Sir Declan Morgan responds to bail decision criticisms

The Lord Chief Justice spoke to BBC Newsline's Vincent Kearney

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Northern Ireland's top judge has said he is keen to address any issues of public confidence that may have arisen over recent bail decisions.

Lord Chief Justice Sir Declan Morgan was responding to recent criticism by unionist politicians that leading republicans were getting bail in contrast to leading loyalists.

He also described comments by the DUP's Sammy Wilson as "unhelpful".

Last week Mr Wilson branded a judge as arrogant.

In relation to recent unionist criticism, Sir Declan said he certainly accepted "there is a perception".

He said he wanted to "restore public confidence".

"It seems to me that part of the role of elected representatives is to ensure they articulate the concerns of their constituents and part of the reason for doing so is so that members of the justice systems, such as myself, are alert to the fact that these concerns are there," he said.

"Obviously it does concern me that there may be members of the community who for one reason or the other question their confidence in the system of the administration of justice.

Perception

"That concern on my part is shown by the fact that I'm giving this interview, along with the various other steps that we've taken in relation to this, which include the letter which was sent to the justice committee recently and the fact that I'll be meeting with the justice committee on a pre-arranged basis sometime after this."

Last week, First Minister Peter Robinson said there was a perception within the unionist community that there had been a lack of balance in the way the police and courts had handled some recent cases.

Mr Robinson spoke out after a senior republican facing IRA membership charges was released on bail, but two union flag protestors were remanded in custody.

Sir Declan said he was concerned that the perception felt by unionists could be affected by the quality of the information that is available to members of the public in relation to individual cases.

"Judges have an obligation to ensure that they give reasons for the decisions that they make," he said.

"They rely to a significant extent upon the press for reporting of those decisions and one can understand that this is a difficult process in the sense that there are over 1,000 cases a week which are processed through the courts.

"Not every case can maybe get the full attention that it deserves and there is a risk therefore from time-to-time that insufficient information will be available to the public and as a result of that, an inaccurate perception of the situation may arise."

On Friday, High Court judge Mr Justice McCloskey criticised what he called ill-informed debate involving comparisons between individual court cases.

'Unhelpful'

This prompted finance minister, Sammy Wilson, to accuse the judge of behaving arrogantly.

Sir Declan said it was "most unhelpful if a discussion about a serious issue becomes clouded by controversy over personalised remarks".

"I do not think that public comment over important issues should be stifled in any way," he said.

"Politicians should be free to express their views about the justice system. I need to respond where appropriate to those matters."

The Lord Chief Justice said when it came to bail applications it was "difficult to compare cases because each individual case has to be assessed on its individual merits".

"The issues for the court are whether or not there's a risk of further offending, whether or not there's a risk of interference with witnesses, whether the accused person is likely to turn up, and whether or not there is any risk to the preservation of public order if the person is released on bail," he said.

"There is clearly a range of other factors which may affect the outcome of those considerations and among those factors are issues such as the seriousness of the offence and matters of that kind.

"All the circumstances affecting the particular case need to be taken into consideration. They will be many and varied."

Sir Declan said he had been surprised by the controversy.

'Integrity'

"I am in a way because you must remember that the judiciary in Northern Ireland for more than 30 years now have had to deal with some horrendously difficult issues.

"They have managed throughout that time to retain public confidence by virtue of the integrity and independence of their conduct, by their commitment to public service, and by their good judgement, so it is perhaps surprising that at this stage this issue should arise in this way.

"Now that issue has arisen, it's important that I do what I can to bring as much information to bear on this issue as possible so as to reassure people."

Sir Declan said he had no plans to meet Mr Robinson.

"Nor do I anticipate that we will be meeting to discuss the matter, although I would be perfectly happy to do so if he wished," he added.

Peter Robinson said he welcomed the Lord Chief Justice's "very open and helpful intervention on behalf of the judiciary".

"Sir Declan Morgan's recognition that there are perception issues and his desire to restore public confidence is especially welcome," he said.

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