Other Questions

Legislative Measures

Clare Daly

Question:

6. Deputy Clare Daly asked the Minister for Justice and Equality his plans to amend the Prosecution of Offences Act 1974, or introduce any other legislation in order to improve the transparency and accountability of the office of the Director of Public Prosecutions. [5307/14]

There has been some concern about the operation of the Office of the Director of Public Prosecutions, DPP, because decisions are not published and are not made accountable or monitored. The Minister said earlier that he does not like to rush into things but he has been in office for three years and these matters have been in the public domain for some time. What plans does the Minister have to make the Office of the DPP more accountable and transparent?

Independence for prosecutors is a key principle underpinning the rule of law in the international standards set by the Council of Europe, the UN and the International Association of Prosecutors. The independence of the Office of the Director of Public Prosecutions is set out in section 2(5) of the Prosecution of Offences Act 1974 which states: “The Director shall be independent in the performance of his functions”.

The Office is accountable to the Committee on Public Accounts for administrative and statistical matters in accordance with section 67(7) of the Houses of the Oireachtas (Inquiries, Privileges and Procedures) Act 2013. The Director of Public Prosecutions is also accountable to the courts for her actions.

The Office of the DPP also provides reasons to victims’ families and close associates for its decisions not to prosecute in certain cases involving death through a project which was initiated in 2008. Speaking about the reasons project in 2008, Mr. James Hamilton said:

the Director of Public Prosecutions prosecutes on behalf of the People as a whole, on behalf of society, not on behalf of individual victims. For this reason I think the concept of accountability is not the appropriate concept to use when discussing the Office’s relationship to victims. There is not and will not be accountability to victims in the sense that we will regard ourselves as bound by their wishes or will allow them to determine how cases should proceed... The fundamental idea behind the change in policy is one of fairness, not of accountability.

The Department of Justice and Equality has no legal or administrative role in relation to the administration of the Office of the DPP and there is no provision in the Government’s legislative programme for any amendment of the Prosecution of Offences Act 1974. However, the EU directive on the rights, support and protection of victims of crime includes a requirement for victims to be informed of a decision not to prosecute and the reasons for the decision, Article 6, and for a review of a decision not to prosecute, Article 11. I will be bringing forward legislation to transpose the directive, and the provisions relating to these aspects will be developed in consultation with the Attorney General and the Director of Public Prosecutions. I hope to bring forward that legislation in 2015.

There are several important issues here. Nobody would dispute the need for the DPP to be independent but I reject the implication that there is a contradiction between independence and accountability. One can have both. In a society which aspires to be democratic and open it is necessary to have both. The Minister has acknowledged that he will finally bring in the EU legislation next year which would give victims the right to know why the DPP decided not to prosecute.

That should have been done well before now. I am glad the Minister is looking at it now, but to my mind that is a basic human right. For example, the GSOC referred a number of cases to the Director of Public Prosecutions in respect of the Corrib incidents, but not one of them was prosecuted and nobody got information about it. I attempted to table a question last month about the DPP and I was told it had nothing to do with the Minister and therefore nothing to do with the House.

I would like to give one last example from the public domain of how we address this balance between independence and accountability. Mr. Justice Barry White, as part of a libel action in the case of Mr. Ian Bailey, made a writ - an extensive discovery order - that the DPP should release files in its possession on Ian Bailey, as well as copies of all statements in the possession of the DPP which cast a doubt on his involvement in the murder of Sophie Toscan du Plantier and documents suggesting that he was of good character. The DPP's office furnished 700 statements and then furnished a list of other documents which they claimed they could not release because of confidentiality. More importantly, they did not provide information on a crucial previous DPP critique of that case, which exonerated his character. That decision and failure by the DPP to adhere to a court order has been a serious problem for this man and his liberty. What is the Minister, who has a role in justice and accountability, going to do about that?

The Deputy has just provided an example of why we need an independent DPP that is not subject to reporting to Parliament or to a Minister, who can make prosecutorial decisions based on the obligations of his or her office under the provisions contained in relevant legislation, and who cannot be pressurised in Parliament by any Deputy on any particular case or issue. The Deputy classically illustrated the difficulties that would arise if the DPP was so accountable. On a daily basis, Deputies Daly and Wallace are naming individuals in this House-----

And the Minister is naming them on RTÉ.

-----raising specific cases and making comment that could be prejudicial in circumstances where court proceedings exist. Instead of the DPP's office carrying out its role, we would have a government forced to interfere politically. That is exactly what we do not need. It would be contrary to the public interest. I would like to draw the Deputy's attention to the Venice Commission's 2010 draft report on European standards on the independence of the judicial system, which states that "accountability to parliament in individual cases of prosecution or non-prosecution should be ruled out."

I was not making any allegations. We were speaking of matters that are in the public domain.

The Deputy was speaking of two specific cases.

The point I was making, which perhaps the Minister did not fully understand, was that in this instance it has been demonstrated that the DPP failed to adhere - in fact breached - a court order for discovery by Mr. Justice Barry White. To whom is the DPP accountable for breaching court orders? Can the Minister enlighten me as to why in the national Parliament we are not allowed raise issues of such public interest?

I thought the Deputy knew the answer to the question she is raising, but I think she is only raising the question to grab a headline. If the DPP or anybody else does not comply with court orders, he or she is accountable to the court. Are there court procedures in place to deal with any individual engaged in litigation of any description, be it civil or criminal, against whom it is alleged that he or she does not comply with court orders? Of course there are. That is an issue that the courts address. It is not an issue for Parliament, nor is it an issue on which prejudicial comment or judgments should be expressed by Members of this House if matters are still current and before our courts. It is unfortunate that the Deputy has travelled this route this morning, but it is helpful to illustrate the frailty of her case and to illustrate the dangers posed by her suggestion that the DPP should be accountable to this House for the manner in which prosecutorial decisions are made.

However, in the context of victims' rights, I support the enactment of new legislation to incorporate the new European measure, which I supported when it was going through the Council of Ministers. The Deputy may not be aware that I previously published two Bills on victims' rights, the most recent in 2002. The EU measure, together with the previous legislation that was drafted, will inform the content of what we bring before the House, which will not be minimalist in the context of victims' rights, and may address some issues that we are not obliged to address under the EU provision for the benefit of victims of crime.

Penal Policy Review Group Report

Pádraig MacLochlainn

Question:

7. Deputy Pádraig Mac Lochlainn asked the Minister for Justice and Equality if he plans to implement the five recommendations contained within the Joint Committee on Justice, Defence and Equality’s report on penal reform. [5333/14]

We had some engagement on this already, but I would like to say that our committee worked very hard over quite a period of time putting together our penal reform report, and we have five key recommendations, including the reduction of prison numbers by one third through decarceration over the next ten years, by examining the Fines Bill and by not imprisoning people for minor offences. The Minister knows the five recommendations, so what can he do to implement them?

I would like to thank the joint committee for their hard work on this matter and for their report which was published last March, which we touched upon recently in a meeting of the select justice committee. In summary, the joint committee report recommended that prison numbers be reduced; that prison sentences of less than six months be commuted; that standard remission be increased from one quarter to one third and an incentivised remission scheme introduced of up to one half; that legislation be introduced providing for structured release, temporary release, parole and community return; and that prison conditions and overcrowding be addressed and the use of open prisons be increased.

We are in fact travelling a route on which some of the report recommendations have already been implemented. For example, legislation has been passed to encourage the Judiciary to make community service orders more frequently. The Criminal Justice (Community Service) (Amendment) Act 2011 requires the sentencing judge to consider the imposition of community service where a custodial sentence of 12 months or less is being considered.

With regard to the issue of overcrowding, as outlined in the Irish Prison Service three year strategic plan for 2012 to 2015, it is intended to align the capacity of our prisons with the guidelines laid down by the Inspector of Prisons during the lifetime of the strategy, in so far as this is compatible with public safety and the integrity of the criminal justice system. Priority has been given to reducing the chronic overcrowding in Mountjoy, Cork and Limerick Prisons and the Dóchas Centre. There has been a significant improvement in the situation in Mountjoy and good progress has also been made at other prisons.

Construction of a new prison in Cork on the site of the current car park and adjacent greenfield site, commenced in January 2014. This new prison will have a capacity of 275 and will replace the existing outdated prison with modern cellular accommodation containing in-cell sanitation and showering facilities supported by a full range of ancillary services. A new accommodation block in the Midlands Prison was opened in December 2012. In addition, the opening of a new 20-space accommodation block, which was formerly used as an administration building, has helped alleviate the overcrowding being experienced in the Dóchas Centre.

The construction of a new wing at Limerick Prison, to replace the outdated accommodation in the existing A and B wings, forms part of the Irish Prison Service 40-month capital plan. The first phase of this development will include the construction of a new 100-cell accommodation block for male prisoners, while the second phase will include the construction of a new 50-cell accommodation block for female prisoners and a range of ancillary works. Enabling works for the project are already well advanced and the tender process for the first phase is under way. The refurbishment project in Mountjoy and the construction of the new prison in Cork reflect the Government’s determination to deliver on the commitment in the Programme for Government to modernise the prison estate and eliminate slopping out.

Major changes have also been made over the past three years with regard to structured release, temporary release and community returns. In terms of the sub-committee's report and the issues not yet addressed, in September 2012 I announced an all-encompassing strategic review of penal policy. A working group was established to carry out this review and to make recommendations on how a principled and sustainable penal system might be further enhanced, taking into account resource implications, constitutional imperatives and international obligations. In that context, the review group was asked to undertake an examination and analysis of all aspects of penal policy, including the role of penal policy in crime prevention, sentencing policy, alternatives to custody, prison accommodation and regimes, supports for reintegration and rehabilitation, and the issue of female offenders. The review group has also been asked to consider the joint committee's recommendations on penal reform.

I am sure the Minister read the reports in the Irish Examiner about Cork Prison around the Christmas period, which referred to the frustration of the governor that judges continue to send prisoners to the jail for non-payment of fines, which is farcical because sometimes people are released on the same day, or stay overnight or for a few days, which causes real problems.

Committee members visited Cork Prison as part of the preparation for the report on penal reform and we saw for ourselves the situation there. We welcome the new prison development that is long overdue. How will the Minister specifically implement the five recommendations over the lifetime of the Government? It is rare that one would have a proposal that would make society better, yet would cost less money in the long term. We would save money if we could reduce the level of incarceration in prisons by one third over ten years, introduce community service, a far more sensible way of dealing with minor offences, and have resources to help people and prevent recidivism. It would be remarkable to have a proposal to save taxpayers’ money in the medium term and it would be better for society. I wish to know how the Minister will implement the five proposals.

First, as I indicated to the Deputy, we are already along the road towards implementing a series of the proposals. As he knows, one of my objectives and hopes during the lifetime of the Government is that we would also put the parole board on a statutory footing. That is another important measure I hope we will have the opportunity to address, but because of the legislative programme I know it will not happen in 2014. I want to have visibility as we move into the autumn as to the timeframe for doing this.

I very much welcome the report of the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Justice, Defence and Equality. It is examining issues and travelling routes that have informed part of the strategic plan. On changing the rules for remission and when people might be released, I am deliberately waiting for the report of the review group which is not just composed of departmental officials but of others such as representatives of the Irish Penal Reform Trust. We have effected reforms in the Irish Prison Service, with the objectives the Deputy outlined – to reduce offending, assist prisoners when they are released to obtain employment and protect the public. To date, we have achieved more reforms in three years than occurred in the previous 30 years. It is my intention to continue along these lines. The head of the Irish Prison Service is excellent and provides huge support. The connectivity between the Irish Prison Service and the Probation Service on the joint strategic plan is unique. It has not occurred before and is substantially in the public interest. There is great advantage in having joined-up thinking in these areas and the level of connectivity now achieved.

Crime Prevention

Bernard Durkan

Question:

8. Deputy Bernard J. Durkan asked the Minister for Justice and Equality the extent to which he and his Department continue to monitor criminal gangland activity with particular reference to homicides arising therefrom; the extent to which he and his Department continue to put in place the necessary measures to disrupt this activity; if an update of the bail laws is likely to become an instrument in this regard; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [5329/14]

This question relates to the ongoing activity of criminal gangs, the degree to which homicides have occurred as a result of that activity, the extent to which reoffending has been observed as a feature of their activity and the extent to which action can be taken and continues to be taken to address the issue.

Serious crime is being tackled aggressively by An Garda Síochána, with all the necessary resources deployed to the investigation and prosecution of murders related to the activities of criminal gangs. The organised criminal activity which gives rise to this violence is being targeted by An Garda Síochána across a number of fronts, including through the use of focused intelligence-led operations by specialist units such as the serious and organised crime unit and the work of the Criminal Assets Bureau.

While the challenges posed by gangland and organised crime remain clear to all, week in, week out An Garda Síochána is making arrests and bringing persons before the courts, with substantial sentences handed down in many instances. The drug trade is also being tackled relentlessly, with drugs valued at €67 million being seized by the Garda in 2013, including seizures of cannabis plants with an approximate value of €20 million.

These law enforcement operations are underpinned by a comprehensive framework of criminal law measures which are being fully utilised by the Garda. I have, however, made it clear to the Commissioner that I will look positively at any legislative suggestion he may wish to make which would render our efforts even more effective. I also draw attention to the forthcoming legislation to provide for the establishment of a DNA database to assist An Garda Síochána in tackling crime. The intelligence generated will be invaluable to the Garda and will greatly assist in the investigation of a wide range of serious crimes, including homicides.

With regard to updating the bail laws, my Department has been engaged in work to consolidate and update bail law with a view to presenting a clear, accessible and modern statement of the law. In the context of the modernisation of the law, I will seek to restructure the law in order that it has a focus on the protection of the individual and the public. The intention is that the new proposals will provide better guidance for the courts on how such protection might be provided. I intend to bring proposals to the Government on the matter as soon as possible, having regard to other legislative priorities.

I draw the Deputy's attention to the most recent crime figures which show that total recorded crime was down by 7.1% in the 12 months to the end of September 2013. The figures underline the fact that those involved in criminal gangs and the drugs trade which funds their operations are being robustly opposed. The Commissioner and I are united in our determination that these efforts will be vigorously maintained.

I further inquire whether, for example, it has been noted in the past two to three years the extent to which reoffending has been a feature of serious crime and also the extent to which individuals on bail have reoffended. Has the Garda Síochána made specific recommendations on how the issue might be tackled and whether it might be possible to deal with these issues in the short to medium term?

As the Deputy knows, there is a concern surrounding individuals on bail committing offences. That is the first issue. Where one is on bail and commits an offence, of itself that is a separate offence. In circumstances where this occurs and individuals are brought before the courts it is a matter for the Judiciary to decide whether sentences imposed are concurrent or consecutive. There is a perception among some of the criminal fraternity that when one is out on bail, one is on licence to commit any crime one wants because if one is subsequently arrested and brought before the courts, there is a reasonable possibility that one will receive a concurrent sentence, not a consecutive one. As the Deputy knows, the Judiciary is independent and individual judges need to make decisions where prosecutions take place and convictions result on what are the appropriate sentences to impose without being influenced by me, as Minister, the Government or Members of this House. That is an issue in the context of people being out on bail pending the hearing of a criminal prosecution. We are looking at the bail laws to see the constitutional parameters within which we can best introduce any required reform.

I thank the Minister for his comprehensive reply. I ask whether in a case of reoffending, on the appearance of a person before the court who has previously offended and obtained bail, it should be possible to prevent bail being granted subsequently? Otherwise, it defeats the purpose of the exercise.

There are certain constitutional and human rights parameters within which the Government and the Legislature have to operate. We are looking at the legislation and how best to approach it. In the case of repeat offenders, of an individual who, for example, has been convicted a number of times, served a sentence, paid a fine or done community service and then offends again, following a conviction, when it comes to a court considering the appropriate penalty to impose and whether it should involve imprisonment or a lesser penalty, evidence is given to it of previous convictions. The fact that someone has previous convictions is one of the factors to be considered by the judge who has to determine what penalty should be imposed. It is not simply a question of whether there is a previous conviction but also the seriousness of the offence committed which resulted in the conviction. Ultimately, as the Deputy knows, the courts are independent in this area. We can provide some guidance through legislation, but when it comes to disposing of an individual case and making a decision on a penalty to impose, it is ultimately a matter for judicial discretion.

Foreign Conflicts

Brendan Smith

Question:

9. Deputy Brendan Smith asked the Minister for Justice and Equality if his attention has been drawn to the number of persons who have travelled from Ireland to fight in the Syrian civil war; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [1506/14]

This question refers to the greatest humanitarian crisis of modern times. Up to 2.3 million Syrian people are refugees in neighbouring countries, half of whom are children. Up to 6.5 million people have been displaced internally with upwards of 130,000 murdered. Foreign fighters began arriving in earnest in Syria in early 2012, a year after peaceful protests against the al-Assad regime were violently suppressed and an armed revolt then ensued. Up to 11,000 fighters from more than 70 nations have joined the struggle in Syria against the president, Mr. al-Assad.

Thank you, Deputy.

Has the issue of Europeans taking part in this conflict been discussed at the Justice and Home Affairs Council?

What is happening in Syria is a humanitarian disaster and tragedy of epic proportions. It is unfortunate that the recent talks did not produce any successful outcome or indicator that this conflict might come to an end. Upheaval and conflict in Syria has witnessed the phenomenon of individuals travelling from Europe to the fighting. The motives for individuals travelling to Syria vary from humanitarian to a willingness to participate in the conflict. Sadly, it seems a number of Irish residents have travelled to Syria to take part in the fighting. Tragically, a number of them have lost their lives there.

With possibly up to 2,000 foreign fighters in Syria, the involvement of European citizens is unprecedented in comparison to other recent conflicts. There is also increasingly emerging evidence that rather than helping the situation, these individuals are merely adding to the chaos and confusion. Many of them no longer know who they are fighting or who is commanding them. Unfortunately, some are being exploited by more malign elements with wider fundamentalist agendas than the Syrian conflict. Among the groups participating in the civil war in Syria are al-Qaeda and groups who are or have been al-Qaeda affiliates.

As I have previously indicated, this is an issue of concern to the majority of European states and one to which I gave priority during the Irish Presidency of the Council of the European Union. In that connection, Ireland was successful in gaining the agreement of the member states to carry out a review of the EU strategy for countering radicalisation and recruitment to terrorism. Work is ongoing on this matter at various levels in the EU. One of the aspects to be addressed in the review is that of how best to manage the foreign-fighter phenomenon. In addition, Ireland is also a member of a small group of like-minded member states set up during the Irish Presidency to develop a response to this issue. I have met with my EU ministerial colleagues in this regard.

It is widely accepted that a key element in addressing this problem is a programme of proactive engagement with the communities most affected. This is with a view to persuading those inclined to travel that there may be more beneficial and positive ways of contributing to a resolution of the conflict than taking up arms. The Garda racial, intercultural and diversity office is in contact with many of our minority communities through its network of ethnic liaison officers and is there to discuss all matters of concern to these communities, including those related to the conflicts in the Middle East. An Garda Síochána is also a member of the EU's radicalisation awareness network which was set up by the European Commission to develop responses and best practices in the field of radicalisation, including the foreign-fighter dimension. This work is continuing.

From a security perspective, an Garda Síochána will continue to monitor developments in this area and take action as required.

I thank the Minister for his detailed reply. The number of individuals from western Europe who have travelled to participate in the conflict in Syria has trebled to almost 2,000. According to a study by King’s College, London, this figure includes up to 366 from Britain. Have we an estimate of how many Irish people have travelled to Syria to participate in the conflict?

Across Europe there are various estimates as to the numbers from different EU member states who have travelled to participate in this conflict. We estimate between 25 and 30 Irish residents have travelled there for that purpose. Some have lost their lives in this conflict.

A whole range of particular issues arise for this State and the EU member states. It is a matter of great concern across Europe as to when individuals who participated in the conflict under the flag of fundamentalist and extreme organisations return to the European Union. Having been radicalised by those with whom they are engaged, they may pose certain threats within member states. Some were already radicalised before they travelled to participate in the conflict.

This is not a simple issue. Wearing my two hats as the Minister for Justice and Equality and Minister for Defence, we are carefully monitoring this situation as there are important security issues of relevance to this State, as well as to the broader European Union.

Written Answers follow Adjournment.