Human rights law not the only answer: Attorney General

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HUMAN rights laws are not the answer to all of society’s problems, the Stormont Executive’s most senior law adviser has warned.

Attorney General John Larkin, who expressed a similar concern in an interview with the News Letter last year, said that while law had a crucial role in improving society, there had to be a realistic view of the limitations of resorting to the courts.

Writing in his annual report, Mr Larkin, who as Attorney General is charged with being the ‘guardian of the law’ in Northern Ireland, says: “During the past year it has continued to strike me that there is a need for a realistic view about what role the law and human rights law in particular can be expected to play in contemporary society.

“At the heart of my role is a concern that law can have its full and proper place at the service of the community but it needs to be acknowledged that law cannot solve all of our problems; that while it is indispensable it is often subordinate.”

Last year, when asked about the campaign by human rights groups for a far-reaching Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland, Mr Larkin told this newspaper: “I think that the conceptual basis and the philosophical basis of much contemporary human rights thinking leaves a lot to be desired.”

In the Attorney General’s annual report, which was laid before the Assembly yesterday, he also says that over the last year “it became abundantly clear how significant a role this office would have in ‘dealing with the past’ ”.

Much of that role derives from the Attorney General’s power to order inquests.

Over the last year Mr Larkin has directed the coroner to hold 14 inquests, among them an inquest into the controversial killing of 10 civilians by the Army in Ballymurphy in 1971.

However, Mr Larkin said that while he would continue to order inquests into Troubles deaths where he saw fit, “it is clear to me that a comprehensive approach to our troubled past cannot come from inquests alone”.

He said: “Inquests are undoubtedly valuable – and in some cases are clearly required by Article 2 of the European Convention on Human Rights – but they cannot, it seems to me, deliver satisfactory outcomes for families whose primary wish is to see successful prosecutions, nor can they offer an effective vehicle for the exploration of broader themes and factors that have shaped our recent past.”

Mr Larkin said that among those who had contacted him, his “independence and interaction with the Northern Ireland Executive attracted the greatest curiosity from contributors”.

And the Executive’s most senior legal adviser said that he was considering “how perceptions of independence might be affected by regular attendance at meetings of the Executive”, adding that he had not reached a firm view but considered that there “may be advantages in attending only for an issue or issues in which oral advice is plainly required”.

Mr Larkin also appeals for assistance from anyone with ideas about how Article 2 (2) of the Mental Health (NI) Order 1986 – which allows the Attorney General to refer the case of a patient to the Mental Health Review Tribunal – could be used by him to protect the welfare of mental health patients.

Mr Larkin only briefly mentions the most high-profile case in which he was involved over the last year, the contempt of court proceedings which he brought against Peter Hain after the former Secretary of State published in his memoirs a fierce assault on Lord Justice Girvan.

The controversial case was eventually settled before trial after Mr Hain agreed to publish a footnote in future editions of the book clarifying that he was not questioning the judge’s motivation.

In his report, Mr Larkin simply says of the case: “My concern in this case was to protect the public’s right to confidence in the justice system against improper attack.”