Tuesday, 12 March 2019

Ceisteanna (5)

Margaret Murphy O'Mahony


5. Deputy Margaret Murphy O'Mahony asked the Minister for Justice and Equality the specific measures he is taking to tackle crimes against persons with disabilities; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [12316/19]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Oral answers (6 contributions) (Ceist ar Justice)

What specific measures are being taken by the Minister to tackle crimes against persons with a disability? I ask him to make a statement on the matter.

I thank the Deputy for raising this question. I was very pleased to see her actively engaged on justice issues in her constituency at a recent meeting in County Cork. I was pleased with the progress initiated on the issue raised by her and I assure her my efforts are ongoing in that regard.

On the issue of crimes against persons with a disability, I assure the Deputy that the Government, including my colleague, the Minister of State with special responsibility for disability issues, Deputy Finian McGrath, is committed to working with all stakeholders to help improve the lives of all persons with disabilities in Ireland. The Garda Síochána strategy statement identifies the prevention of crime as the organisation's top priority. The objective is to prevent crime before it occurs, as well as supporting and vindicating the rights of victims when a crime occurs.

In the context of people with disabilities, there are tailored responses to how such crimes are addressed. For example, the Criminal Justice (Victims of Crime) Act 2017 includes specific provisions requiring gardaí to carry out special measures in their assessment of victims, including victims with a disability. The Act also provides that any communication with a victim must be in simple and accessible language and take into account the personal characteristics of the victim, such as, for example, disability, which may affect his or her ability to understand or be understood. There is also provision for persons with an intellectual disability to give evidence to the court through an intermediary.

In general, criminal offences such as assault committed against any person, including a person with a disability, are prosecuted as generic offences under the Non-Fatal Offences Against the Person Act 1997. However, in sentencing a person for the offence, a judge may take any aggravating factors into account. Such factors may include the vulnerability of the victim, encompassing matters such as disability.

The National Disability Authority states that research from other countries suggests that people with disabilities are more likely than other people to be the victim of general crime, including theft or break-ins at the person's home, or, indeed, physical or sexual abuse. Unfortunately, very little such research has been carried out in Ireland. The authority states that research carried out in London found that in several cases harassment was specifically related to the person's disability. Clearly, there is a need for urgent research in this area in Ireland. It should be funded by the Departments of Justice and Equality and Health. Will the Minister commit to facilitating a project similar to the SAVI report on sexual abuse and violence?

Can the Minister commit to that?

Five years ago, the Irish Council for Civil Liberties published research in this area which indicated that victims of crime with disabilities were not strategically identified as a specific victim group with particular needs and concerns. Will the Minister ensure people with disabilities are seen as such?

I assure the Deputy that the Minister of State, Deputy Finian McGrath, and I consult on an ongoing basis to ensure that every effort is made to assist people with disabilities. I mentioned earlier a number of practices in order to ensure that victims who have disabilities are treated in a more sensitive manner. For example, I am informed that improvements were made to the Garda PULSE system a number of years ago that included the introduction of a victim assessment screen. This requires mandatory recording of data relating to the apparent motive for a crime incident, such as whether that crime was motivated by discrimination on specific grounds, including age, disability, race, religion, gender or sexual orientation. As part of the Garda policing plan for 2019, work is well under way within An Garda Síochána on the development of a definition and procedures to record hate crimes. Once this is agreed, the Garda intends to run a nationwide campaign to encourage the reporting of such crimes to An Garda.

I am mindful that there has been much discussion recently on whether legislation specifically addressing crimes of this nature should be introduced. I would be happy to give careful consideration to the research from other jurisdictions but I assure the Deputy that these issues are taken seriously by An Garda Síochána and are prosecuted through the courts. A judge often takes into consideration when arriving at an appropriate sentence or sanction the fact that a victim may well be a person with a disability.

I thank the Minister. I also wish to raise the issue of hate crime legislation. Disability hate crimes may be once-off incidents or part of systematic abuse that may continue over weeks, months or years. Hate crime can happen between strangers who have never met, between friends or within the family unit. In October 2016, in conjunction with my colleague Deputy O'Loughlin, I introduced hate crime legislation. I understand that the Government played the money message card in respect of that Bill. I acknowledge that this was before the current Minister's time. In the Bill, we sought to make hate crime relating to disability an offence. Is the Minister committed to this same goal? Is he supporting hate crime legislation? If so, when will his Department move on it?

I assure the Deputy that my Department and I are currently reviewing the law on this issue. We are relying on the 1989 prohibition on incitement to hatred legislation. It is appropriate and timely that it be subject to review. In addition, it is important that we carry out appropriate research and examine legislation and best practice in other countries. We should examine the effectiveness of such legislation. This will inform the Government's approach to this issue. In the meantime, I assure the Deputy that where criminal offences, such as assault, criminal damage and public order offences, are committed with bias or a prejudice motivation, they are prosecuted under the wider criminal law. Trial judges in these circumstances, as in the circumstances I mentioned earlier, can take aggravating factors into account, including whether the offence may be described as a hate crime, whether there is a prejudice motivation or whether there is bias. The forthcoming Judicial Council Bill, which is currently passing through the Seanad, will include provisions on sentencing guidelines. Clearly, hate crimes could be considered in that context.