New Clause 3 — Discontinuance of proceedings: information for victims
Orders of the Day — Justice (Northern Ireland) Bill
'(1) Where the Director has the conduct of proceedings in relation to an offence against a person and he decides to discontinue such proceedings at any stage, he must inform the victim or victims of the offence, or in the event of their being deceased or incapacitated, their next of kin.
(2) If, following a court appearance, a person is acquitted at the direction of the court, the Director must inform the victim or victims of the offence, on in the event of their being deceased or incapacitated, their next of kin, of that action.'.—[Mr. Blunt.]
Brought up, and read the First time. 8.45 pm
Sir Alan Haselhurst (Deputy Speaker)
With this it will be convenient to discuss the following: New clause 4—Reasons for discontinuance of proceedings—
'(1) Where the Director has the conduct of proceedings in relation to an offence against a person and he decides to discontinue such proceedings at any stage, he shall have a duty to provide the Attorney General and the Advocate General with reasons for his decision.
(2) The Attorney General shall, if requested by the victims of the offence, or in the event of their being deceased or incapacitated, their next of kin, provide a copy of the reasons referred to in subsection (1) to those people, unless he decides that to do so would be against the interests of justice, or the Advocate General, with whom he shall have a duty to consult, decides that to do so would be against the public interest.'.
New clause 5—Director's reasons for not instituting, or discontinuing, proceedings—
(a) the Director decides not to institute proceedings against a person or discontinues such proceedings; and
(b) a person appearing to the Director to have a legitimate interest in the matter requests reasons for his decision,
he must provide that person with such reasons unless to do so would be against the interests of justice or the public interest.'.
Mr Crispin Blunt (Reigate, Conservative)
Pressure of time will prevent me from speaking as fully as I would like about these new clauses, which are extremely important. They encapsulate the principle of placing victims at the centre of our consideration of criminal justice, which the Government address in clauses 67 to 69. I want to direct the House to the language in which clause 67 is drafted precisely to show the extent to which I want to carry that principle across to the issue of informing the victims when proceedings in relation to offences are discontinued.
Later, the Government will invite the House to accept clause 67, which states:
"A victim information scheme is a scheme requiring the Secretary of State to make available information about the discharge or temporary release of persons serving sentences of imprisonment in Northern Ireland imposed in respect of the commission of offences ("imprisoned offenders") to victims of the offences who wish to receive it."
That provision relates to giving victims of crime information about when the prisoners who committed those offences will be released, and we support it. However, informing victims of crime when proceedings against individuals have been discontinued is a much more fundamental duty.
We discussed in Committee examples of how victims, who are currently not central to the process, are unable to discover, unless they are active in seeking the information, that the Director of Public Prosecutions may have decided to discontinue proceedings. When I attempted to formulate a similar new clause in Committee, the Minister correctly pointed out that it reflected only a small part of the process. I have therefore tabled two further new clauses that reflect two separate issues.
The first issue is the straightforward passage of information to victims of offences, or, in the event of their being deceased or incapacitated, to their next of kin. Therefore, under new clause 3, when the Director has the conduct of proceedings in relation to an offence against a person and he decides to discontinue such proceedings, he would have to inform the victim at any stage of the process. Equally, if those proceedings go to court and the court directs that those proceedings should be discontinued, the duty would fall on the Director to inform the victim. The new clause relates simply to the passage of information to ensure that victims know that proceedings have been discontinued against those concerned. There can be no argument against that, although I do not want to speak for too long so that I can listen to the Government should they adduce one.
New clause 4 is necessarily more complicated. It deals not only with the passage of information about discontinuance but with the giving of reasons. I have reflected on our earlier debate, and particularly on the contributions of Mr. Mallon and the Minister. I have tried to identify the right place at which to lay responsibility for the giving of reasons. I remain convinced that in normal circumstances it is right to give reasons why proceedings are stayed. We discussed in Committee the controversial cases, especially those in which proceedings against members of the security forces in Northern Ireland have been discontinued. There needs to be confidence in the process.
Plainly, two judgments need to be made: the giving of reasons must be in the public interest, and must not be against the interests of justice. I have drawn my new clause more tightly than the more widely drawn new clause 5 tabled by the hon. Member for Newry and Armagh, and have provided that such information should be discoverable by the victim of the offence.
The issue at stake on the giving of reasons is where the responsibility should lie, and in Committee we debated whether it should lie with the DPP or the Attorney-General. I have reflected on that, and have come to the conclusion that the responsibility for the interests of justice test should properly lie with the Attorney-General, who should be accountable having been informed by the DPP that he has discontinued proceedings. On the wider judgment of the public interest, the Advocate-General, who under the arrangements in the Bill will be the Attorney-General for England and Wales and so a Member of this House or the other place, is the appropriate person to have responsibility for the public interest test.
That is how I have framed these two new clauses. They deal with immensely important principles, and if we are to put victims at the centre of criminal justice and bear their interests in mind, the new clauses must be supported and I commend them to the House.
I shall attempt to be brief, but as the hon. Member for Reigate said, this is a crucial issue that was debated at length in Committee, not least because the review recommended that if information is sought by someone with a proper and legitimate interest in the case about why there was no prosecution or why a prosecution has been abandoned, the prosecutor should give as full an explanation as possible without prejudicing the interests of justice or the public interest. That is important in the Northern Ireland context. I shall not go into detail about the reasons why, but would simply ask whether things would be a lot easier with policing and with the Bill had this applied in the Finucane and Hamill cases and many others.
I agree with the Government that such decisions should be made on a case-by-case basis. The Government also stressed that certain considerations had to taken into account, including the interest of witnesses and the risk of jeopardising the safety of individuals. I also agree with that, but where I disagree is that I believe that the presumption should always be in favour of giving reasons. Only when that would be against the interests of justice or against the public interest should reasons be withheld. That is consistent not only with the interests of the administration of justice, but with the interests of victims and their families. It is not enough for us to pay lip service to the interests of those who have been aggrieved while prosecutions have not been brought or have been dropped.
This matter is crucial and I regret that we are unable to give it the time that it deserves. So be it. I shall stop now, so that other hon. Members may speak.
Mr Lembit Ípik (Montgomeryshire, Liberal Democrat)
The hon. Members for Reigate (Mr. Blunt) and for Newry and Armagh (Mr. Mallon) have eloquently outlined what is virtually a one-sided case in favour of this modification. New clauses 3 and 4 offer us a different degree of implementation of the proposals laid out by the two hon. Members, while new clauses 4 and 5 would achieve more or less the same thing. I hope that the Minister takes the sentiment of what has been proposed seriously; he will be hard put to argue against the rationale for it.
At very least, I am interested to know whether the Minister will accept the absolute bare minimum—too little, in my view—as laid out in new clause 3. If not, what comfort and justification will he offer the victims and their friends and relatives after being intransigent on that point?
Mr John Gummer (Suffolk Coastal, Conservative)
I must add my support to the new clause, because I had such difficulty with the Government's position on the last matter. The new clause represents a sensitive approach to the difficulties in Northern Ireland, and sensitivity and delicacy are what we must consider. I hope that the Government take the same view, given that many of us feel that we are drawing a narrow line and that we must walk along it carefully. The big thing is to show that we entirely support the victims, and the new clauses would help in that respect. As we are looking for a sensitive route through a historically difficult position, that is the way in which we should proceed.
Mr Des Browne (Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Northern Ireland Office; Kilmarnock and Loudoun, Labour)
I must make it clear to the House that I accept the spirit in which this short debate has taken place. As in Committee, where we addressed these matters at greater length, I have listened carefully to hon. Members and, for reasons that they prayed in aid, I take the issues seriously.
New clause 3 would require the Director of Public Prosecutions to inform the victims of an offence if he decided to discontinue proceedings or if a person were acquitted of an offence for which he was being prosecuted. New clauses 4 and 5 would require the Director to give the victims of the case reasons for non-prosecution, even though, as Mr. Blunt pointed out, that would be done through another Law Officer.
I understand and agree with the view of hon. Members that victims should be kept informed of the progress of their cases. All too often, the interests of the person who has suffered from a crime are forgotten. The review group was very conscious of that and made a number of recommendations with it in mind, but I do not believe that the provision before the House is the way to proceed.
As the hon. Member for Reigate pointed out, clause 67 provides for an information scheme for victims as to the release or temporary release of offenders from prison that has been welcomed in all parts of the House and spoken of positively in Committee. For obvious reasons, it does not apply to offenders who received a non-custodial sentence.
I draw the House's attention to clause 67(8), which contains a number of safeguards. The Secretary of State will not be able to give out information on the release of an offender if that adversely affects the safety of the victim or any other person. There are no comparable safeguards in new clause 3. [Interruption.] Will the hon. Member for Reigate wait until I have finished?
Lembit Öpik referred to the bare minimum or the bottom line—[Interruption.] This is not difficult. Imagining circumstances in which information that a prosecution has been discontinued might disadvantage the health or well-being of a victim may be beyond Opposition Members' credulity or knowledge, but, having practised in the criminal courts for 20 years, I can think of vulnerable people who would not be able to accept such information. For example, people who are mentally ill or those whose vulnerability results from abuse would not be ready to accept it, and I am not prepared to accept a statutory requirement that they be told whether they are vulnerable or not.
Comparable safeguards to the ones that I have pointed out in the clause would be the bare minimum that I would expect, but no such safeguards are to be found in the new clause. The Director would have to give out information regardless of its effect.