Northern Ireland news

Report on Supreme Court reveals scale of potential vacuum in Northern Ireland law knowledge

Lord Kerr of Tonaghmore was on panels considering applications from Northern Ireland 74 per cent of the time. Picture by Supreme Court, Press Association

The scale of the potential vacuum in knowledge and practice of Northern Ireland law on the Supreme Court (UKSC) when Lord Kerr retires later this year has been laid bare in a report into its first decade of existence.

As the final court of appeal, it hears cases of the greatest public or constitutional importance, including disputes relating to devolution.

A report by QUB law lecturers Professor Brice Dickson and Dr Conor McCormick found "the number of permission to appeal applications... from Northern Ireland was disproportionate to Northern Ireland's share of the UK population".

Six per cent of applications have been from the north - despite just 2.8 per cent of the UK population.

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The authors say "the causes of this relatively strong appetite" for such litigation "are unclear", although they suggest "partly due to the high number of troubles-related cases".

They also say "it could also be that lawyers in Northern Ireland are more persistent in litigation than lawyers elsewhere in the UK or that the lure of pleading a case before the nation's highest court, so far away from Belfast, is attractive to them".

Criminal appeals and judicial review applications are "usually significantly lower in Northern Ireland than in England and Wales" and civil appeals "usually much higher".

As the final court of appeal, the Supreme Court hears cases of the greatest public or constitutional importance, including disputes relating to devolution. Picture by Supreme Court, Press Association

In May, the Irish News revealed Lord Chief Justice Declan Morgan will not be appointed in line with tradition when Lord Kerr of Tonaghmore retires in September.

The former lord chief justice of Northern Ireland became one of the inaugural justices when the court replaced the Law Lords in 2009 and is the only justice with specialist knowledge of the north.

Sir Declan will not follow him immediately onto that bench because he has been named as a member of the selection commission for the vacancy, although the recruitment announcement specifically invited candidates with experience of Northern Ireland law to apply.

According to the report, permission to appeal was granted by the Supreme Court in 29 per cent of the Northern Ireland applications compared with 35 per cent of all applications - higher than Scottish applicants' 20 per cent success rate.

John Larkin's last day as attorney general was yesterday and he has taken up his post as a temporary high court judge. Picture by Alan Lewis, Photopress

The Court of Appeal of Northern Ireland "is much more willing to grant permission to appeal to the UKSC than the Court of Appeal of England and Wales".

The report finds it "notable" that Lord Kerr was on panels considering applications from Northern Ireland 74 per cent of the time.

Between 2009 and 2019 the court dealt with 10 troubles-related cases - almost 35 per cent of all the Northern Ireland caseload, with Lord Kerr sitting in all but one and delivering judgment, including persuading "four of his colleagues (within a court of nine) to define `miscarriage of justice' in a way that is more likely to entitle wrongly convicted people to claim compensation".

The report also highlights "the under-appreciated extent to which the AGNI has an influence over this sphere of the UKSC's business", with former attorney general John Larkin having "accrued a very high profile in the course of exercising his powers and duties".

"Where the UKSC has engaged with issues affecting Northern Ireland, in particular, the AGNI has certainly played a noteworthy role."

Mr Larkin's last day as attorney general was yesterday and he has taken up his post as a temporary high court judge.

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