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Criminal Justice Amendment Bill a cynical PR exercise – Ó Snodaigh

3 July, 2009 - by Aengus Ó Snodaigh TD


Speaking in the Dáil this afternoon on the Criminal Justice Amendment Bill Sinn Féin Justice Spokesperson Aengus Ó Snodaigh TD said the Bill will do absolutely nothing to reduce gangland crime and absolutely nothing to protect witnesses, their families and communities. Deputy Ó Snodaigh said his party will oppose the Bill and urged the Minister to implement the practical measures to tackle serious crime which Sinn Féin launched this week.

Deputy Ó Snodaigh said, “The bottom line is that this Bill won’t work. It will do absolutely nothing to reduce gangland crime and absolutely nothing to protect witnesses, their families and communities. Rather than continuing with this PR exercise the government should instead deliver real action along the lines of that proposed by Sinn Féin.

“The particularly odious sections of the Bill include the introduction of non-jury trials as the default situation for a whole range of very broadly and vaguely defined offences.

“Jury intimidation and witness intimidation are two very different things. There is no evidence to suggest that jury intimidation is a problem requiring a response of this magnitude. Steps short of this Bill including anonymity, segregation from public view, the use of video-link and trial relocation in circumstances where these are evidentially justified may well be sufficient to address any problems of jury intimidation that exist.

“Witness intimidation, the intimidation of and violence against their families and indeed against whole communities is a major problem. But this Bill ignores that problem. It will do nothing for witnesses at all.

“This Bill will do nothing to reduce gangland crime or protect to protect witnesses. It sacrifices core aspects of our justice system for no good reason. It is nothing more than a cynical PR exercise. Sinn Féin is fundamentally opposed to this Bill and will be voting against it. I again urge the Minister to pursue and resource the gangland action plan proposed by myself and my party this week.” ENDS

Full text of Deputy Ó Snodaigh’s contribution follows:

I want to put on record my profound objection to the manner in which this Bill is being rushed through. I will not dwell on this point as others have done because I have just 10 minutes available to me to address the Bill itself.

The bottom line is that this Bill won’t work. It will do absolutely nothing to reduce gangland crime and absolutely nothing to protect witnesses, their families and communities.

Rather than continuing with this PR exercise the government should instead deliver real action along the lines of that proposed by Sinn Féin. We demand that government:
Introduce practical protections for juries and witnesses. Explore allowing anonymity and segregation of juries or relocation of trials in certain circumstances. Develop and place a revamped full-spectrum witness protection programme on a statutory footing;
Put in place arrangements to educate and upskill all relevant Gardaí and officials from the DPP’s office in how to use the provisions of the Surveillance Act to best effect in investigations and prosecutions in order to achieve sound convictions;
End current recruitment, promotion and overtime embargos. A far reaching process of civilianization to free-up fully trained Gardaí from administrative and other duties to fight crime is essential and must be expedited. Roll-out secure digital radio and increase the number of criminal assets profilers to eliminate more of the proceeds of crime;
Guarantee the future of the ‘Dial to Stop Drug Dealing’ non-Garda phoneline which offers a secure route through which members of the public can confidently and confidentially report drug-related crime;
Ensure that an Garda Síochána, the office of the DPP, the Courts Service and the state forensic lab are properly resourced and equipped, to detect, investigate and secure sound convictions.

Despite having very little time at all to scrutinize the Bill I am satisfied that my initial concerns were warranted. Both the Human Rights Commission and the Irish Council for Civil Liberties are in agreement with me.

The particularly odious sections of the Bill include the introduction of non-jury trials as the default situation for a whole range of very broadly and vaguely defined offences.

Section 8 of the Bill contains a blanket declaration that the ordinary courts are insufficient to secure justice for these scheduled offences. But the government has brought forward no evidence to support this contention. In fact the evidence points in the opposite direction. Irish juries have actually demonstrated a very high conviction rate. The statistics prove that juries are more than willing to convict when a solid case is made before them. Juries themselves are not the problem.

Remember the 2003 Ciarán Keane murder trial. In this instance public fear amongst ordinary people of Limerick resulted in the trial being aborted because the state was unable to select a willing local jury. But did the solution to that problem involve eliminating the right to a jury trial altogether? No. They simply relocated the trial to Dublin and a jury ultimately convicted those involved.

Jury intimidation and witness intimidation are two very different things. There is no evidence to suggest that jury intimidation is a problem requiring a response of this magnitude. Steps short of this Bill including anonymity, segregation from public view, the use of video-link and trial relocation in circumstances where these are evidentially justified may well be sufficient to address any problems of jury intimidation that exist.

Witness intimidation, the intimidation of and violence against their families and indeed against whole communities is a major problem. But this Bill ignores that problem. It will do nothing for witnesses at all.

This government likes to quote the Hederman Committee which conducted the review of the Offences Against the State Acts ad nauseum … when it suits them. But the Minister certainly is not quoting the Hederman Committee today. The Committee considered the Constitutionality of the similar declaration contained in the Offences Against the State Acts which underpins the use of the Special Criminal Court i.e. non-jury trials. The Hederman Committee Minority Report recommended that the Special Criminal Court should be dispensed with altogether. And the Majority of the Committee concluded “the constitutional jurisdiction to try an accused in the non-jury courts rests on an assessment in that individual case that the ordinary courts are inadequate and that these constitutional requirements are not satisfied by the scheduling of certain offences by the Oireachtas itself since the very act of scheduling permits the trial of those very offences … without any consideration of the individual merits of the case at hand and whether or not the ordinary courts are inadequate to try that particular case.”.

Sections 7 and 21 of the Bill greatly extend the use of and reliance on Garda opinion evidence. The non-jury court will be relying on the word of a Garda as to whether a criminal gang exists subject to a dangerously vague and loose definition of what constitutes a gang. There is no minimum Garda rank requirement for the giving of opinion evidence. In addition in the context of the new secret hearings uncorroborated Garda and hearsay evidence is to be relied upon.

The supposedly ‘new’ offence of directing any activity of criminal organisation and definition of criminal organisation contained in Sections 3, 5 and 6 of the Bill are both objectionably vague and also unnecessary. The activities covered are already offences under criminal law, both common and primary. Offences of conspiracy and accessory already exist. In terms of the definition of a criminal organisation - this very week just three years ago the previous FF government rushed into being an equally impractical and almost identical definition which has never been used.

Part 4 of the Bill introduces a new provision for secret detention hearings from which both the detainee, who has not been charged with any offence, and his solicitor will be excluded. Following the previous tradition of the government I will again quote the Hederman Committee who considered the Constitutionality of ‘ex parte’ hearings, in that instance with regard to applications on the location of trials. They concluded “In the absence of independent counsel procedure, the Committee considered this option to be unsatisfactory, not least because the constitutional requirement of fair procedures seems to render any such proposal to be unconstitutional: if the Oireachtas were to confer such powers on the High Court, “fair procedures” requires that both sides be present before any final order is made.”.

Section 9 of the Bill further undermines the right to silence. The right to silence is a core principle of a decent justice system. The Minister has presented no persuasive evidence that would justify this dilution. Maybe with a perfect police force it could be considered but we are operating in a very different reality. Need I remind the House of the case of Dean Lyons. He is precisely the type of vulnerable individual, going cold-turkey through withdrawal from drugs, who is most in need of the full protections afforded by this right. What was done to Dean Lyons by the Gardaí who fitted him up will undoubtedly be done to others and particularly if this fundamental protection – the right to remain silent in the face of interrogating, heavy handed officers – is removed.

Far too much reliance is placed on confessions to achieve convictions in this state and this has allowed Gardaí like the heavy gang to force confessions out of innocent people – not criminals, innocent people! E.g. Sallins Train Robbery.

How will the caution work in practical terms? If Gardaí are interrogating an individual about an incident involving a number of greater and lesser offences in relation to some of which the caution applies but not to others. How will the Minister be sure that individuals, and vulnerable ones in particular, understand at all times the differing consequences of the failure to answer different questions.

In the past we have had circumstances of Gardaí writing confessions i.e. putting words in innocent people’s mouths to get them convicted. Will this Bill simply make that easier – they can ‘claim’ an individual remained silent or refused to answer a question knowing that this will be read as guilt.

This Section must not be gifted in the absence of further reform and in the absence of the right to meaningful access to a solicitor before and during interrogation.

This Bill will do nothing to reduce gangland crime or protect to protect witnesses. It sacrifices core aspects of our justice system for no good reason. It is nothing more than a cynical PR exercise. Sinn Féin is fundamentally opposed to this Bill and will be voting against it. I again urge the Minister to pursue and resource the gangland action plan proposed by myself and my party this week.

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