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Lord Chief Justice pays tribute to University's important role in preparing legal profession

31 March 2011

The Graduate School of Professional Legal Education at the University of Ulster is an important addition to legal training in Northern Ireland, the province’s Lord Chief Justice claimed tonight.

The Right Honourable Sir Declan Morgan was commenting as he delivered the fifth annual Chancellor’s lecture on the University’s Belfast campus, which focussed on the issues of judicial independence, accountability and the new devolved structures.

The Lord Chief Justice told VIP guests, that included Justice Minister David Ford, that the University of Ulster played an important role in the community and had an enviable rate of graduates moving on to further study or into employment.

“Although a relatively young law school, students can obtain a qualifying law degree at either Jordanstown or Magee and the opening of the Graduate School of Professional Legal Education in 2010 provides the first opportunity in this jurisdiction to qualify as a solicitor outside Belfast,” he noted.

“It has proved an important addition to the legal life of this jurisdiction, especially that of the North West. I wish that project every success in these very difficult conditions for students and practitioners alike.”

Sir Declan Morgan followed a distinguished list of speakers who have delivered the annual Chancellor’s lecture.  He joined human rights lawyer Helena Kennedy, the broadcaster Jon Snow, former Downing Street advisor Jonathan Powell and last year’s speaker, Irish President Mary McAleese.

The Lord Chief Justice told guests that the judiciary had a key role to play in active engagement in the new devolved structures but he also stressed the importance of society recognising the need for judges to be independent of each other and of the state.

His address focussed on the need for judges to take all reasonable steps to secure public confidence in the administration of justice.

“Sometimes, of course, it can be difficult to secure public confidence because the right decision is not necessarily the popular decision, “ Sir Declan Morgan said.

The Lord Chief Justice also said while a free and independent media was an essential element of any democratic state and journalists were entitled to criticise any judicial decision they did not agree with and campaign, where appropriate, for changes in the law, news organisations also had a “responsibility to present an accurate and comprehensive account of the material facts” in court cases.

He also told guests that the transfer of policing and justice powers to Stormont had put great power in the hands of elected representatives.

The Lord Chief Justice added: “There are, however, aspects of the justice system which lie outside the political control of the Assembly and the Executive and one of those is judicial decision making.

“The omission is deliberate. It is intended to reflect the checks and balances which are appropriate in a democratic society. It ought not to be a source of concern. On the contrary, it should be recognised as a necessary and desirable feature of a justice system aspiring to achieve the highest standards.”

Sir Declan Morgan’s lecture was the first to take place during the tenure of the University’s Chancellor James Nesbitt, who was appointed to the role last year.

The University Chancellor, however, was unable to attend the event as he is currently in New Zealand, filming Peter Jackson’s movie adaptation of The Hobbit.

However in a specially recorded video message from “the boundaries of Middle Earth”, James Nesbitt said he hoped to attend next year’s lecture in person and he paid tribute to his predecessor, Sir Richard Nichols, for having the foresight to create the annual Chancellor’s lecture series.

He told Sir Declan Morgan: “You have become Lord Chief Justice at a key time in the progress towards securing a peaceful society in Northern Ireland.

“The devolution of legislative powers to the Assembly last year marked an important step towards normalisation. The late Martin Luther King said that true peace is not merely the absence of tension; it is the presence of justice.

“Key in the role of the judiciary, I think, is the responsibility to protect each person’s constitutional, human, civil and legal rights and to protect the weak from the powerful.

“Of course, central to delivering that protection is the degree of trust placed, not only on the judicial system, but also on the legislative process.”