Friday 22 February 2019

Email accounts of senior Justice officials never searched after Tribunal request

Garda whistleblower Maurice McCabe
Garda whistleblower Maurice McCabe
Philip Ryan

Philip Ryan

THE email accounts of senior officials in the Department of Justice’s policing division and secretary general’s office were not initially searched following a request for information from the Charleton Tribunal.

An independent review of the Department’s handling of the discovery order found there was “no meaningful explanation” for this omission other than officials did not think they were the focus of the Tribunal.

The report found the search for documents was “adhoc” and there was “little communication” between senior officials regarding the disclosure order

The Charleton Tribunal is investigating allegations there was a Garda headquarters orchestrated campaign to discredit whistleblower Maurice McCabe.

The independent review by barrister Michael Collins was established in the wake of former Tanaiste Frances Fitzgerald’s resignation last year.

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Former Minister for Justice & Equality Frances Fitzgerald TD at the Disclosures Tribunal in Dublin Castle, Dublin. Photo Gareth Chaney Collins

Ms Fitzgerald stepped down following a controversy surrounding emails she received which detailed an alleged garda legal strategy aimed at undermining Sgt McCabe.

The former Tanaiste insisted she acted appropriately at all times but resigned so as to avoid a general election.

Mr Collins review was aimed at establishing why the emails at the centre of the controversy were not provided to the Charleton Tribunal when they were sought under a discovery order.

The emails only emerged following a series of parliamentary questions tabled by Labour Party TD Alan Kelly.

The review found Ms Fitzgerald and her officials acted “at all times in good faith and believed they were acting reasonably” when searching for relevant documents.

Mr Collins found “certain shortcomings” in the Department’s compliance with the search order but identified no evidence suggesting “deliberate concealment or withholding of material from the Tribunal”.

The failure to identify all relevant records relating to the Tribunal was blamed on a lack of a “systematic arrangement for filing emails” which meant important correspondences were not entered into the appropriate file.

“For this very reason, email accounts appear to be an obvious source within which to look for material of potential relevance to the Tribunal’ s terms of reference and should have been included in the Department’s initial search for documents,” the report said.

“There is a general acceptance by current and former officials and at ministerial level, at least with the benefit of hindsight, that an email search should have been conducted from the outset,” it added.

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Justice Minister Charlie Flanagan. Photo: Justin Farrelly

Minister for Justice Charlie Flanagan said he was concerned that potentially relevant emails were not located as part of the Department’s discovery process.

“We have taken important lessons from this episode and my Department is actively putting new measures in place that are aimed at ensuring that an oversight of this kind could not happen in future,” Mr Flanagan said.

 “These new measures include the use of specialist IT consultants, where needed, for discovery and the establishment of a separate unit to interact with Tribunals and Commissions.

 “The Review points to the absence of a systemic system for filing emails in the Department.  Like all major organisations, the dramatically increased use of email as part of officials’ work presents a file management challenge.

There is a Civil-service wide initiative underway in relation to electronic file management and this will help to ensure that electronic documents, including emails, can more easily be associated with relevant files.  The National Archives are actively involved in the development of this new system which I believe will be very valuable,” he added.

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