The formation of the new coalition Government has injected fresh impetus into the ambitions under the auspices of the Department of Justice and Equality. eolas examines current justice policy priorities across the Civil Justice and Equality and the Criminal Justice pillars.
Helen McEntee TD succeeded Charlie Flanagan TD as Minister for Justice in June 2020. McEntee is only the fourth female to be appointed to the office in the history of the State, her female predecessors being Máire Geoghehan Quinn, Nora Owen and Frances Fitzgerald. Bodies within the policy remit of McEntee’s department are An Garda Síochána, the Courts Service, the Irish Prison Service, policing oversight bodies and others ranging from the Irish Film Classification Office to the Office of the Data Protection Commissioner and from the Probation Service to the Office of the State Pathologist.
Within such broad responsibilities, Minister McEntee has settled on Garda Reform, domestic violence and the modernisation of IT facilities as her fundamental priorities.
This mirrors the Building Stronger and Safer Communities mission within the Programme for Government (PfG), with which, for instance, the tri-party coalition has committed to ensuring that community policing will be “a key part of our Social Contract with Citizens and will place it at the centre of policing policy”.
Other headline PfG commitments include curbing corruption and white-collar crime, implementing courts reform, tackling anti-social behaviour, undertaking prison and penal reform, addressing hate crime, confronting domestic and sexual violence; supporting victims of crime; ensuring online safety; and protecting Ireland’s cybersecurity.
In autumn 2019, the Department of Justice underwent fundamental restructuring and is now aligned under dual pillars, Civil Justice and Equality and Criminal Justice, each with their own Deputy Secretary General. Oonagh Buckley occupies the Civil Justice and Equality position while there is a vacancy in Criminal Justice after Oonagh McPhillips replaced Aidan O’Driscoll as Secretary General of the Department. Each pillar has policy, legislation, governance and operations and service delivery functions.
The briefing document prepared for Justice Minister Helen McEntee by Department of Justice and Equality officials upon her appointment outlines the current priorities of each pillar.
Civil Justice and Equality pillar
The first priority of the Civil Justice and Equality pillar is to collaborate with the International Protection Accommodation Service (IPAS) and Immigration Service Delivery (ISD) to develop “evidence-based and strategic polices” for migration, immigration and international protection.
The second priority is to formulate a strategy and develop evidence-based policies to support the Courts Service in digitally improving access to civil justice and courts reform as per the report of the group chaired by the former President of the High Court, Mr Justice Peter Kelly.
Other priorities include:
- beginning to establish new organisations arising from priority legislation;
- fulfilling international reporting obligations on disability, human rights and gender;
- embedding the Judicial Council;
- supporting the performance of civil justice sector agencies;
- concluding the Magdalen Restorative Justice Scheme; and
- resettling 650 refugees in Ireland, including 100 people through the Community Sponsorship Programme.
The briefing document highlights seven pieces of legislation to be progressed, including “legislation to assist courts in managing the effects of Covid-19” and Property Services Regulation (Amendment) and related European Pre-Infringement Proceedings. The five others are also listed in the Programme for Government are:
- the implementation and amendment legislation for Assisted Decision-Making (Capacity) Act 2015;
- a Disability (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill;
- the enaction of a Family Court Bill;
- the enaction of the Judicial Appointments Commission Bill; and
- a Courts and Civil Liability (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill.
Within Immigration Service Delivery specifically, priorities include minimising the risks associated with Covid-19 in Direct Provision centres and Emergency Reception and Orientation Centres (EROCs); investing in people and systems and updating policies to meet service demand; and implementing the recommendations of the Advisory Group on Direct Provision and an Interdepartmental Group.
Criminal Justice pillar
Within the criminal justice pillar, there are four major spheres of focus.
- Garda reform: The second iteration of the four-year plan, ‘A Policing Service for the Future: Implementing the Report of the Commission on the Future of Policing in Ireland’, incorporates a significant number of projects. These include a Policing and Community Safety Bill; a body-worn camera Bill; a Garda Powers Bill; and the discarding of non-core functions.
- Brexit: Criminal justice priorities relating to Brexit include: data protection; extradition; Schengen Information System II; Passenger Name Recognition and the European Criminal Records Information System (ECRIS).
- Security: Security priorities include: the development of “strategic policies and legislation to enhance capability”; developing north-south cooperation “in combatting terrorist activity”; and establishing institutions to address the legacy of ‘the Troubles’.
- Criminal courts: In the context of the Covid-19 pandemic, a Department priority is to collaborate with the judiciary and the Courts Service to determine measures to safeguard criminal trials through public health restrictions and explore alternatives to prosecution for minor offences.
There are also a number of major capital projects within the criminal justice sphere either ongoing or not yet commenced. These are:
- a new Forensic Science Ireland laboratory facility in Backweston, County Kildare which is expected be completed in 2021/2022;
- the relocation of Dublin Metropolitan Region HQ from Harcourt Square to Military Road which is expected to be completed in 2022;
- the redevelopment of Limerick Prison which is due for completion in 2021;
- the ongoing Garda ICT programme; and
- a Garda PPP bundle which includes new stations at Macroom, County Cork and Clonmel, County Tipperary.
Additional criminal justice priorities for the Department include responding to forthcoming and published reports, particularly implementing the findings of the O’Malley Review of Protections for Vulnerable Witnesses in the Investigation and Prosecution of Sexual Offences; implementing the Parole Act 2019 and establishing an independent statutory Parole Board; and progressing the legislative programme which incorporates measures facilitating increased use of video link; EU transposition; Garda reform; a Criminal Procedure Bill; and hate crime legislation.