Justice chief warning in bail row over flag protestors

Sir Declan Morgan.
Sir Declan Morgan.

Northern Ireland’s Lord Chief Justice has stressed the dangers of exerting improper influence on judges in response to a political row over the refusal to grant bail to some Union flag protesters.

Sir Declan Morgan assured Stormont’s Justice Committee that all judges are independent and impartial in the decisions they make.The intervention of the region’s senior judge comes after First Minister Peter Robinson raised concerns with the police’s chief constable about a perception of bias against loyalists within the justice system.

Mr Robinson sparked controversy after suggesting some Union flag protesters appeared to have been treated differently under the law than some republicans facing criminal investigation.

Last week, prominent loyalists Willie Frazer, 53, from Co Armagh, and Jamie Bryson, 23, from Co Down, were remanded in custody charged with public-order offences connected to the ongoing flag protests.

On Friday, senior republican Sean Hughes, 51, from Co Armagh, was granted bail after appearing in court charged with offences related to the murder of father-of-three Robert McCartney in 2005.

In response to Mr Robinson’s claims, Chief Constable Matt Baggott stressed the impartiality of his officers and noted that bail decisions rest with the judiciary while decisions to prosecute are taken by the Public Prosecution Service.

The SDLP has branded Mr Robinson`s stance “outrageous” and “totally unjustified”, and has pledged to examine his remarks for a potential breach of Stormont`s ministerial code.

As well as the police’s attitude, some members of the DUP have raised concern about the judicial decisions taken in the recent bail hearings.

A representative of the Lord Chief Justice today wrote to members of Stormont’s Justice Committee to set out his position on the issue.

“The Lord Chief Justice has noted the recent press coverage about bail hearing and the comments by some elected representatives about a lack of impartiality by the courts,” stated the letter.

The letter said it would not be appropriate for Sir Declan to comment on individual cases but set out the legal guidelines that judges followed when deciding on whether to grant bail, adding that each hearing had a “unique set of circumstances” which the court had to balance.

It continued: “The Lord Chief Justice strongly believes that it is an essential requisite in any society which embraces the rule of law that the criminal justice system should be administered in public and subject to public scrutiny.

“Public representatives are therefore entitled to criticise decisions made by the courts but it is important, for the upholding of the rule of law and to maintain public confidence, that the Judiciary are (and are seen to be) independent of outside influence when fulfilling the functions of their office.

“Judges should therefore be free to act independently without improper influence.

“The Lord Chief Justice has asked me to reassure the Committee that the cornerstone of our justice system is that judges are independent and impartial in the decisions they make.

“Each bail decision, in fulfilment of the principle of judicial independence, will be taken in accordance with the law and on the basis of the information before the court.”

The letter said there was a presumption in favour of granting bail unless there were “relevant and sufficient” grounds to justify detention.

It said judges would carefully weigh the risks - such as a risk of flight, likelihood of committing further offences, interfering with witnesses and preservation of public order - against the rights of the untried accused.

“It is essential that they are free to do this independently and without being subject to external influence,” stated the Lord Chief Justice’s letter.

The Union flag demonstrations have been ongoing since early December when Belfast City Council voted to limit the number of days the flag flies over City Hall.

A number of the earlier protests descended into violence, particularly in east Belfast, with about 140 police officers being injured.

The demonstrations have become more sporadic and less incendiary in recent weeks, but the police have warned that the criminal justice operation to bring lawbreakers to book will continue.