Charlotte’s Law

Oral Answers to Questions — Justice – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 2:15 pm on 22 April 2024.

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Photo of Danny Donnelly Danny Donnelly Alliance 2:15, 22 April 2024

5. Mr Donnelly asked the Minister of Justice for an update on the introduction of Charlotte’s law. (AQO 298/22-27)

Photo of Naomi Long Naomi Long Alliance

It remains my intention to include legislative provision for Charlotte's law as part of a sentencing Bill, which I hope to introduce next year. Charlotte's law is intended to create measures to encourage murderers to reveal the location of their victims' remains in so-called no-body cases. That is being taken forward in light of a campaign that has been spearheaded by Charlotte Murray's family and supported by the family of Lisa Dorrian. Charlotte went missing in 2012. In 2019, her former partner was convicted of her murder. He remains the only person convicted in this jurisdiction to date where the victim's body has not been found.

The key elements of Charlotte's law will be a significant increase in the murderer's life sentence tariff to reflect their ongoing failure to disclose critical information, coupled with the opportunity for a reduction in tariff should a post-sentence disclosure be made. Similar to Helen's law in England and Wales, it will also require the parole commissioners to take the failure to disclose into account when considering the prisoner's suitability for release on licence at the parole stage. Officials in my Department have continued to develop the detail of the proposal, working closely with the affected families and other stakeholders during the absence of the Assembly and since the return of the Executive. The findings of the public consultation, along with a way forward report, will be published over the coming months once that development work has finished. A number of the administrative measures that I announced in November 2020 have already been agreed with the relevant stakeholders.

Photo of Danny Donnelly Danny Donnelly Alliance

I thank the Minister for that answer. She will be aware of attacks on healthcare workers. Will she clarify how the Bill might protect front-line healthcare workers from attack?

Photo of Naomi Long Naomi Long Alliance

The sentencing Bill that I intend to bring forward will also look at creating an aggravating factor for attacks on healthcare workers. I referenced that in the debate earlier, and I will elaborate further on some of the other measures, including those around car incidents and how they will be dealt with in the sentencing Bill. If the Member is still around after Question Time, he will get a full response to those queries.

Photo of Phillip Brett Phillip Brett DUP

I thank the Minister for her update. Will she commit to introducing Harper's law here in Northern Ireland?

Photo of Naomi Long Naomi Long Alliance

The issue of Harper's law is under consideration. It has not been agreed by the Department, but we are looking at the potential of doing something similar to what has been proposed elsewhere. Were we to decide to go down that route, we would have to look at how quickly we were able to develop proposals and how those would be applied in conjunction with the other regulations and laws that we have in place.

Photo of Doug Beattie Doug Beattie UUP

I welcome the information that you have given, Minister, in regard to Charlotte's law. Will the Minister also commit to looking, as part of the sentencing Bill, at the sentence reduction model for those who wait until the very last moment to admit guilt?

Photo of Naomi Long Naomi Long Alliance

If people were made aware of the degree to which the discounting of sentences, as it is rather casually referred to, takes place, it would come as a shock to most. There are good reasons why people get a reduction in sentencing if they make a guilty plea. However, it should be the case — it certainly will be the case with Charlotte's law — that the earlier that that disclosure is made, the more credit that an individual will be given for making it. The later that they leave it, the less credit will be given. It is important that, if we are going to maintain that continuity, that applies across the board, but, obviously, individual sentences are a matter for the judiciary and are not something on which I can interfere or comment. However, I am aware of the concern that is caused when, for example, somebody goes through a lengthy period awaiting trial, often in quite traumatic circumstances, and, on the morning of the trial, the perpetrator makes a guilty plea. In such cases, all that pain and anguish for the individual has been in vain, and people feel that the perpetrator of the crime has, essentially, regained control over the person. That needs careful consideration.

Photo of Patsy McGlone Patsy McGlone Social Democratic and Labour Party

Minister, will you give us an indication as to what your legislative programme is, including some indicative times, please?

Photo of Naomi Long Naomi Long Alliance

With the indulgence of the Executive and the Assembly, the intention is to introduce a mixed-content modernisation of justice Bill before the summer recess. The Committee would then have just over a year to process that. We hope, when that is concluded, to introduce a sentencing Bill. When that is complete, the third Bill that we hope to introduce is a hate crime and victims Bill, which will include hate crime provisions, some of which were outlined in the Marrinan report, and some of the remaining victims' arrangements that were proposed by Sir John Gillen.