Former NI justice minister criticises ‘delay’ in civil justice reform
Northern Ireland’s former justice minister Claire Sugden has criticised the pace of reforms to the civil and family justice systems, with few of the recommendations of a judge-led review to be implemented by the end of the Assembly mandate.
Ms Sugden served as justice minister after the 2016 election, during which time former Court of Appeal judge Lord Justice Gillen was just completing his review of the civil and family justice systems.
However, she left the role in early 2017 as the Northern Ireland Executive collapsed over the combined pressures of the RHI scandal and Brexit, just months before Lord Justice Gillen issued his reports containing over 400 recommendations.
Earlier this month, justice minister Naomi Long published a delivery plan setting out actions to be taken over the rest of the Assembly mandate to “modernise” the civil and family justice system.
Around a third of Lord Justice Gillen’s 400 recommendations come under Mrs Long’s remit as justice minister.
Although welcoming the plan, Ms Sugden said: “Sir John Gillen began his review of civil and family justice nearly six years ago. It is a shame that it has taken this long for his work to begin to be acted upon.
“Some initial work such as consultations may begin this year, but it will take until the next Asssembly mandate for any reforms to come into effect.
“Any delay in the justice system is unwelcome – getting these issues acted upon cannot come soon enough.”
She added: “Family justice can be the most harmful, simply because of the involvement of children in the process.
“It is welcome that improving access to the justice system is an area identified for improvement, as are alternatives for dispute resolution and reducing acrimony as much as possible between parents.
“Anything that reduces the amount of trauma experienced by children within this system is to be welcomed. At the moment it is not child-friendly. Experiences like these can have lasting effects and too many have suffered as a result.”
Ms Sugden also welcomed moves towards providing greater support and protection for vulnerable people.
“The court experience can be a daunting one – particularly for those with learning or communication difficulties, or for those who have been victims of domestic violence,” she said.
“Ensuring the full participation of more vulnerable people in court cases that directly affect them is vital and efforts to do this need to be improved.”