Priority Questions

As Deputy O'Brien has arrived, we could start with his question, which is No. 2, if that is agreeable with the Minister.

I thought Question Time was not due to start until 5 p.m.

My understanding was that we would proceed to Question Time if Committee Stage of the Ministers and Secretaries (Amendment) Act concluded before 5 p.m.

I appreciate we are starting a few minutes early. Somebody might phone Deputy Calleary and we could allow him a few minutes to get here. Everyone anticipated a 5 p.m. start. I do not want to cut him short. Perhaps we could wait a few minutes for him to get here.

Legal Aid Service

Dara Calleary

Question:

1 Deputy Dara Calleary asked the Minister for Justice and Equality the current delays to access a civil lawyer via the Legal Aid Centre; if he will consult with the Department of Social Protection on utilising the new internship scheme to assist the Legal Aid Board in addressing the delays in civil law cases. [16779/11]

The Legal Aid Board is committed to seeking to ensure that applicants for legal services receive a substantive appointment with a solicitor within a maximum period of four months. This is consistent with the view expressed by the High Court in the O'Donoghue case. Certain types of cases are deemed by their nature to merit the provision of an immediate or near immediate service. Priority cases include those where there are allegations of violence, child custody matters and where statutory deadlines are fast approaching when clients make their first contact with law centres. These comprise some 15% of all applications to law centres. A considerable number of other applications are referred speedily to private practitioners. Thus, up to 40% of all cases receive a very speedy service. In addition, because the Refugee Legal Service operates to strict statutory deadlines every asylum case processed by the board is a priority case by reference to the speed of response from the organisation.

The past three years have seen a considerable increase in demand to the Legal Aid Board for legal services and this coincides with the downturn in the economy. In 2007 just over 10,164 persons sought legal services from the board in regard to general civil non-asylum matters. This figure increased to close to 17,175 in 2010. This amounts to an increase of some 69% in that period. In the first five months of 2011 the demand for services increased by 22% on the same period last year indicating that the increase in demand shows no signs of abating. Inevitably, this has created huge pressures for the law centres and their capacity to deliver legal services within a reasonable period. As of 1 June 2011 the waiting time in 16 of the board's 29 law centres was greater than four months. In six of those centres the waiting time was greater than six months. As of 1 June 2011 there were 3,806 persons waiting for a first appointment with a solicitor. This compares to 3,153 on 1 January 2011, 2,335 on 1 January 2010 and 1,681 on the 1 January 2009.

Additional information not given on the floor of the House.

Civil legal aid in Ireland is delivered through the board's 29 law centres and a small number of specialist units. The service is complemented through the extensive use of private practitioners. Such use has, however, had to be constrained as a consequence of the increased demand and the extent of the board's financial resources to meet this.

The board's grant-in-aid, which accounts for the vast majority of its funding, other than in regard to asylum, has been as follows since 2008: 2008 — €26,988,000; 2009 — €26,310,000; 2010 — €24,225,000; and 2011 — €24,125,000.

Like all public service organisations, the board has also been subject to the public service recruitment embargo and the employee control framework. While the board had a full staff sanction of 384, the current staffing is in the region of 350. The board has sought to maintain its front line staffing to the greatest extent possible.

The board has taken a range of measures with a view to addressing the increasing demand for services in a resource constrained environment. These include increasing the number of cases referred to private solicitors for the purpose of providing a service; an advice-only service which facilitates an earlier brief meeting with a solicitor where applicants are likely to have to wait in excess of four months for a substantive appointment; an integration of the delivery of all services with a view to ensuring the most effective deployment of resources; and the recent introduction of a pilot integrated mediation initiative in Dublin involving the board co-locating and co-operating with the Family Mediation Service and the Courts Service. The purpose of the initiative is to offer applicants for legal services alternatives to litigation in the courts as a better, and from the State's point of view, a more cost-effective means of resolving family law disputes. More of this range of measures include the creation of specialist units for medical negligence and child care services; and the current development of a new legal case management system that is likely to improve the efficiency of service delivery, the management of risk in the organisation and provide for online applications.

The board has also made use of a very limited exemption from the moratorium in regard to a small number of temporary front line service delivery positions.

The board has been operating a work placement scheme in co-operation with FÁS over the past two years and has also utilised a small number of solicitors who have sought experience on a voluntary basis. Under the work placement scheme the board has engaged up to ten solicitors at any one time. The placements are for a maximum of nine months and consist of a commitment to 30 hours per week. The board is very prepared to utilise all avenues available in addressing the huge surge in demand for services, including the intern scheme referred to.

I intend to have a conversation with the chairperson of the Legal Aid Board regarding the utilisation of the new national internship scheme, which is due to commence on 1 July 2011, to temporarily assist in reducing the backlog currently affecting the law centres.

I apologise for the delay. I want, first, to acknowledge the Minister's record over many years as a practitioner in this area. I know that he has been very involved. I am sure he will agree that to have 3,800 people waiting for this service on 1 June is something that we cannot stand over and we need to put in place some preparations to address this.

The internship scheme announced in the context of the jobs initiative would seem to present opportunities for law graduates or practising solicitors or barristers who currently do not have any job opportunities. Some statistics were given in the past fortnight of the number who are applying to register in the UK.

Has the Minister or the Legal Aid Board discussed an initiative with the Minister, Deputy Joan Burton, whereby people could be available in 16 of the 29 centres where the waiting time is more than four months and in those six centres where the waiting time is far longer than that? Has the Minister consulted the Legal Aid Board as to whether there is a disparity in waiting times across centres? Are there management issues in local offices and practices that some offices use that may be replicated around the network that could assist in the management of the case studies and ensure that people get a chance to access the service?

In the area of civil law, particularly when people are facing huge challenges in terms of debts with financial institutions and other organisations, will the Minister consider a specific initiative to make people experienced in this area available to those seeking consultation on this issue?

I thank the Deputy for his questions; they are all important issues. The real problem is that at this time when an increasing number of people are using the civil legal aid system there are decreasing resources. For example, the board's grant-in-aid, which accounts for the majority of its funding, other than in regard to asylum, has been as follows since 2008 — €26,988,000 in 2008, €26,310,000 in 2009; €24,225,000 in 2010 — €2 million less than in the previous year; and €24,125,000 in 2011, based on the funding provided in budget 2010 by the Deputy's Government. There has been a huge increase in the numbers seeking to use the service and a substantial decrease in the funding available. I am very concerned about this. It is of great importance that people have access to legal advice and legal assistance where they require it. I do not regard it as satisfactory that delays exist which have been detailed and documented in Dáil questions that have been tabled in recent weeks and I will not delay the House by going into the detail of those delays.

I have had discussions with Anne Colley, chairman of the Legal Aid Board. I have asked that the Legal Aid Board use the scheme that is available for interns with a view to recruiting from among the more than 1,000 unemployed young solicitors in this country. This scheme provides a facility to deal with some of the issues of long delays in people getting access to legal help and advice in circumstances in which the State does not have resources to recruit additional full-time people. This is the only way in which we can provide access to legal advice. Using interns in this way will give them experience and relieve pressures on existing staff within the law centres. That is very helpful and I am looking forward to the Legal Aid Board making application for use of interns when the scheme formally starts to commence on 1 July.

I might rapidly reply to the other two questions the Deputy asked me. I understand from conversation with the chairman of the board that they are looking at management and work systems in the individual centres to ensure they operate to the maximum efficiency. The debt crisis issue is another matter that falls within the bailiwick of the law centres. The overall issue is to try to ensure that better management systems and provision of interns at least facilitate a reduction of the backlog and people getting access to the legal help they require.

Regarding the internship scheme, I welcome the commitment of the Minister and his former colleague in the House, Ms Anne Colley. Has the Minister set a deadline by which people must apply to the scheme? Does his office have plans as to when these people will be made available?

The scheme formally starts on 1 July. Applications must be made through the Department of Social Protection. The scheme has substantial possibilities for providing some work experience for young people who are unemployed and have a variety of skills. The Legal Aid Board is one of the areas in which the scheme will be used. In my conversation with the chairperson, she was enthusiastic about using the scheme. I anticipate that applications will be made for interns and I hope those applications will be processed rapidly. The Legal Aid Board and Ms Colley, who has done an excellent job as its chairperson, will have my full support as Minister for Justice and Equality.

Garda Deployment

Jonathan O'Brien

Question:

2 Deputy Jonathan O’Brien asked the Minister for Justice and Equality the progress made on the roll out of the civilianisation process within the Garda Síochána; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [16882/11]

The approximately 2,100 full-time equivalent civilian support staff in the Garda Síochána provide vital support services in a wide range of areas, such as human resources, training and development, IT and telecommunications, finance and procurement, internal audit, research and analysis, accommodation and fleet management, scene-of-crime support and medical services. However, while the current number of civilian support staff is an increase on previous years, more needs to be done. The fact is that the level of civilian support staff in the Garda remains significantly lower than in many comparable police forces.

For this reason, the programme for Government commits to ensuring that administrative duties are carried out by civilian staff to free up highly trained gardaí for preventing and detecting crime. It makes no sense to have highly and expensively trained gardaí engaged in administrative work. The Government's objective is supported by the findings and recommendations of the 2009 Garda Síochána Inspectorate report on resource allocation, which called for the numbers of gardaí available for operational duty to be maximised through a structured programme of civilianisation. It is also worth saying that the Garda Commissioner and Garda management very much recognise the contribution made by civilian support staff, both in releasing gardaí for operational duties and in bringing skills and expertise to the force.

In seeking to increase the number of civilian support staff, we must face the reality of the need to reduce overall numbers in the public service. The answer may lie in the more effective use of resources across the public service, including in particular more flexibility in redeployment of staff to priority areas. Indeed, the Garda reform agenda under the Croke Park agreement contains a specific commitment, agreed by Garda management and Garda associations, to augment civilian support staff in the force through appropriate redeployment of staff from elsewhere in the public service. I will remain in ongoing consultation with my colleague, the Minister with responsibility for public expenditure and reform, on the implementation of this Government commitment.

I thank the Minister for his response. As he is aware, a highly visible, community-based police service is vital to gain community confidence. With the recent announcement on the recruitment embargo, there is a fear that the number of gardaí on the beat will decrease. The civilianisation programme is all the more essential, but how do we plan to match it up? I presume that the retiring gardaí will be experienced officers, yet one cannot transfer knowledge. Even if we move civilians into senior administrative positions, will the gardaí leaving those positions be retiring or will we be able to use them to increase the number of gardaí on the beat and engaged in front line policing?

The Deputy referred to the recent recruitment embargo. The EU-IMF agreement, as concluded at the end of last year, provided for a reduction in Garda numbers from 14,500 to 13,000 by 2014. Indeed, the numbers are supposed to decrease to 13,500 during the course of this year, but the likelihood of achieving that is low, since the previous Government did not prescribe any mechanism that would result in a reduction of 1,000 personnel. The reduction depends on the number of gardaí who reach retirement age or who voluntarily retire. When the force is reduced to 13,000 personnel, it will have the equivalent of 2006's numbers. I am happy they will be able to carry out their duties.

The assignment of posts are operational matters for the Garda Commissioner. Like the Government, he is committed to ensuring that we use our well-trained members of An Garda Síochána for policing duties and not for administrative duties unnecessarily. I have the greatest confidence that he will progress the programme of civilianisation to fill posts that do not require the expertise and training of a garda.

We have touched on the subject of the embargo. Will the Minister give a commitment to the effect that we will not see an impact on front line services, including a reduction in the number of hours that Garda stations are open to the public?

The Government has stated — I will repeat it — that maintaining front line services is a priority. I cannot give commitments about particular Garda stations, as it is important that we retain open minds to ensure that operational duties are focused where they are needed. It is a matter within the remit of the Garda Commissioner as to how best to use the resources available to him to protect the community from crime and to detect crime.

Deputy Mattie McGrath is not present, so we will move on to Question No. 4.

Question No. 3 lapsed.

Magdalene Laundries

Dara Calleary

Question:

4 Deputy Dara Calleary asked the Minister for Justice and Equality the reason he did not opt to establish a full statutory inquiry into allegations of torture and degrading treatment of women committed to Magdalene laundries as recommended by the UN Committee Against Torture. [16787/11]

The UN Committee against Torture issued its concluding observations on Monday, 6 June, following Ireland's first examination in Geneva last month under Article 19 of the UN Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhumane or Degrading Treatment or Punishment. Its concluding observations cover a wide range of areas that impact on the remit of several Departments.

In respect of the Magdalene laundries, the committee recommended that the "State should institute prompt, independent, and thorough investigations into all allegations of torture, and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment that were allegedly committed in the Magdalen Laundries and, in appropriate cases, prosecute and punish the perpetrators with penalties commensurate with the gravity of the offences committed, and ensure that all victims obtain redress and have an enforceable right to compensation including the means for as full rehabilitation as possible". The committee did not specifically recommend the establishment of a statutory inquiry. Indeed, the recommendation clearly envisages criminal investigations leading to prosecutions where appropriate. Any information or specific complaint that might constitute a criminal offence should be brought to the attention of the Garda for the matter to be fully investigated and to facilitate any prosecution that should ensue.

Under our legal system, statutory inquiries have no role to play in the prosecution of offences nor do they have a role in determining enforceable rights to compensation. Members will know that the Government decided on a number of actions following its meeting last week, which considered the circumstances of the women and girls who resided in the Magdalene laundries. The Government believes it is essential to establish the true facts and circumstances relating to the laundries as a first step. Along with my colleague, the Minister of State with responsibility for disability, equality, mental health and older people, I am following up on this decision with the relevant parties. This will include discussions on the making available of records maintained by the congregations and the provision of information concerning the number of persons currently residing with or in the care of the religious congregations who originally commenced such residence in the laundries and who have remained in the congregations' care. The putting in place of a restorative and reconciliation process and the structure that might be utilised to facilitate such a process will also form part of these discussions.

An interdepartmental committee, chaired by an independent person, will also be set up to establish the full extent of State involvement. It was agreed by the Government that an initial report on progress made by the committee should be made to the Cabinet within three months of its establishment.

In regard to the chairperson of the committee, what type of person does the Minister have in mind? Will the chairperson be someone with a legal or non-legal background? Given that the Minister has given a commitment to revert within three months with a progress report, when can we expect the appointment to be made?

The Minister referred to obtaining information from congregations. What other Departments will be involved in the interdepartmental committee? Given that we now know that many State institutions were using these laundries at the time, will the Minister seek records from, say, the former Department of Industry and Commerce and so on in an effort to find out what relationship they had with the management of the laundries and what they knew about conditions therein?

We are giving consideration to the person who should be appointed as chairperson of the group. It will be a person of stature, whose independence will not be open to question. I hope to be in a position to announce the name of the person within the next ten days.

As regards the group, it will be required to produce a report within three months on what progress has been made. I do not want to assume, however, that its work will be completed within that period. We regard it as absolutely important and crucial that any information or documentation available to the Government that gives an insight into the level of departmental involvement or contact with the Magdalene laundries be brought together and included in a coherent and detailed narrative. All relevant Departments which retain such information will be represented on the interdepartmental committee.

On 7 June Professor Maurice Manning of the Human Rights Commission referred on RTE to a wall of official indifference to the work of the commission on this matter. Will the Minister guarantee that both he and the Minister of State, Deputy Kathleen Lynch, will instruct that that wall of official indifference be taken down for the duration of the investigation?

I presume the wall of official indifference to which Professor Manning, as president of the Human Rights Commission, was referring was the indifference shown during the term of office of the previous Government which failed to address this issue or put in place the structures the Government of which I am a member is putting in place which it sees as part of a process. Consultations with the religious congregations and representatives of those who lived in the Magdalene laundries will be held shortly. I am committed to ensuring the investigation of the events surrounding the residents of the Magdalene laundries and people who worked therein and the extent to which the State had an engagement of any description. The interdepartmental committee will be required to address these issues and I look forward to the meetings that will take place. Former residents of the laundries are particularly concerned about the establishment of a restorative and reconciliation process. It is hoped the Minister of State, Deputy Kathleen Lynch, and I will be able to facilitate the putting in place of such a process by agreement with all concerned.

Will the meetings be held in public or private?

The meetings with the groups will be private to give everyone an opportunity to discuss how we should proceed. We want to ensure records will be made available by the congregations and will be accessible. The interdepartmental committee will meet and a report will be produced, following which further conclusions from the interactions will have to be drawn.

Garda Complaints Procedures

Jonathan O'Brien

Question:

5 Deputy Jonathan O’Brien asked the Minister for Justice and Equality his views on the Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission’s annual report 2010; his proposals on the back of its findings; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [16731/11]

The Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission's annual report for 2010 was laid before the Houses of the Oireachtas earlier this month and is available in the Oireachtas Library. The report gives useful details of the commission's work throughout the year. The number of complaints made, at 2,258, was not markedly different from that for the previous year, nor was the number of referrals from the Garda Commissioner, at 103. Some 27 files were referred to the Director of Public Prosecutions during the course of 2010 as compared to 25 in the previous year. At the end of the year there were 1,066 cases in hand, a reduction on the figure for the previous year.

As of 1 January 2010, the ombudsman commission had five live investigations under section 102(4) of the Act. These are investigations initiated by it in the public interest. During the year two of these investigations were closed, while three were ongoing as of 31 December 2010. Throughout 2010 the commission engaged in extensive dialogue with the Garda Síochána as part of a review of the operation of the law and arrangements in this area. I will study carefully any proposals for change that may emerge.

One final point worth mentioning is that during 2010 the ombudsman commission engaged external consultants to conduct a survey of public attitudes towards it. It is pleasing to note that the results indicate that the general public have a good awareness of the role of Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission and that it enjoys a reputation of being an impartial body for the independent investigation of allegations of misconduct by members of the Garda Síochána. Such impartial investigation is vital to ensure continued public confidence, respect and support for the Garda Síochána.

The report states the majority of the complaints arose from searches of persons and road traffic incidents. Has the Minister had discussions with the Garda Commissioner to try to get to the root of the reason the majority of complaints arise in this way? Can the Garda Síochána do anything to try to reduce the number of such complaints? Do they arise owing to a lack of understanding? Is there any way we can pinpoint the reason the majority of complaints arise in this way and what can be done to rectify the problem?

The Garda Commissioner is reviewing the report. The breakdown of the incidents which gave rise to complaints is interesting. We must ensure people are treated courteously by members of the Garda Síochána. Members of the Garda Síochána are also frequently the victims of spurious complaints which can arise in the context, for example, of road traffic incidents involving people who may have drank excessively and did not like being stopped. In that regard somewhat undiplomatic exchanges might have taken place. It is important, however, that gardaí treat members of the general public with courtesy. It is important also that we aim to reduce the level of complaints, if possible. I will be having discussions with the Garda Commissioner on these matters. The report was only recently published and it is reasonable that the Commissioner should be given time to consider it.

As I indicated, the content of the report on complaints is not particularly different from that included in previous years. There is a slight reduction in the number of complaints. Also, the profile of complaints is not different. There is no suggestion there has been a substantial increase. The value of the Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission is that it satisfies members of the general public that there is an independent body to which they can complain. It is interesting to note that a significant number of complaints are perceived to be vexatious and not worthy of detailed investigation. Some of these fall within what appears to be largest area that gives rise to complaints.

The report indicates that six in ten adults who complained believed there had been misconduct within the Garda Síochána, while 80% of those surveyed who had an interaction with the Garda Síochána stated they were satisfied in that regard, which is a contradiction. While people said they were satisfied with their interaction with the Garda Síochána, some 60% of adults believed there had been misconduct within the Garda.

This contradiction needs to be addressed. The Minister said it is has just been tabled and that the Commissioner will review it, but it is one of the areas on which we need to focus. Much effort has been put in by the Garda Síochána in recent years in regard to community policing, and the establishment of joint policing committees has helped to break down barriers between communities and gardaí. However, this figure of six in ten adults indicates much work remains to be done in that area.

That the overwhelming majority of people have great faith and trust in the Garda Síochána and the individual members of the force with whom they come into contact is very well set out in the results of the survey. However, there have of course been individual incidents of misconduct within the Garda, as there are inevitably individual incidents of misconduct within any large group of individuals, unfortunately. Such incidents were well documented in the Morris report which was published on events in Donegal.

The general public overall, as the survey indicates, have substantial faith and confidence in the Garda and the vast majority of the general public are very happy with their personal interaction with members of the force. However, even people who have had happy interaction with members of the force and who received great support from members of the force in times of crisis or difficulty with their own families are equally aware that, on occasion, there have been difficulties with individual members of the force. The survey portrays no more than that.