The campaign group that defended Ashers Baking Company in the so called ‘gay cake’ case has strongly criticised a review of Northern Ireland’s hate crime laws by Judge Desmond Marrinan.
Earlier this week Mr Marrinan published his report on hate crime in NI, with a series of recommendations for new dedicated legislation.He said the definition of a hate crime in Northern Ireland should be expanded to include offences against women and transgender people and people attacked on grounds of age, he said.The recommendation is part of a proposed major shake-up to address failings in the legal approach to hate crime in the Province.
If adopted, Northern Ireland would be the first part of the UK to add gender to long-standing protected characteristics for defining hate crime motivations, such as religion and disability.
In his review, commissioned by the Stormont Executive, Judge Marrinan recommends Northern Ireland should also add transgender to its legal definition, but urged it to be broadened further to include all crimes with a gender-based motive.
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However, public affairs charity the Christian Institute, which defended Asher’s Bakery in the so called ‘gay cake’ row claimed that proposed “stirring up hatred” offences in teh report threaten free speech and that legal opinion has warned that NI would be “more vulnerable” to infringement of liberties.
Citing the “huge controversy” over similar hate crime proposals in Scotland, the group says legislating for “vague” hate crime laws in Northern Ireland will be met with a huge backlash from the public.
Simon Calvert, Deputy Director for Public Affairs at the Institute, said: “Given the huge controversy over stirring the Hate Crime Bill in Scotland, you’d have thought Judge Marrinan would have been cautious with his recommendations. Unfortunately, he appears to have learnt nothing from Holyrood’s experience.
“The NI review makes many of the same dangerous recommendations that have sparked such outrage across the water. In particular, proposed new ‘stirring up hatred’ offences go even further than the proposals being debated in the Scottish Parliament.
“If these proposals are adopted by the Northern Ireland Executive they can expect a huge backlash from the public and criticism from the legal experts and police officers who would be tasked with implementing any new laws.
“Existing legislation in Northern Ireland is already too broad – enough to prompt criticism from Ivan Hare QC, a leading human rights expert, about the risks it poses to free speech. Adding vague new hate laws into the mix will make the situation worse.”
He noted that the 900 page review of NI hate crime laws makes a number of recommendations including new offences based in part on ‘stirring up hatred’ covering race, religion, political belief, sexuality, gender identity and disability.
He said the the offences are similar to those proposed in Part 2 of the current Hate Crime and Public Order (Scotland) Bill, which has been criticised by numerous professional organisations including the law Society of Scotland, the Scottish Police Federation and the Faculty of Advocates.
The Christian Institute claimed the proposed NI ‘stirring up’ offences:
· Cover behaviour deemed ‘likely’ to stir up hatred, rather than requiring criminal ‘intent’ - a lower threshold on contentious issues like sexual orientation and religion than anywhere else in the UK;
· Cover ‘transgender identity’, a topic that is subject to heated debate in society at large;
· Include no specific free speech clauses, unlike similar legislation in Scotland and England and Wales;
· Include no ‘dwelling defence’ protecting words spoken in the privacy of the home;
· Include a vague provision on ‘arousing fear’;
Mr Calvert added: “The content of these proposals suggests a heedless approach towards civil liberties. The review even says that no specific protection for free speech is required in new stirring up offences and argues that the new laws should extend to what people say in the privacy of their homes.
“This is particularly worrying when you consider what the new offences will cover - discussion of hot button issues like religion, same-sex marriage and transgender identity. Decent, law-abiding citizens could be caught by these offences for voicing unorthodox or controversial views.
“Journalists, writers and others could also find themselves in hot water if they choose to cover, or express, views that are regarded as politically unacceptable by ‘woke’ activists on social media. The threat these proposals pose to vital liberties cannot be overstated.”
Earlier this year, a prominent QC issued a hard-hitting warning over the review of hate crime laws in Northern Ireland, when they were out for public consultation.
In a detailed legal opinion for the Christian Institute, free speech and human rights specialist Ivan Hare QC argued that, in the absence of key freedom of expression provisions, the plans will leave free speech in NI “more vulnerable” to infringement.
The QC warned that there is “... clear potential to infringe the right to freedom of expression” and “a very real risk that robust and uninhibited discussion of matters of great public importance will suffer a chilling effect”.
He added: “Such a chilling effect is particularly likely where the penalty is criminal and may include imprisonment”.
His legal opinion can be accessed in full here.
Mr Marrinan has passed his report to the Department of Justice and will now play no further role in the hate crime legislative process.
The Department of Justice has been invited to respond to the Christian Institute comment.
Earlier this week Justice Minister Naomo Long said the completion of the review into hate crime legislation is an important first step in addressing the issue.
Speaking after receiving Judge Marrinan’s Report, Naomi Long said: “Judge Marrinan has undertaken a thorough review of our hate crime legislation. I know that he has consulted widely with a range of experts, academics, interested individuals and groups, not only across Northern Ireland, but further afield as well.
“The recommendations in his Final Report are complex and wide–ranging and people may hold contrasting views on some of them. That is why I want to take some time to give them careful consideration.
“It is important that we build on the opportunity this provides for us to move towards strengthening and updating hate crime legislation in Northern Ireland.
“Hate crime in any form is unacceptable and addressing it is one of my priorities. Whether offline or online, targeting a person because of who they are or what they believe – be it their race, religion, political belief, sexuality, gender identity or disability – is wrong.”