Tuesday 21 October 2014

Editorial: Politicians should leave law to the judiciary

Published 21/06/2014 | 02:30

Niall Collins,Fianna Fail deputy for Limerick at Leinster House yesterday. Picture: Tom Burke
Niall Collins,Fianna Fail deputy for Limerick at Leinster House yesterday. Picture: Tom Burke

THE furore over Fianna Fail justice spokesperson Niall Collins's letter to court on behalf of a convicted drug dealer has led to renewed calls for the abolition of any representation by politicians in such matters. His decision to write a letter to a judge on behalf of the father of four whose wife died in tragic circumstances was humane if politically naive.

Mr Collins has explained that he wrote the letter because he feared that the man's children will be taken into care if he is sent to prison.

Because the letter was sent as part of the sentencing hearing, it did not directly interfere in the administration of justice.

Such character references are a routine, indeed necessary, part of sentence hearings and are often provided by persons known to a convicted person, including priests and doctors.

But, given the separation of politics and the judiciary, is it ever appropriate for a politician to make a representation to a court on behalf of anyone convicted of a criminal offence?

It is the function of a sentencing judge to look at both the offence and the offender and weigh up the aggravating and mitigating factors at hand.

Grace and compassion for victims and perpetrators alike are vital to judges' discretion.

It can be argued that it is one of the functions of a politician to represent those who are marginalised and who would otherwise have no voice. But there is little doubt that such significant mitigating circumstances would have been brought to the attention of the presiding judge in any event.

What this case makes clear is that political representations to members of the judiciary make us uneasy because of the inherently clientistic nature of Irish politics and the power of the parish pump. It is also unpopular to be perceived to be defending those who have caused harm to our society.

If the practice, in steep decline, of politicians making such representations is to continue, it must be covered by comprehensive guidelines.

The most important guideline is transparency.

The neat alternative is abolition, or at least that such representations would be covered by rules drawn up by the Oireachtas Standards in Public Office Commission.

Improve services for our vulnerable young people

The continuing practice of admitting children to adult psychiatric units is not acceptable, and as far back as 2011 the Mental Health Commissioner, the national watchdog for the psychiatric services, said so. But the practice continues, with 91 admissions of children to adult wards in 2013.

In the vast majority of cases, this happened because there were no bed vacancies in the child units. Staff shortages and lack of weekend cover were also blamed for this practice. As a result, some children had to spend up to five months in some cases in adult psychiatric wards. It is clear that some of the difficulty for this situation lies in the fact that there is a lack of emergency services for children presenting for admission to young people's units on Saturday and Sunday.

Factors that may contribute to in-patient units being unable to admit a child, even though there were vacancies, include gender issues in sleeping accommodation, a disturbed child in the unit, or families unwilling to have their child admitted to a unit that is some distance from their home, said Dr Susan Finnerty, assistant inspector of mental health services, in a report yesterday.

It is not acceptable that children should end up in adults' units, under any circumstances. Resources to allow for all child and adolescent beds to be opened and properly staffed should be allocated so that this kind of inappropriate treatment setting for vulnerable young people does not continue.

Irish Independent

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