made available for all restorative justice schemes which meet the standards of the draft Protocol through a dedicated DSD budget line, and not through seemingly haphazard allocations of different DSD budgets. (Paragraph 62)

6. We note that those schemes that sign up to the draft Protocol will receive formal recognition from the Government which will help them to obtain Government funding, but also funding from charities and businesses. Until the draft Protocol is finalised, we call on the Government to provide support and encouragement to schemes to seek out funding from other sources. (Paragraph 63)

7. Both our witnesses from the schemes and also the Chief Constable pointed out that those living in parts of Northern Ireland not covered by the schemes were at something of a disadvantage. The general impression that we received from those whom we met was that depoliticised schemes should cover the whole of Northern Ireland. This is a judgment with which we concur. (Paragraph 64)

8. It is vital that the independent external complaints mechanism commands widespread support and confidence. The evidence we received reveals concerns about the independence of the Probation Board given their role within the management committees of Northern Ireland Alternatives and the fact that they could potentially fund CRJ schemes in the future. We urge the Government to acknowledge these misgivings and ensure that any committee of the Probation Board asked to tackle this task be reinforced with representatives from the wider community and the voluntary sector. (Paragraph 67)

9. Like the Chief Constable, we recognise that there can be constructive opportunities within these schemes for individuals with previous criminal convictions to serve their communities, but there has to be a sensitive mechanism to ensure that those who have repudiated their past have indeed done so. Ensuring that CRJ schemes are staffed by suitable individuals with no current paramilitary connections and or involvement in paramilitary organisations is crucial to building confidence in the schemes and to removing suspicion that they are a front for paramilitary organisations. We were told that the POCVA framework will be used by schemes to determine whether a person has previous criminal convictions or been charged with an offence. We believe that this framework, backed up by the Suitability Panel, could be an appropriate and suitably rigorous means of determining suitability so long as the panel is able to take fully into account intelligence received from the police and the local community. (Paragraph 74)

10. Many witnesses expressed deep concern about the potential for the various processes of the draft Protocol to create delay in the delivery of justice to those engaged in CRJ
schemes and to undermine the informality of approach which has worked so successfully and has meant that the schemes are able to deal with cases quickly. While there is a commitment in the draft Protocol that the police and PPS will seek to fast track cases referred to them from schemes, no discussions have taken place between the Government, the PSNI and the PPS on how fast tracking will work in practice and the potential for the referrals process to give rise to debilitating delays. This is wholly unacceptable and has the potential to undermine the effectiveness of CRJ schemes and their key benefit of delivering swift, efficient and fair outcomes for victims and offenders. We recommend the Government hold discussions immediately with the PSNI and the PPS on the practical operation of all aspects of the referral process, and to keep this issue under regular review. (Paragraph 79)

11. The Chief Constable felt that expedition in dealing with cases would be materially assisted if there were, as in other parts of the UK, a prosecutor attached to every major police station in Northern Ireland. We believe that this suggestion is an eminently sensible one.(Paragraph 80)

12. Inspection of schemes is key to maintaining public confidence in the schemes by demonstrating that they adhere to the standards laid down in the draft Protocol. We welcome the fact that the inspections to be carried out by Criminal Justice Inspection Northern Ireland will cover both the criminal and non criminal aspects of the schemes’ work, particularly since the latter activities are outside the scope of the draft Protocol. This will provide a more comprehensive and complete insight into the schemes’ work. Mr Kit Chivers, Chief Inspector of Criminal Justice, argued that inspections should be carried out annually and on an unannounced basis. We agree with this proposal. (Paragraph 84)

13. We have just one concern in this regard. Mr Chivers did point out to us that in order to mount regular inspections he would have to divert resources from other tasks, and whilst he made no specific request for an increase in the size of the Inspectorate, we think this is a matter which ministers should monitor and be prepared to address.(Paragraph 85)

14. In his paper, Dr Fitzgerald stresses the importance of making provision for adequate independent training for CRJ staff to be undertaken by an independent body such as Criminal Justice Inspection Northern Ireland (CJINI). We believe that this suggestion should be implemented. (Paragraph 86)

15. We are deeply concerned by any evidence of paramilitary involvement in CRJ schemes and the opportunities that this creates to perpetuate paramilitary control of communities. No support should be given to any organisation that purports to be a separate system of justice or serves as a front for paramilitaries. (Paragraph 87)

16. However, we were impressed by the work done by the community restorative justice schemes that we visited. There are a number of schemes that successfully work in close cooperation with the police. We believe that community restorative justice has an important role to play in the criminal justice system in Northern Ireland, and provides a very cost-effective means of dealing with low-level criminal activities and anti-social behaviour. However this role must be complementary to and not parallel to the work of the police, the PPS and the courts. (Paragraph 88)

17. We fully endorse the requirement proposed in the draft Protocol for schemes to communicate knowledge of offences directly to the police. However, we conclude that the proposed panel to advise on the suitability of an offence to be dealt with through a community restorative justice system would be an unnecessary bureaucratic burden. We also conclude that attempts to define in precise terms the scope of “low level crime” appropriate for the schemes to deal with would be counterproductive. (Paragraph 89)

18. We are particularly concerned that IMPACT and other NIA schemes, which claim that they are willing to sign up to the draft Protocol without delay, are concerned that an interruption in their funding will jeopardise their work. We call on the Government to ensure that these schemes do not become victims of the “political” negotiations over policing. We also recommend the setting aside of earmarked government funds for the support of these schemes in the future. (Paragraph 90)

19. While we endorse the need for an independent complaints system to be available to those who are affected by these schemes, we are unconvinced that the Probation Board is the body likely to command the greatest degree of confidence. (Paragraph 91)

20. We endorse the case for vetting of those working on the schemes by a Panel to ensure that the public can be confident that they are not staffed by people with any serious criminal convictions since Good Friday 1998 or any paramilitary involvement since then. (Paragraph 92)

21. Any restorative justice scheme must be transparent and open to inspection. It is essential that schemes sign up to the fundamental standards of the draft Protocol and develop close associations with the agencies of the formal criminal justice system. If they do not, they can have no claim on public confidence in their operations and will continue to arouse suspicion that they are a front for paramilitaries. (Paragraph 93)

22. However, any system of regulation must balance the need to maintain public confidence in these schemes with a recognition that their effectiveness depends, at least in part, on their informal and community-based nature, and the speed with which they can operate. The Department needs to take urgent steps to ensure that the more formal approach enshrined in the draft Protocols does not compromise this efficiency. (Paragraph 94)

23. With the reservations outlined above, we endorse the draft Protocol as the basis for encouraging the development of community restorative justice schemes and building confidence in them. We are bound to agree with those of our witnesses who felt that the Government had taken an inordinately long time to address this issue and produce the draft Protocol. We therefore urge the Government to respond to this Report before 7 March 2007. (Paragraph 95)

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