Naomi Long has said that she had “no choice” but to delay a landmark bill to strengthen Northern Ireland’s domestic abuse law as she faced claims that she was letting down victims.
In a statement issued late last night, the Justice Minister defended her decision after being accused of “a shameful course of action”.
The Alliance leader said had been forced into the delay after the Justice Committee insisted on proposals that “would have brought many others within scope for legal aid, including those who perpetrated the violence”.
She added that she wanted to establish if there was “any risk of incurring very significant financial consequences for the NI Block” after earlier describing the potential financial impact as “potentially catastrophic — this would be RHI on steroids”.
“It is imperative that we take time now to ensure whatever legislation is passed does not have unintended consequences,” she said.
Mrs Long had intended to bring forward amendments to the Domestic Abuse and Family Proceedings Bill in the Assembly yesterday around strengthening how offences would operate and protections for victims.
But she said she had to postpone further consideration of the bill after Justice Committee chairman Paul Givan “refused to give assurances” he would not move amendment 15 on legal aid.
“There are potentially significant financial ramifications for the Executive from the amendments on legal aid,” she told MLAs.
“At the end of last week I was made aware of the Treasury’s budget guidance would put the entire cost of doing something that has repercussive implications for other parts of the UK on to the Northern Ireland block grant,” she added.
Mr Givan accused Mrs Long of a “shameful course of action”, adding it had been a “committee amendment, not a Paul Givan amendment”, and he could “not act unilaterally when the committee has reached a decision”.
The DUP MLA said: “This is an abuse of the democratic process and caught in the middle of this are domestic abuse victims, and that is what makes it all the more despicable. The minister should be moving the further consideration stage. It is for this Assembly to then decide whether or not it votes for amendments that are put forward.
“But the actions of the minister today, I think do not bode well for the way in which she has conducted herself in respect of this piece of legislation.”
Green MLA Rachel Woods said: “Naomi Long had an opportunity to progress domestic abuse legislation today. Disappointingly, the minister chose to delay the progress of the bill and deny MLAs the chance to debate the bill at further consideration stage.
“It’s right that if the minister has concerns around amendments to the bill, she explains her concerns to the Assembly where MLAs can debate the relevant issues.
“Instead, the minister’s decisions mean that the bill is unlikely to become law before the end of the year as she had previously and repeatedly indicated.”
Ms Woods added: “Ultimately, victims are being failed once again. This is much needed and over-due legislation.”
Women’s Aid expressed disappointment at the delay. The organisation tweeted: “Very disappointed that the bill will not be proceeding today, money is important but so are the lives of those living with domestic violence and abuse.”
Alliance MLA Paula Bradshaw said: “If the committee had agreed to remove this amendment, the rest of the bill could have been moved today. Instead, the result of playing political games from some quarters will be a delay to this vital legislation, and the collateral damage will be domestic abuse victims.”