Northern Ireland

Lord Chief Justice calls for new 'problem solving' courts

The Lord Chief Justice has told the BBC that he hopes new problem solving courts aimed at reducing re-offending will be established in Northern Ireland
Image caption A proposed new court system would give those with a history of addiction and drug-related crime the opportunity to change their lifestyle

The Lord Chief Justice, Sir Declan Morgan, has told the BBC that he hopes new problem-solving courts aimed at reducing re-offending will be established in Northern Ireland.

Sir Declan says the new system would include "drugs courts", which would give those with a history of addiction and drug-related crime the opportunity to change their lifestyle.

In the United States and in Scotland, special drugs courts have been established for criminals with drug addictions.

Instead of prison, offenders are offered treatment and sometimes made to do community service.

The scheme has seen re-offending rates fall and now the Lord Chief Justice wants the courts to be introduced to Northern Ireland.

Image caption Sir Declan Morgan says the new system would include drugs courts which would give those with a history of addiction the opportunity to change their lifestyle

Speaking on BBC programme The View, he said: "There is no reason why Northern Ireland should not enjoy the same type of approach and hopefully the same benefits."

However, the idea of problem-solving courts does not please everyone. TUV leader Jim Allister is concerned.

"I think victims can rightly feel that some imbalance has crept in," said Mr Allister, who also suggested that the deterrence of crime "has been sacrificed for giving a soft landing to criminals".

Image caption TUV leader Jim Allister is concerned about the proposal

DUP MLA Alastair Ross, who chairs Stormont's justice committee, is a strong supporter of problem-solving courts.

He disagrees with Mr Allister's analysis and believes fresh thinking is needed.

Mr Ross told the BBC: "We need to move away from this narrative that things are either soft on crime or tough on crime.

"What we need to do is get smarter on crime. That means looking at the evidence from elsewhere in the world and seeing what works and what does not work."

Image caption DUP MLA Alastair Ross, who chairs Stormont's justice committee, is a strong supporter of problem solving courts

If the scheme gets the go ahead, a pilot study will operate to test its effectiveness.

One location that could be considered is Ballymena, which has a history of drug related problems and a track record of dealing with addiction.

The Northern Health and Social Care Trust operates a centre in the town for people with drug and alcohol problems.

Kathy Goumas, who is the trust's head of addiction, told The View: "We have evidence that offending does come down when people recover and are rehabilitated from drug dependencies that they find are destroying their lives, along with their communities' lives."

Image caption Kathy Goumas, who is the Northern Trust's head of addiction, said there is evidence that re-offending rates fall when people recover and are rehabilitated

The idea of the new courts is supported by the Probation Board and would require funding from the Department of Justice and the Department of Health.

Justice Minister David Ford is committed to the idea and says after the assembly election in May, the issue "ought to be in the programme for government".

The lord chief justice says he hopes the changes will be up and running in the years ahead.

He told The View: "My aspiration is to see these courts well established in this jurisdiction by the time the mandate of the next assembly has completed."