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Thorny issues right up law chief's street

By Liam Clarke

Published 17/12/2015

Can't live with him, can't live without him, used to be an old joke about husbands (and wives, too) that could apply to John Larkin. The DUP and Sinn Fein need him as Attorney General, and have just reappointed him until May 2019.

When he got the job in 2010 he was considered an edgy choice. A socially conservative Catholic - though liberal on some issues - he hit the headlines for claiming abortion was no better than shooting a child in the back of the head.

That was before he was appointed our law chief, and showed a colourful turn of phrase. Since then he has done his best to restrict abortion, in line with Executive policy, through a number of court cases.

Yesterday he said he was considering an appeal against the court decision that NI's abortion laws were in breach of human rights legislation.

Justice Horner also found that fatal foetal abnormality and rape or incest could not be grounds for abortion under our present laws. However, the mother's reaction is relevant. If completing the pregnancy appears likely to cause severe mental or emotional damage then individual abortions have always been allowed by our courts. There has been no successful challenge.

All this may keep the courts and Mr Larkin busy until 2019 and beyond - signs are that this will proceed expensively through test cases. The past may require legislation. Here, Mr Larkin's views are known. In a 2013 interview he told me that there should be an end to prosecutions for Troubles-related killings in return for information.

It wasn't a knee-jerk reaction; he had thought it out. In 2011, for instance, he predicted that Coroner's Courts would probably be "front and centre of the way in which we explore our past". He later changed his mind and accused then Senior Coroner John Leckey of pushing for 21 inquests into Troubles-related deaths. The High Court backed Mr Larkin on that one.

As the saga of dealing with the past unfolds we may yet have to look at his ideas again. The current proposals for former terrorists to be able to hand over information to grieving families on condition it won't be used against them is too much for many victims, but too little to persuade many offenders to 'fess up.

Any lawyer would advise a client to do nothing much if there is any chance of prosecution. The information could be used to find new evidence.

So it may not be one-size-fits-all. Giving families who want information the right to waive prosecutions is one way forward. Yet it would be wrong to force this choice on those who don't want to give up on the prospect - however remote - of a day in court.

It is a tough problem that needs agile and creative minds like Mr Larkin's.

Life is never dull with him around and he is bursting with confidence.

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