Top judge warns of impact on justice system over Stormont collapse

Lord Chief Justice, Sir Declan Morgan
Lord Chief Justice, Sir Declan Morgan

Northern Ireland's top judge has raised concern over how the collapse of Stormont is impacting the justice system.

The Lord Chief Justice said the current political situation, and in particular the delay in setting budgets, creates "a difficult backdrop" for front line organisations.

Plans for specialist courts to deal with domestic violence crimes - which would provide greater support for victims - have stalled because of the political crisis.

Other proposals to deal with drug and alcohol crimes through dedicated substance abuse courts have also been halted.

Sir Declan Morgan warned that the current political situation has had an impact on the plans for a series of problem-solving justice pilots.

Speaking at a Probation Board for Northern Ireland Seminar in Belfast Sir Declan said: "These pilots include a Substance Misuse Court, a Family Drug and Alcohol Court, and the enhancement of the domestic violence listing arrangement ... to create a domestic violence court.

"The pilots were due to be taken forward by the Department of Justice as a pathfinder project under the new Programme for Government, which has still to be finalised."

He revealed that as part of an 18-month trial scheme to reduce the high number of offenders serving short prison sentences, 143 offenders received a community based order as an alternative to jail.

Sir Declan said that those who received an Enhanced Combination Order (ECO) "would otherwise have gone to prison for short periods of time".

He added that during their time in jail "the scope for undertaking any meaningful rehabilitative work with them would have been extremely limited."

Sir Declan said he would like the scheme to be extended right across Northern Ireland, however with no justice minister its future is currently uncertain.

"I am pleased to note that the pilot will be continuing for a further period of six months and I hope that a decision will be taken before too long about the longer-term future of this new and innovative approach," he said.

Sir Declan concluded: "These are uncertain times. The current political situation, and in particular the delay in setting budgets, inevitably creates a difficult backdrop for front line organisations such as the Probation Board and our third sector partners."