I welcome the opportunity to meet with the committee on the 2019 appropriation account for the justice and equality Vote.
The Department’s Vote covers a wide remit, encompassing both the criminal justice and civil pillars, and a very broad range of offices and agencies across the justice sector. In all, there are approximately 60 individual subheads across five expenditure programmes.
In 2019, the Department completed the largest restructuring in our 100-year history. This transformation programme reshaped the organisation to more effectively deliver our strategic objectives; improve transparency and accountability; and create efficiencies through clearly defined roles and responsibilities. This represented a step-change in how a Department is structured and operates, and turned the traditional Civil Service model on its head.
In the traditional model, the Department was structured by subject matter relating to different parts of the justice and equality sectors. Staff worked across a wide range of activities, continually prioritising a competing variety of tasks, with differing levels of complexity, importance and urgency. The transformation programme moved us from this conventional subject-based model, for instance, policing or immigration, to a functional model where we deal with policy and legislation, facilitating the development of specialisation and expertise.
While the formal restructuring element of the transformation programme was concluded in 2019, additional work continues to support and leverage the full value of our new structure.
A subgroup of the management board is developing initiatives to further develop our organisational culture in support of our vision of a safe, fair and inclusive Ireland. We also reviewed the Department’s ICT infrastructure and capacity to deliver digital services. Work is under way to implement a new ICT strategy, with digital reform set to be a key priority in our forthcoming strategy statement.
The transformation programme has sought to rebuild the Department to meet the challenges and opportunities of the 21st century. This year’s global pandemic has provided a significant test of this new structure. Overall, our functional model has enabled us not only to react but also to respond dynamically to the crisis. Although some service delivery areas have been quite severely impacted, our teams have a more focused remit and despite this unprecedented crisis, our functional structure has provided the capacity to retain a focus on long-term issues. We have been able to refrain from diverting entire teams to crisis response and instead have been able to preserve that focus and keep work going on longer-term issues through our dedicated strategic policy units.
Our legislation functions have been agile in supporting Government to develop and progress proposals. Since the outset of the crisis, our governance functions have played a central role in facilitating and driving collaboration and cohesion between the key agencies in the justice sector, while our operations units supported the establishment of crisis response teams in our key service delivery areas. Our unique transparency function has co-ordinated and managed an unprecedented demand for information throughout the crisis for all our stakeholders and the public.
Regarding the transfer of functions, as the Vice Chairman referenced and as members are aware, the Government established a new Department of Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth, which required a transfer of functions order and the transfer of functions such as disability, equality, migrant integration, international protection accommodation, which is known as direct provision, and the Irish Refugee Protection Programme. This necessitated approximately 95 colleagues transferring, along with their work, to the newly created Department with effect from 14 October last. A relatively small number of issues relating to youth justice transferred in our direction and are now managed by our criminal policy function. This work mainly relates to the bail supervision scheme, which provides courts with an alternative to remanding a child in detention; a research partnership with the school of law, University of Limerick, which is aimed at the development of effective youth offender programmes; as well as a project under the Dormant Accounts Fund, building on the Greentown report which is developing interventions to protect children from the malign influence of criminal networks.
As members will be aware, there are a large number of agencies under the overall remit, some of which are funded from this Vote. I refer in particular to Forensic Science Ireland, FSI, which had a significant underspend in 2019 relating to the long planned new purpose-built laboratory. I am glad to report that construction started on that building in March and it is well under way, despite the impact of the pandemic on construction activities in the earlier part of the year. This new laboratory will provide FSI with a modern, state-of-the art facility, supporting the highest standards for evidence processing, analysis and storage. The aim is to have a forensic facility meeting all standards for the avoidance of contamination and the recovery, identification and interpretation of trace forensic evidence, including DNA. This represents a significant and important investment in the criminal justice system. The new building is expected to be completed in the summer of 2022.
I will also mention the work of the Criminal Assets Bureau, CAB. While expenditure incurred for the bureau is reflected in the Vote, at €9.860 million in 2019, the other side of the equation is not apparent from the account as the moneys collected go directly to the Exchequer. The money returned to the State as a result of CAB actions was in excess of €3.9 million in 2019, which includes €1.6 million returned under the proceeds of crime legislation, just over €2 million collected under Revenue legislation, and €300,000 recovered in social welfare overpayments. The bulk of these actions related to the proceeds of drug trafficking, followed by fraud and theft.
In addition, the value of assets frozen during the year was €64.9 million, which is a very significant figure, compared with €8.4 million in 2018. That increase is due in the main to a significant seizure of cryptocurrency to the value of €53 million. There were 326 individual assets frozen, including financial assets, property, vehicles and jewellery. In all, CAB brought 31 new proceeds of crime proceedings before the High Court in 2019, the largest number of new cases commenced by the bureau in a single year. At an international level, CAB has maintained strong links and continues to liaise with law enforcement and judicial authorities throughout Europe and worldwide.
The work of the Legal Aid Board is also funded from this Vote. The board operates a total of 30 full-time and 12 part-time offices. It employs approximately 420 staff and provides services both via directly employed solicitors and panels of private practitioners who are engaged to provide services such as Abhaile and to service District Court family law matters. The board also provides free family mediation services in 16 family mediation offices, some of which are co-located with their law centres.
In the context of the pandemic and the need to prioritise services and safety for our most vulnerable citizens, the Department developed an inter-agency action plan to help support people at increased risk of domestic abuse during this period. Members will have heard about the Garda Operation Faoiseamh, most recently this morning. This was supported by priority measures across the entire system, including by the Legal Aid Board and the Courts Service, for domestic abuse, sexual assault and child protection cases. The Legal Aid Board help line is helping to deliver prompt legal advice and legal representation in court. I will leave it at that, although I am happy to go into further detail if members wish me to do so.