Tuesday, 23 February 2010

Criminal Justice developments January 2010

The following is a found up of criminal justice news from January 2010. The material was first published in the January Edition of Firstlaw's Criminal Law Online Service.
The month of January was relatively quiet from a criminal justice perspective. Two stories in particular dominated the news, namely the number of homicides that have bloodied the month and the Eamonn Lillis trial. However additional stories of interest were the release of CSO crime statistics for 2009 and the publication by the Minister for Justice of the Criminal Justice (Forensic Evidence and DNA Database) Bill 2010.
The Lillis trial was interesting for a number of reasons, not least of which was the showcasing of the facilities in the new Criminal Courts of Justice complex. More members of the public were able to hear and see the court proceedings through the use of videolink to an overflow room. Videolink was also used to allow Mr. Lillis’s 17-year old daughter to testify, and Jean Treacy was protected from the media scrum by being allowed to use an underground entrance to and exit from the courts. Her use of the underground entrance attracted media claims that their “right” to be able to photograph witnesses in order to safeguard the interests of justice had been compromised. Yet the case of Re. R. Ltd is clear that “the [constitutional requirement to] administ[er] justice in public [simply] require[s] that the doors of the court must be open so that members of the general public may come and see for themselves that justice is done.” As such, images of witnesses or the accused being lead to the courtroom add nothing to the administration of justice and seem to be valuable exclusively as a means of selling papers. The media frenzy that ensued in the race to find an image of Ms. Treacy confirms this. Moreover, when he sentenced Mr. Lillis, Mr. Justice White criticised the media “scrum” that the Lillis and Cawley families had to endure on their entrance to and exit from the courts complex as “an affront to human dignity.” He also noted that one of the reasons Mr. Lillis received a seven-year sentence rather than a ten-year one was because of the intense media scrutiny the case received. It could therefore be argued that the media have in fact promoted their self-interest at the expense of the interests of justice.

The granting of the use of the underground entrance to one prosecution witness only raises other issues. It was suggested by the Minister of Justice that Ms. Treacy had been allowed to avail of the underground entrance in order to ensure her co-operation as a witness. Why this same privilege was not afforded to other witnesses or to the accused should be questioned. In light of the availability of the underground entrance, and remembering the Court of Criminal Appeal’s criticism of the practice of photographing the accused in the 2002 case of DPP v. Davis, it is worth considering whether this protection should become standard practice in all criminal trials. Michael O'Higgins SC, while critical of the use of the facility, noted that a precedent had now been set and that in future “it would have to be available to both sides in a case.” Alternatively, as some moderate voices in the media have suggested, it might be worth establishing a code of practice on the use of this facility so as to avoid preferential treatment being given to some witnesses over others.

The trial is also notable for the manner in which the jury returned their verdict. When they found Mr. Lillis guilty of manslaughter they explained that they felt that the State had not proved intent to kill or cause serious injury. What is remarkable is that this should be remarkable. Justice White thanked the jury for alerting him to their reasoning and noted that it would assist him when he sentenced Mr. Lillis. Arguably this information should always be provided to the judge to ensure that the jury’s verdict is given effect. Moreover it would be desirable if, as in the Lillis case, when there are three potential reasons for rendering a manslaughter verdict (gross negligence homicide, excessive self-defence or provocation) that the jury should identify which one they based their verdict on. There is a significant distinction in terms of culpability between these various categories of manslaughter and this distinction should be reflected in sentencing. The judge is unable to do this if the jury do not provide this information. In this case, it is clear that the jury rejected provocation as the basis for their manslaughter verdict, but it is not clear which of the other two categories was determinative. It is worth noting as an aside that there is a case currently before the European Court of Human Rights, Taxquet v. Belgium, on the issue of jury trials and whether their failure to provide reasons for their decisions impedes the accused’s right to a fair trial. The outcome of this case will be awaited with interest.

The relatively high number of reported homicides in the month of January has also been the subject of considerable media attention. In one weekend in January there were three gangland shootings in Dublin, followed by a fourth shooting the following weekend. A week later there was a fatal shooting in Cork with gangland/paramilitary links. There were also a number of non-gangland related killings. A former Defence Forces member was stabbed to death in Dublin after he complained about noise coming from a party and another man was stabbed in Tipperary following an altercation outside his home. A woman was found stabbed to death near the residence of the man believed to be implicated in her death with whom she was involved in a relationship. The death of a 10-day old infant in Meath was also being treated by the Gardaí as a murder. Nine killings in one month is not an auspicious start to the new-year. Predictably the gangland killings in particular led to warnings about a “surge in gangland crime” and criticism by Fine Gael of the government’s failure to provide sufficient resources to give effect to the gangland legislation introduced last year. However it is worth noting that while five of the nine killings were gangland related, increased resources for gangland crime or indeed ordinary crime would have had no impact on the remaining four deaths. Similarly, while there was an increase in the number of murders last year, generally speaking the homicide rate is falling and the murder rate is relatively steady. In 2009 a total of 80 homicide cases were recorded, 53 of which were murders. This represents a significant drop from 138 homicides/62 murders in 2006 or 132 homicides/77 murders in 2007. In 2008 there were 89 homicides/50 murders. Accordingly we are not in the midst of a national epidemic in relation to either homicide generally or murder specifically.

The CSO statistics for 2009 do show a significant rise in the number of burglaries (up 9%) and robberies (up 33.5%). This rise is predictable in a recession period given the general view that economic crimes tend to increase when legitimate avenues of obtaining revenue decrease. The 2009 statistics however also reveal an unexpected benefit of the recession, namely the decrease in drug (down 6%) and public order offences (down 8%). It is arguable that when there is less disposable income there is less money to spend on excessive consumption of alcohol (a key element in public order offences) or on drug use. In relation to crime generally it was found that overall the level of reported crime dropped by 5% last year but that the levels for a number of serious offences, including murder (up 6%) and rape (up 10%), increased.

Finally, the Minister of Justice published the Criminal Justice (Forensic Evidence and DNA Database System) Bill 2010 in January. The proposed legislation would introduce a national DNA database to hold samples of those arrested for certain criminal offences. The Bill was lauded by the Ministry as “major step forward in the fight against serious crime” giving the Gardaí “access to intelligence on a scale and of a quality that has never before been available in this country”. The proposed powers include the ability to require a sample from anyone arrested for a violent crime. The DNA profile generated from that sample would then be placed on the database as would any sample collected from a crime scene. At the same time the legislation would, upon coming into force, require samples from anyone serving a sentence for a serious offence. The Minister stated that his desire was that “a significant proportion of the criminal community” would have their samples stored on the database and that this would “of itself, act as a deterrent for some.”

The Minister was quick to point out that the drafting of the legislation took account of the recent European Court of Human Rights decision of S and Marper v. UK in which the Court held that the indefinite retention of DNA samples, profiles and fingerprints taken from persons who are not charged or who are acquitted infringed the ECHR’s privacy provisions. As a result the Bill provides that the only samples to be stored indefinitely would be those taken from people convicted of a serious offence. Other samples would be held for three years and profiles for ten years, subject to the right of the person to apply to have their materials removed from the database. However the draft legislation has already drawn criticism from a number of sources including the data protection commissioner who stated that profiles of those not convicted of any offence should in fact be destroyed immediately.

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