Shatter warned new abuse laws could 'overload' social services
Fears legislation on withholding key information may spark confusion
Published 19/11/2011 | 05:00
JUSTICE Minister Alan Shatter has been warned that mandatory reporting laws to protect children from sexual abuse could "overload" Ireland's cash-strapped social services.
In a major blow to the Government's child protection strategy, the Office of the Ombudsman for Children (OCO) has warned the Government that if the new law -- which carries a prison term of up to five years -- leads to an increase in reporting, there is a danger that social work departments may become overloaded.
And it calls for "all necessary resources to be put in place" to ensure that social work departments can respond effectively to any increase in reporting.
Following the publication of the Cloyne report into clerical sex abuse, Mr Shatter published details of new laws which will make it a criminal offence to withhold information relating to sexual abuse or other serious offences against a child or vulnerable adult.
A person found guilty of withholding information will be liable to fines or a jail term of up to five years.
But children's ombudsman Emily Logan has warned the Department of Justice that there is a "danger" that social work departments may become overwhelmed by people -- fearful of prosecution -- reporting suspicions of child abuse which fall short of the legal threshold for mandatory reporting in the planned law.
The legal advice, which has been seen by the Irish Independent, points out that the new offence only arises when someone knows or believes that a serious crime has been committed. And also if that person believes they have information about the crime that might help gardai.
This, says the OCO, means that the new law is about a person consciously withholding information rather than merely failing to report.
It is also feared that many people will report suspicions of abuse that don't meet the legal threshold for mandatory reporting -- that they they have made a decision to withhold information.
The warning comes after the OCO received legal advice on the Criminal Justice (Withholding Information on Crimes against Children and Vulnerable Adults) Bill 2011 as part of its statutory role to give advice to the Government on any matter relating to the rights and welfare of children.
Whilst supporting a duty to report, the OCO -- which did not comment on its report last night -- said that the new law may go too far.
It also warns that the lack of clarity around what constitutes a reasonable excuse for not reporting to the authorities may give rise to constitutional issues.
The OCO advice also calls for a specific provision in the new law requiring a review of its operation within a set time frame, possibly three years.
Mandatory reporting with criminal sanctions in New South Wales (NSW) in Australia has been abandoned after the authorities there became overwhelmed with reports.
NSW introduced a mandatory reporting law in 1999, but by 2007 -- eight years after the reporting legislation was implemented -- the rate of reporting to statutory child protection services had risen by 600pc.