Northern Ireland courts relying on Westminster to ensure remote hearings can continue
The Northern Ireland courts are relying on Westminster to ensure that remote hearings can continue to take place in the criminal courts beyond spring 2022, justice minister Naomi Long has said.
Mrs Long has expressed concern that repeal of the UK’s Coronavirus Act 2020 “would make it impossible to carry out remote hearings in the criminal courts as has occurred during this pandemic”.
Section 57 of the 2020 Act – which is due to expire in March 2022 unless it is extended by MPs – provides a statutory basis for the use of live links in legal proceedings in Northern Ireland.
In response to a parliamentary question, Mrs Long said there is “insufficient time in this mandate to bring forward primary legislation to enable the continuation of the current use of remote court access”.
She noted that section 89 of the 2020 Act allows Northern Ireland departments to use secondary legislation to extend the expiry date beyond March 2022 for six months at a time, but warned that this approach would be jeopardised by a total repeal of the law.
Mrs Long said: “The statutory power within the Coronavirus Act for six-month extensions would require to be used a number of times before a permanent legislative solution could complete its passage within the Assembly.
“I am conscious that, in the absence of Northern Ireland primary legislation, any repeal of the provisions within the Coronavirus Act not subject to the sunset clause, which includes the statutory power to extend relevant provisions within devolved competence, would make it impossible to carry out remote hearings in the criminal courts as has occurred during this pandemic.
“The potential adverse impact of any such repeal on the recovery of the justice system should not be underestimated.”
She added: “My recent letter to Executive colleagues addresses the need for Executive engagement with NIO on retaining Part 2 of the Coronavirus Act or at the very least, retention for Northern Ireland, of those powers which enable us to extend the lifespan of these crucial provisions.”