Bail Conditions

Oral Answers to Questions — Justice – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 3:00 pm on 17th January 2017.

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Photo of Trevor Clarke Trevor Clarke DUP 3:00 pm, 17th January 2017

5. Mr Clarke asked the Minister of Justice to outline any plans she has to review how bail conditions are monitored. (AQO 922/16-21)

Photo of Claire Sugden Claire Sugden Independent

I would like to begin by expressing my heartfelt sympathy to the family of David Black. No one should have to endure what they have endured. Indeed, I had a conversation with the family over the past week about events that have been reported in the media.

The monitoring of bail conditions is a matter for the police, and, while the PSNI falls under the remit of my Department, it has complete operational autonomy. Consequently, it would be inappropriate for me to interfere with that, and, therefore, I cannot involve myself in individual cases or operational cases. I understand that the PSNI has issued an unequivocal apology to the Black family and has commissioned a review of its processes. I agree with its view that all sections of the criminal justice system should take the opportunity to reflect on this, because there is a failure there.

My Department is currently reviewing bail in line with the recommendation in the Fresh Start panel report on disbanding paramilitary groups. The review is focusing on bail decisions in those more serious cases assessed as being linked to organised crime or terrorist activity. An initial phase will bring together law enforcement agencies, the Public Prosecution Service, officials from the Office of the Lord Chief Justice and my Department to establish and consider the facts around bail decisions. A workshop is scheduled next month and the initial phase of the review is expected to be concluded by March. Should the findings from this initial phase highlight any issues, such as procedural or systemic matters, a second phase will be initiated to consider whether further measures are needed.

Photo of Trevor Clarke Trevor Clarke DUP

I thank the Minister for her answer, but I think that the police's response is too little too late for the Black family.

Another opportunity was missed when the same individual was allowed to participate in a dissident rally last Easter. I do not believe that an apology is sufficient for the Black family. I believe that, if bail had been reviewed, there was an opportunity to put this man back in custody where he belonged until he had served the time that he properly deserves. Will the Minister give an assurance, given the catalogue of errors by the police, that she will look again at what can be done? It is a highly embarrassing and reprehensible act that this man may have been involved in, and apologising to the family of Mr Black is not enough. I ask the Minister to review her decision.

Photo of Claire Sugden Claire Sugden Independent

The operational decision does not rest with me; ultimately, bail decisions rest with the courts and the PSNI. That said, I am appalled by what has happened. I am not scared to say that, even though I am stepping outside my jurisdiction in the matter. I made my feelings clear to the Chief Constable when this was allowed to happen. I can assure the Member that I have a focus on the issue to ensure that it will not happen again. The bail review has been ongoing in my Department since October. In light of this — I say that reluctantly, because it should not be in light of this; it should not have happened — I have asked my officials to expedite the review in any way that they can to give some comfort to the Black family. The Black family have gone through enough, and this will continue to raise those issues with them. It is devastating, and we need to do all that we can in the public services to ensure that victims are genuinely put first.

Photo of Roy Beggs Roy Beggs UUP

The Minister mentioned that the issue had been dealt with by her Department since October and that the initial phase for consultation would be the next few weeks. Following the May 2016 'Fresh Start panel report on the disbandment of paramilitary groups in Northern Ireland', there was to be a review of bail conditions for those charged with serious offences in Northern Ireland. There is a very clear perception or belief that it is easier to achieve bail in Northern Ireland when one is charged with a serious offence. Why has it taken so long to come to a conclusion or even to have an initial phase? In the interim period, this event has happened.

Photo of Claire Sugden Claire Sugden Independent

I reiterate what I said in my answer to Mr Clarke: the bail review, as part of the three-person panel report, has been under way since October, a mere few months after that action plan was published. I am not sure what point the Member is trying to get at. My Department is committed to bringing this forward. Let us expedite it, because it has been demonstrated that we need to do that. For the record, of all the actions in the three-person panel report, those that have been fulfilled came from my Department. From my perspective, there is no lack of commitment to work towards that end.

Photo of Jim Allister Jim Allister Traditional Unionist Voice

Does the Minister agree that it is a shocking indictment of our criminal justice system when someone charged with aiding and abetting one of the most horrendous murders of recent years is treated with kid gloves by the system, whereby the courts, through serial relaxations of his bail, removed the tagging restraint, reduced the number of days that he had to sign and allowed him out to attend hotel spa weekends? Then — surprise, surprise — he skips bail and the police do not discover it for over a month. Could there be a more shocking indictment? Have any real lessons been learned both by the judiciary, who are not above reproof in the matter, and by the police?

Photo of Claire Sugden Claire Sugden Independent

Again, I am appalled by the case. If lessons have not been learned, they certainly should have been. That is all I can say other than to reiterate what I have already said.

Photo of Chris Lyttle Chris Lyttle Alliance

It is clear that the hurt and distress to which the Black family have been exposed as a result of this failing is completely unacceptable. Will the Minister reiterate the timescale for the PSNI review of the bail checks system to ensure that it is adequately robust to avoid any reoccurrence of this nature?

Photo of Claire Sugden Claire Sugden Independent

We hope to have my review concluded by March. As I said, I hope to expedite that as soon as possible. I am not definitive about the PSNI's timescales on this, but I know that it is something that it has been reviewing since this mistake.