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Attorney General John Larkin offers to take on bigger role at Stormont

By Michael McHugh

The Attorney General has made a renewed offer to MLAs to allow him to play a fuller role in the Assembly.

John Larkin QC had previously offered to question witnesses on behalf of Stormont's justice committee in an investigation of a Belfast abortion clinic — but it was rejected by Stormont lawyers.

Yesterday, Mr Larkin (right) said legislation was passed in Westminster in 2002 covering a change which could see the chief law officer summoned for questions or other duties short of voting.

As the Assembly considers changing its procedures, Mr Larkin also cited Scotland's system where a Lord Advocate is a member of the Scottish government with full independence on taking prosecutions.

“A lot of this is very difficult and it is, for us at least, untried. And it is not that I am anxious to do more work than I have to in human terms,” he told a meeting of the Assembly's Procedures Committee.

“In relation to complex legal issues that might arise with bills, there is a service that the attorney can offer the Assembly, that the Assembly might well wish from time to time to avail of.”

The legislation was the Justice (Northern Ireland) Act 2002.

Mr Larkin has faced controversy in the past over his interpretation of his office’s role. Confidential legal advice given to the Justice Committee last year revealed that lawyers believed his offer to act as “counsel and questioner” for the committee as it investigated the Marie Stopes clinic in Belfast was not permitted by the Justice Act. Instead, he gave evidence on the criminal law relating to abortion behind closed doors.

The Attorney General is the principal legal adviser to the Executive ministers, but not to Assembly committees.

There are fears among ministers that taking part in committees could compromise his independence.

Mr Larkin added he would have to be careful to stick to matters of law rather than policy. He used Jim Allister's special advisers bill as an example.

“I have a view on the law of that following amendments made to it. But on the policy, and whether it is a good thing or bad thing, I would not have expected to be drawn into a debate about the merits of the bill,” he said.

Story so far

Attorney General John Larkin has been at the centre of several media storms in recent months, from accusations that he resurrected an obscure law to embroil Peter Hain in a contempt case, to his warning to Brussels over the consequences of a gay Austrian couple's adoption battle. His offer to question witnesses at a Justice Committee probe into Northern Ireland’s first abortion clinic was declined after legal advice last November.

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