Non-jury court 'must be phased out'

27 December 2004
By John Breslin

THE Government has been urged to phase out the use of the Special Criminal Court after a backlog of cases to be heard is cleared by the middle of next year.
Justice Minister Michael McDowell announced last week a second court will sit from next month to clear the backlog and promised a review will then be carried out.

However, the Government has been criticised by lawyers and opposition politicians for dragging its heels over a review of the court and wider emergency legislation.

Under the Good Friday Agreement, the Government promised to review emergency powers.

The Hederman Committee reported as far back as August 2002. A majority argued in favour of retaining the non-jury court, though there were strong minority arguments against it.

Labour's justice spokesman Joe Costello said he was concerned about the establishment of a second court, believing it will be difficult to stand down once established. He called for the phasing out of the court in 2005, arguing that people's constitutional right to a fair trial was being denied.

"After the Good Friday Agreement, we were obliged to review the legislation. Hederman divided on the need for a Special Criminal Court but no action was taken," said Mr Costello. "It's time we began phasing it out."

Yet there remains the possibility that members of organised crime gangs will continue to be tried in the Special Criminal Court, despite criticisms that it violates the rights of an accused to a jury trial, as was argued this year by the UN Human Rights Committee.

Mr McDowell, in announcing the establishment of a second court, said he will take into account the recommendations of the Hederman Committee and the extent of the "threat posed by paramilitaries and organised crime" when deciding on its future.

There have also been calls for the Offences Against the State Act to be reviewed, particularly as it is now being used to detain people for up to 72 hours in cases where there are no subversive or even organised crime links.

In a case last month, two people were arrested on suspicion of withholding information about a murder. They were detained under amendments to the act brought in after the 1998 Omagh bombing.

"That's highly irregular but that's the problem, it's being used more and more," said Mr Costello.

The Offences Against the State Act, where a person can be held for up to 72 hours, is now used to detain people in almost all cases where a firearm is used.

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