Ford outlines new Bill to continue radical reforms

Date published: 08 September 2015

Continuing his agenda of radical reforms to the justice system, Justice Minister David Ford outlined in detail his new Bill to address the problem of fine default in Northern Ireland; to improve police and prison services; and to keep laws on sex offending up to date with the rest of the United Kingdom.

The Justice (No. 2) Bill had its Second Stage debate in the Assembly today. When it passes into law it will improve the current arrangements for the collection and enforcement of financial penalties set by courts, will reduce the numbers of people who end up in prison for non-payment of fines, and will free up police time and prison resources to deal with more serious matters.

David Ford said: “For many years, Northern Ireland has been experiencing a significant problem of fine default, with many people ending up in prison for the non-payment of what can be relatively small fines. This must end.

“Fine default and imprisonment has a major impact on individuals and their families, on the operation of the criminal justice system, and the loss of revenue to the public purse. The Justice (No. 2) Bill will radically change how we collect and enforce financial penalties, for everyone’s benefit.

“The Bill will allow penalties to be paid by regular deductions from income and will provide better opportunities for community service instead of prison. At the same time, it provides a deterrent for those who might wilfully default by increasing the length of time they might then spend in prison.”

The Minister stressed the important changes to the process of collecting fines and penalties. He added: “The Bill will create a civilianised approach to the collection of fines and penalties, releasing police from the task of pursuing those who do not pay their fines. Changing to a model based on civilian Collection Officers with a wider range of ways to pursue payment will allow police officers to focus on more serious crime and protecting the community.”

The Bill is not only about addressing the problem of fine default. It makes other improvements to prison services in Northern Ireland. Alongside freeing up prison space by reducing the number of fine defaulters in Northern Ireland’s prisons, the Bill also creates an early removal scheme for prisoners already subject to deportation to return to their home country. It also places the Office of the Prison Ombudsman on a statutory basis.

The Minister said: “Placing the Office of the Prison Ombudsman on a statutory footing reflects the importance I attach to this role and its independence. The Ombudsman currently performs his functions on a non-statutory basis and I am pleased to put those duties and responsibilities into law.”

The Bill also broadens the offence of the possession of extreme pornography in keeping with that in England, Wales and Scotland, and amends the arrangements for the lay visiting of police stations to include all police stations.

The Justice Minister described the Bill as a key step forward in improving the effectiveness of the criminal justice system and ensuring that valuable police time and prison resources are freed up for more important services and duties.

The Minister concluded: “Over the last five years we have delivered major reforms to speed up our justice system, change the focus of our prison system and to improve the experiences of victims and witnesses. This Bill will bring further improvements for the people of Northern Ireland and shows the benefits of devolving justice powers.”

Notes to editors: 

1. The Justice (No. 2) Bill had its Second Stage in the Northern Ireland Assembly today 8 September. The Bill has four Parts with 47 Clauses and 3 Schedules

2. Part 1 deals with the collection and enforcement of fines and other penalties

It creates civilian Collection Officers whose responsibility it will be to collect penalties as set by and under the authority of the Courts.

It increases the collection options available to Courts and Collection Officers by creating the ability to deduct payment from earnings or benefits in certain circumstances.

For the more wilful defaulter who has the ability to pay but doesn’t, the Bill allows Courts to access bank accounts or seize vehicles if it proved necessary to secure payment.

It also increases the opportunity for community service when a fine cannot be paid and as a deterrent to for those who might consider a period in prison as the easiest option to clear a fine, it removes remission thereby lengthening the period to be served in default.

3. Part 2 places the Prison Ombudsman for Northern Ireland on a statutory footing. It sets out the main functions of the Ombudsman which are to deal with complaints; death in custody investigations; and investigations requested by the Department of Justice.

4. Part 3 extends the arrangements for lay visiting of police stations; widens the offence of the possession of extreme pornographic images; and creates an early removal from prison scheme for prisoners liable for removal from the United Kingdom.

Lay visiting arrangements currently extend only to police stations designated by the Chief Constable. The Bill will extend lay visiting to all police stations.

The widening of the existing offence of possession of extreme pornography will include extreme images of rape or other non-consensual acts following similar changes in the rest of the United Kingdom.

The early removal scheme will allow Foreign National Prisoners, already subject to compulsory removal from the United Kingdom and nearing the end of their sentence, to have their sentence reduced to facilitate removal from the UK.

5. Part 4 deals with general supplementary provisions.

6. Copies of the Bill and Explanatory Notes can be accessed at the Northern Ireland Assembly web-site

7. All media enquiries should be directed to the Department of Justice Press Office on 028 9052 6444. Out of office hours please contact the duty press officer via pager number 0769 971 5440 and your call will be returned.

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