The judge heading up a new review of Northern Ireland’s hate crime laws has said freedom of expression will be “in the forefront of my mind”.
The Department of Justice at Stormont has commissioned the new independent review into hate crime laws, to be led by Judge Desmond Marrinan.
Judge Marrinan, speaking to the News Letter yesterday afternoon, pointed to police statistics showing just how widespread the problem of hate crime in Northern Ireland is.
“The criminal justice inspectorate found that, on average, during 2016-17 there were over eight hate incidents reported to the police every day in Northern Ireland, equating to one every three hours,” he said.
“And last year, the 2017-18 figures, the PSNI found that for the first time in Northern Ireland racist hate crime exceeded sectarian hate crime.”
He continued: “The first thing I want to emphasise is that this is an independent review – I’m quite independent of the department.
“The legislation in Northern Ireland was never created in one go. It’s been rather piecemeal over 20 or 30 years and some people have argued that it needs to be improved – I’m not going to pre-judge that.
“There are specific hate crimes in England and Wales which we don’t have. There are issues as to how well or badly they are working. That would give you an example of something to look into – whether we need those specific laws here or not.”
Judge Marrinan addressed potential concerns about the possible impact on freedom of speech, saying: “In the law in England and Wales, on public order, specific defences for freedom of expression are written into the laws.
“We don’t have those in Northern Ireland but, of course, that wouldn’t prevent a court from applying article 10.”
He added: “But that’s very much in the forefront of my mind – not only are we seeking to find better ways to tackle hate crime but we are also very alert to the importance of the issue of freedom of expression.”
The review is expected to examine the following issues:
• a workable and agreed definition of a hate crime;
• whether the current enhanced sentence approach is appropriate for Northern Ireland;
• whether new categories of hate crime should be created for characteristics such as gender and any other characteristics (which are not currently covered);
• the implementation and operation of the current legislative framework for incitement offences, in particular Part III of the Public Order (Northern Ireland) Order 1987 and make recommendations for improvements;
• how any identified gaps, anomalies and inconsistencies can be addressed in any new legislative framework ensuring this interacts effectively with other legislation guaranteeing human rights and equality;
• whether there is potential for alternative or mutually supportive restorative approaches for dealing with hate motivated offending.