Gangland law: crime fighting tool or gimmick?

Two recent Government initiatives were introduced largely for the benefit of Limerick City: Limerick Regeneration and the Criminal Justice (Amendment) Act 2009. It will take some time before the benefits of Limerick Regeneration can be known, but what about the Act?

There are two important and incontrovertible facts about the Criminal Justice (Amendment) Act 2009.  First: it made significant changes to the nature of Irish criminal law.  Second: it was railroaded through the Oireachtas with no meaningful debate.  If the Government were to attempt any equally fundamental change to the health service or education sector, to take two examples, the howls of protest would emphasise the lack of consultation with those working at the coal face.

Of course, our Oireachtas and Government do not always proceed with such haste in implementing new policies.  Take the example of the amalgamation of cultural institutions, for which it appears thorough preparatory work is necessary before implementing legislation is ready.

On the week in which the Criminal Justice (Amendment) Bill 2009 was subject to much media comment, Minister Martin Cullen stated in the Seanad that he had initiated various forms of consultation relating to reform of our cultural institutions and that we should not “rush down this road for the sake of doing so.”  Quite reasonably, the Minister “want[ed] to take great care in ensuring that whatever outcome we have is the one that works best nationally and internationally for our institutions.”

Without wishing to trivialise our cultural institutions, Minister Cullen was trying to streamline the administration of a handful of galleries.  Minister Ahern has introduced a law which a large number of our leading criminal lawyers have said is unnecessary, probably unconstitutional, will “jettison ancient rights and rules of evidence” and has been introduced “without any research to support its desirability and without canvassing expert opinion or inviting contribution from interested parties”.

These concerns were met with tirades against the legal profession, soundbites about the supposed primacy of the rights of “criminals” over those of “innocent people” and facile barbs about lawyers’ fees and judges’ pension contributions.  The Irish Times ran an editorial including the remarkably dismissive conclusion that “[i]t would have been helpful, and more useful, if these practitioners had offered their alternative to deal with a serious problem”, content with the pretence that any such alternative would have survived the Government’s guillotine.

A number of sensationalist arguments were put forward to justify the necessity of the legislation, summarised by this year’s Phoenix Annual as follows:

[i] that jurors had been intimidated; [ii] that a tiny minority of solicitors had passed on inappropriate information to criminals; and [iii] that a solicitor had passed on names and addresses of jurors to criminals

These allegations, once subjected to analysis since the passing of the Act, have been “whittled down to just one allegation: that one solicitor had passed on inappropriate information.” The Gardaí investigated this allegation and, according to the Phoenix, the DPP decided that there were no grounds for a prosecution. The Law Society then carried out its own investigation.

A fortnight ago the Law Society concluded, following over three months of inquiries … that there was no evidence at all against [the solicitor accused of passing on inappropriate information] to justify any allegation of wrong doing.

So, it now appears that none of these allegations stand up.

Media reports prior to the passing of the Act contained strong suggestions from informed sources that the Gardaí were lying in wait for criminal gangs, prepared to pounce once the Act was commenced. Indeed, when the President signed the Act into law, Minister Ahern stated: “I know that the Gardaí are determined to use these provisions to the full.”

This does not appear to have happened and it has been reported that no arrests have been made under the new legislation. The Sunday Tribune reported last week:

no gangland figures have been arrested on suspicion of controlling a crime gang or membership of a gang. While it is expected that the DPP will take several months to consider any garda file that recommends criminals being charged under the new laws, the fact that no gangland bosses have been quizzed means that no garda files are near completion. Pat Rabbitte, Labour’s justice spokesman, said the fact the legislation has not been used proved justice minister Dermot Ahern’s plans to tackle gangland crime were “a gimmick” and “a stunt”.

This is what was feared all along: the legislation was another attempt to paper over a crack in society with legislation that was likely to achieve little in targeting serious crime but which raised valid civil liberties concerns.

In fairness to the Minister, it will take longer than a few months to evaluate the usefulness of the Act. But the speed at which it was introduced has been revealed as unnecessary and the arguments in support of the legislation have been largely debunked.

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