Thursday, 9 July 2009

Pressure on the government on the organised crime bill continues

Yesterday saw a letter in the Irish Times signed by 133 lawyers critising the government's Criminal Justice (Amendment) Bill. The letter raises concerns about the manner of the introduction of the Bill:

It has been introduced without any research to support its desirability and without canvassing expert opinion or inviting contribution from interested parties on the issues.
It appears now that it will be passed without proper debate in the Dáil because such debate has been guillotined by the Government.
It is quite simply astounding that we as a society would jettison ancient rights and rules of evidence in such a manner and seemingly without regard to the effect such impetuous legislating might ultimately have on the respect for the rule of law in this country.

And goes on to point to the problems in removing the right to jury trials in organised crime cases, the use of Garda opinion evidence, and the manned in which extentions to periods of detention can be obtained "in secret".

The letter does not reject outright the need to take action, but ultimately calls on the government to "withdraw this Bill and instead provide for a short consultative period during which reasoned debate can be heard."

The response from Minister of Justice Dermot Ahern was unbending:

“They are entitled to their opinion. I don’t agree with them when they say that this was introduced without any research without canvassing expert opinion.”

Rather than introducing any amendments to respond to the growing criticism from criminal law experts and human rights organisations the Minister introduced a further measure to allow former gardaí to give uncorroborated opinion evidence at trial.

And just to reassure people further of the terrible state of emergency the country faces Willie O'Dea, Minister for Defence, added to the hype about gang crime by stating that the use of the Special Criminal Court were justified because "gangland crime posed a greater threat to the State than terrorism ever did".

The approach being taken by supporters of the Bill is that if you criticise the proposal, somehow you are only interested in the human rights of criminals and could care less about the victims. To oppose action that will undermine the rule of law and age-old mechanisms to safeguard people from the risk of miscarriages of justice, is not to be self interested. In fact, most of the critics of the Bill are not saying do nothing. Rather they are asking for time and a reasoned debate. As Carol Coulter rightly pointed out in the Irish Times yesterday:

It is not clear what is to be gained by such haste, other than the appearance of doing something about serious crime.
The courts will rise for two months at the end of this month, with only the District Court sitting, so there will be no trials for serious crime during that period anyway. Postponing the finalisation of the Bill until after the summer recess will have little practical impact on the fight against the criminals, but could allow time for a reasoned debate about a comprehensive response to the problem of serious crime and ruthless criminals, with an input from all those with relevant experience.

The haste seems more about being seen to take action. Yet the results of a legislative process that will have taken only 10 days since publication to pass into law will have a significant impact on the criminal justice system and may well see Ireland in breach of its international human rights law obligations.

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