During her annual address to open the new legal year at the Royal Courts of Justice in Belfast on Tuesday, Lady Chief Justice Dame Siobhan Keegan said allowing the media to broadcast sentencing remarks would be an important step in protecting open justice.
“It is my strong view that this openness with the media, and the public, not only secures greater institutional accountability but also contributes to public confidence in the justice system by enhancing public understanding of what courts do and how judicial decisions are made,” she said.
“Building on this, I have long thought that the broadcasting of our senior courts would represent a very positive step in promoting open justice, allowing greater transparency and helping the public to better understand the complex decisions that judges make.
“Such broadcasting occurs in the Supreme Court and the other UK jurisdictions. Broadcasting of sentencing remarks has recently been implemented in the Crown Court in England and Wales. This method of communication, however, is currently prohibited here.
“I raised the question of amending the legislation to allow for some broadcasting with the then-Justice Minister in August 2022 but unfortunately any action was overtaken by the collapse of the Northern Ireland Assembly.
“I am currently looking into whether it will be possible to proceed with a pilot in the autumn to consider some broadcasting of court decisions.”
The Lady Chief Justice has also called for a new governing system for court services as the absence of devolved government continues to create uncertainty.
She said her main aim for the year ahead was to change Northern Ireland’s courts to a non-ministerial department model.
A non-ministerial department (NMD) is a type of government department that deals with matters for which direct political oversight has been judged unnecessary or inappropriate.
NMDs are headed by senior civil servants and have budgetary independence, liaising directly with the Treasury or Department of Finance for funding.
A courts NMD is headed by the judiciary with a senior civil servant as chief executive.
Their independence is said to protect the department from political interference.
Devolved government at Stormont has not been operational for more than a year due to the DUP’s ongoing boycott of powersharing as a protest against post-Brexit trading arrangements.
Dame Siobhan said she had assumed responsibility for the courts in the absence of political leadership.
“My first and primary aim is to continue with my efforts to implement a non-ministerial department model for the courts in Northern Ireland,” she said.
“This time last year, I said that the lack of progress within our political institutions had reinforced to me the importance of leadership, and that I was willing to assume responsibility for the control of the court estate, and operational support for the running of the courts.
“One year on and unfortunately we are in the same position, with the lack of government resulting in uncertainty for the justice system.”
Court services in Scotland and the Republic of Ireland use the NMD model, and examples of the system in the UK include HMRC and the Food Standards Agency.
The Lady Chief Justice said the model was “operating successfully”.
“This year I had an extremely helpful meeting with the chief justices of Ireland and Scotland and the chief executives of their court services,” she said.
“They told me that the NMD model has created a real cohesion between the judiciary and staff with a shared vision and shared priorities.
“It has also strengthened the principle of judicial independence and allowed the board the freedom to concentrate on both the operation of the courts but also the strategic direction and policy of the organisation.
“The staff of the court service provide excellent support to the judiciary and the administration of the courts. However, I think that the NMD model will allow the focus to return to core activities.”
The budget in Northern Ireland was set by Secretary of State Chris Heaton-Harris in the absence of a Stormont government, with many departments warning of real-terms cuts to their finances as budgets did not increase with inflation.
Dame Siobhan said lack of funds posed a significant risk to the delivering of justice in Northern Ireland.
“The justice budget has only seen 3% growth, when accounting for inflationary impacts. This means that in real terms the Department of Justice budget is around £380 million below where it would be if it had kept pace with inflation,” she said.
“Budgetary pressures, of course, are being felt across the whole justice system. And there is now significant risk to the ability to deliver services to support the administration of justice.”
She added: “I believe that the NMD model can benefit the administration of justice. It allows the judiciary to use our practical and operational insight to ensure that the budget for running the court administration is used effectively and directed to where it is most needed. The benefits of such an approach have been evidenced in our neighbouring jurisdictions.”
The UK Government’s Northern Ireland Troubles (Legacy and Reconciliation) Bill, which would prevent future inquests into Troubles deaths and offer amnesty to perpetrators of crimes who co-operate with a truth recovery body, is now in the final stages of becoming law.
The Lady Chief Justice said there were currently 36 legacy inquests still to be concluded, with 11 directed by the Attorney General this year, and that it was her understanding that “each and every family affected will want to have their inquest heard”.
She added: “I understand that many people have concerns and are fearful of impending changes, which they consider might delay or frustrate justice.
“This is a sensitive and difficult area. Given expected legal challenges, it is not appropriate for me to comment on the issues that may arise for legal adjudication.
“The courts will play their part when called upon in as timely a manner as they can.”
Dame Siobhan said her other priorities for the year ahead include improving on the welfare and training of judges, and increasing the diversity of the judiciary by creating more opportunities for women, disabled people and people from different ethnic backgrounds.