Ending the use of non-jury trials in Northern Ireland would risk allowing “violence, fear and intimidation” to undermine the criminal justice system, the UK Government has warned.
Given the continuing threat posed by terrorists in the province, Northern Ireland minister Lord Duncan of Springbank said it would be “remiss” not to seek a further two-year extension of the exceptional court procedure.
While the Government wanted to see an end to the use of non-jury trials, in the current circumstances it was “on balance a proportionate and necessary measure”, said the Tory frontbencher.
Speaking in the House of Lords, Lord Duncan said non-jury trials were only used in “exceptional circumstances”.
He told peers: “The Government wishes to end the exceptional system of non-jury trials as soon as it is no longer necessary.
“But this should only happen when circumstances allow, otherwise we risk allowing violence, fear and intimidation to undermine the criminal justice process in Northern Ireland.
“You will be aware of the lethal threats still posed by terrorists in Northern Ireland.
“We accept that having specifically designed non-jury trial provisions in Northern Ireland is not an ideal situation, but neither is the severe terrorist threat in Northern Ireland.
“We also accept this is the sixth extension of what were designed to be temporary provisions.
“But the severe terrorist threat in Northern Ireland is a complex and enduring issue and we must make sure for as long as it endures that it does not interfere with our ability to provide safe and effective justice.
“It would be absolutely remiss of government to dispose of non-jury trials at this time.
“The continuing severe threat alongside the fear and intimidation across pockets of Northern Ireland risk the proper delivery of criminal justice.”
During the ensuing debate, Liberal Democrat frontbencher Lord Thomas of Gresford was taken ill while making his speech.
Other peers went to his assistance and he was taken from the chamber in a wheelchair, pushed by a doorkeeper.
Labour and Conservative front benches sent their good wishes to the peer.
The Lords later backed the two-year extension of non-jury trials in Northern Ireland without a vote.