Question Time: Justice Tuesday 10 March 2015

How effective are the early intervention measures for young offenders in Northern Ireland? That’s what Michelle McIlveen was keen to discover during today’s Questions to the Justice Minister, David Ford. Universal entitlements such as education, health and social services play a key role in primary intervention. In the justice system, the term "early intervention" refers to targeted services for children and young people who are assessed as being at high risk of first-time offending or who already display early signs of criminal or antisocial behaviour. Research has shown that keeping these children away from the formal processes of the justice system is the most effective way of improving outcomes. “To achieve that, my Department provides a range of support and funding aimed at diversion through, for example, the funding of policing and community safety partnerships including the Priority Youth intervention programme and the asset recovery community scheme.” Kieran McCarthy asked if the situation might be improved by increasing the age of criminal responsibility. The Minister can see the merits in increasing the age from 10 to 12 as it is important to keep 10 and 11 year olds as far away from the formal criminal justice system as possible adding, “Clearly, the important issue has to be to divert young people from a path of crime, on whatever basis it operates.”

Jimmy Spratt expressed concern for the livelihood of barristers, highlighting publicly funded cases in which barristers are expected to represent vulnerable members of society for a fee that would not equate to the national minimum wage. Mr Ford conceded that “the Bar operates on a competitive basis, and it is the case that some barristers are not able to attract a caseload that would equate to a full-time job”, however, “that does not mean that, if they are performing efficiently and effectively, they are working for below the minimum wage for the cases that they are involved in.” Criminal fees in Northern Ireland are comparable to those in England and Wales and will remain competitive even after the latest set of reforms. The Minister added that “It is incumbent on me to ensure that the legal aid budget is used effectively and delivers value for money. I have already delivered reform of fees in criminal cases, and I am taking forward reform of civil fees. There is no evidence that the reforms will result in fees that equate to the minimum wage.”

During Question Time the Minister also answered questions on Magilligan Prison, the PSNI Injury on Duty Scheme, the efficiency of Access NI and the cost of legal aid.

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