Senior judge targets ‘dismal record’ on hate crime
The law on hate crime is around 15 years old and a panel led by Judge Desmond Marrinan is charged with recommending reforms.
Northern Ireland’s “dismal” record in tackling hate crime could be radically overhauled, a senior judge has said.
Around six crimes such as racist or sectarian abuse are reported every day on average.
Judge Desmond Marrinan is considering including expanding the definition to include attacks on transgender or homeless people and introducing changes to focus the criminal justice system on tackling the issue.
The “piecemeal” and “ineffective” law on hate crime is around 15 years old and a panel led by the judge is charged with recommending reforms.
He said: “It has to be asked, after such a dismal record of ineffectiveness, whether it can be improved or whether we should move to something more radical.”
Racism is responsible for around half of hate crimes, while sectarianism is behind around a third but often victims just want perpetrators to become less ignorant about or intolerant of difference.
Judge Marrinan said: “Over 60% of victims of hate crime don’t want the law to come down like a heavy hammer on top of perpetrators.
“They prefer victim-led restorative justice.”
He likened sectarianism to cancer but said by 2017 the number of cases of racism had outnumbered it for the first time.
In 2018/19, 702 racist hate crimes were committed compared with 622 sectarian.
There is approximately a one in 31 chance of being the victim of a reported racial hate incident, compared with a one in 1,777 chance of being a victim of sectarianism, the review said.
The judge said: “The figures we actually see, such as they are, are only the tip of the iceberg.”
He added: “The law in this area, as in other parts of the UK, has developed in a piecemeal way and this had led to calls for a review of hate crime legislation from a range of sources.”
The review fulfils a commitment made in Stormont’s draft Programme for Government.
It is aimed at making the process for prosecuting offences such as assault aggravated by a hate motivation more fair.
Another proposal, at this stage of seeking community feedback, is to put hate crime into focus from the beginning of legal proceedings so it is dealt with by a jury during trial rather than a judge alone ahead of sentencing.
That would encourage police to gather evidence on hate motivation from the offset.
Characteristics protected under existing legislation are race, religion, sexual orientation and disability.
The review is considering expanding that to include gender, addressing harassment or abuse of women as well as transgender and intersex.
Age could also become an aggravating factor leading to a hate crime charge, like abuse of the elderly.
Homelessness may also be included, although opponents believe it would open the floodgates for other disadvantaged groups to request inclusion.
The review is holding public meetings around Northern Ireland and is due to conclude this summer.
The judge said: “The review may well seem timely, particularly in light of the fact that many women MPs, some of them recently members of the Cabinet, or on the Opposition front bench, are leaving the House of Commons blaming the horrific, hateful abuse they receive on a daily basis, much of it online.
“Female members of the Northern Ireland Assembly, across the political divide, have reported similar hate speech.”