Saturday 1 October 2016

Let's tackle real reasons for crime epidemic before setting up another court

Published 27/10/2015 | 02:30

Justice Minister Frances Fitzgerald plans to establish a second Special Criminal Court because of case delays
Justice Minister Frances Fitzgerald plans to establish a second Special Criminal Court because of case delays

Justice Minister Frances Fitzgerald's plan to set up a second Special Criminal Court (SCC) will serve more to distract the public from negative media coverage of crime than to tackle the crime problem.

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This is the second time the creation of an additional SCC has been mooted. Back in 2004, then Justice Minister Michael McDowell said he planned to establish a second court to alleviate chronic delays. Nothing happened then, and it's doubtful a second court will be in place in the lifetime of this Government.

The current incarnation of the SCC has been with us since 1972, when it was set up during the most murderous period of the Troubles to try terrorism offences.

At the time, a non-jury court was deemed necessary, not because of any concerns about witness or jury intimidation, but because of a fear that Republican sympathisers on juries would make the successful prosecution of terrorists impossible.

This jettisoning of a fundamental human right, the right to a trial by jury, was made possible by Article 38.3.1 of the Constitution, which states that special courts can be established when "the ordinary courts are inadequate to secure the effective administration of justice and the preservation of public peace and order".

Despite the fact the SCC is supposed to be an emergency court, used as a last resort when ordinary courts are deemed "inadequate", it has remained a permanent fixture of our legal system for more than 40 years, outliving the Troubles that gave birth to it.

In fact, as the years have gone by, the scope of the SCC to try cases has gradually increased and currently the DPP can opt to try a whole range of "ordinary" offences, namely gangland crimes, in the court.

Now, this column could try to convince you the SCC is a bad idea because it's an attack on civil liberties - and tell you all about the criticism it has received from Amnesty International, the UN, the Irish Human Rights Commission and the Irish Council for Civil Liberties - but, let's face it, that would never work.

Alleged terrorists and gangland criminals are not exactly the most sympathetic bunch and if they are denied the right to a jury trial most people won't lose any sleep over it.

No, the real problem with the SCC is that it is redundant, a tired prop increasingly used by unimaginative governments in a desperate attempt to prove they are tough on crime.

The creation of a second SCC will certainly speed up the interminable delays besetting the system, but it won't make cases any easier to prosecute or criminals more likely to be caught.

Instead, it will simply generate a few positive headlines for the minister, who is under fire over the increase in rural crime, while further embedding an emergency court into the permanent architecture of our criminal justice system.

The notion the SCC is necessary to prevent witness intimidation is often trotted out, but this contention doesn't withstand scrutiny.

The SCC is devoid of juries, not witnesses, and witnesses must still give evidence during trials.

Further, since 2006, witness statements given to gardaí can be entered into evidence in any criminal trial - even if those witnesses subsequently refuse to give evidence or deny making the statement.

This means that even if witnesses are threatened or intimidated into recanting their testimony, trials can still proceed with the original written statement being entered into evidence.

Given there is a dearth of evidence to support the notion that juries are routinely harassed in this country, it's hard to see why many of the cases before the SCC could not simply be dealt with in the Central Criminal Court.

But, if that were to happen, it could be construed as politicians being soft on crime, unwilling to do something, anything, to tackle it, even if what they are doing is ineffectual, inefficient and costly.

Garda Tony Golden, who was tragically shot dead earlier this month by a suspected dissident Republican out on bail from the SCC, wrote a memo in 2013 detailing his main concerns as a rural garda - a 14pc decrease in manpower in Co Louth between 2009 and 2013, despite the population of the county increasing by over 10pc in the same period.

He was worried because his division was so short-staffed that gardai were unable to take days off or annual leave; about the lack of vehicles to patrol the area; and the fact that overtime was in danger of being withdrawn.

Gda Golden's complaints of a lack of resources are replicated all over the country by gardai who don't have enough cars, computers or colleagues to adequately do their jobs. While Ms Fitzgerald promised 260 new vehicles for the Garda fleet last week, it has now transpired that just 10pc of those cars will be high-powered.

Maybe the minister can explain how gardaí driving family saloons are expected to chase criminals in high-powered vehicles?

Sending trials to the SCC doesn't dispense with the laws of evidence or mean that gardai are absolved from preparing cases that prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.

To do that, gardaí need resources and this Government has failed to adequately equip them to do their jobs. Instead of wasting money on a new SCC, that court should only be reserved for cases where there is a demonstrable risk of jury intimidation and the State's scant resources should be spent where they are needed most - gardaí on the beat.

Irish Independent

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