The discussion ‘Devolving criminal justice and policing – human rights considerations’ addressed how devolution could create a culture of human rights within the criminal justice system, thereby increasing transparency and accountability. The panel, composed of representatives of the main political parties at Stormont, noted that devolution of policing and justice remains the final element of the peace process to be met, and is imperative in returning to a normalised society in Northern Ireland. Indeed, control of the criminal justice system is the hallmark of real, stable political power in a polity, and its absence represents a threat to effective governance in Northern Ireland. As it stands, however, there are a number of issues to be addressed. Firstly, members of the Legislative Assembly do not have the power to appoint judges. Secondly, the prison system is inefficient, costly and has not yet evolved beyond the maintenance of security toward a focus upon rehabilitation. Thirdly, a pervasive lack of resources, exacerbated by the economic downturn, and a lack of interconnectivity between the various sections of the criminal justice system have stifled public confidence. Finally, the structure of legal aid is such that only the very poor are viable recipients, thus, only the very rich and the very poor can assert their rights against the state by litigation. Each of these issues cannot be adequately addressed and rectified without the full transfer of criminal justice to the legislative assembly.
Nonetheless, the issues around criminal justice remain contentious, such that decision-making within criminal justice remains at UK level. However, the specific role of human rights within the framework of accountability, the procedural integrity and independence of criminal justice and policing remains to be seen. Peter Weir of the DUP emphasised the existing checks and balances upon governmental and police excess; notably the police ombudsman and police board to regulate the police force and hold them accountable, and the equality commission. Each of the panel members also noted the need for restraint, without appeals to populism that may exacerbate the ethno-religious divide in Northern Ireland. Yet a central paradox remains concerning public confidence in the criminal justice system; that adequate public confidence is required to facilitate the transfer of criminal justice, but only the transfer and effective governance of criminal justice shall create adequate public confidence.