Hate Crime legislation for Northern Ireland: Department of Justice gives assurances after Presbyterian church raises concerns

Rival convictions over sexuality in NI are likely to be tested by two forthcoming pieces of draft legislation being prepared in Stormont.

The Department of Justice (DOJ is framing new hate crime legislation which critics say could break new ground by allowing police jurisdiction to investigate conversations around family dinner tables.

And the Department of Communities is framing new legislation to outlaw gay ‘conversion therapy’ which critics say could criminalise clerics offering pastoral care to parishioners on issues of sexuality and identity.

In a resolution passed on 25 June, the Presbyterian General Assembly called for for any new NI Hate Crime legislation “to be handled with wisdom and sensitivity, recognising that the freedom only to express ideas that are popular is no freedom at all”.

Justice Minister Naomi Long's department is drafting new hate crime legislation for Northern Ireland. Pic: Colm Lenaghan/Pacemaker

The DOJ said that following an independent Review of Hate Crime Legislation in NI by Judge Des Marrinan, phase one of a public consultation - now closed - called for views to inform the development of a Hate Crime Bill, which are now being considered. 

The DOJ proposes eliminating the legal defence for hate speech on the grounds that it took place in a private dwelling. The DOJ is proposing to replace this with a “a private conversation defence” which critics say means the PSNI would have to determine whether a conversation in a private dwelling qualifies as private or not.

DOJ says this development is to modernise legislation to hold people to account for abusive language published online from private dwellings - although critics say existing legislation already covers such offences. However DOJ says that a recent review in Westminster found existing legislation was not adequate and has resulted in the UK Online Safety Bill to compensate.

The DOJ told the News Letters it recognises the need to ensure that any future change in the legislation does not unduly interfere with the rights of people to privately discuss matters. The DOJ also said it recognises “the importance and challenges around freedom of expression” including the need to balance human rights for freedom of religion and expression “whilst addressing hate speech”.