Fitzgerald: ‘New era of transparency and reform in the justice system’

A new era of reform and transparency in the justice system has been promised by newly appointed justice minister, Frances Fitzgerald.

Proposals for a full statutory inquiry into alleged malpractice in the force would also be discussed next week by the Government, she said. The minister made her comments after Taoiseach Enda Kenny announced her appointment in the Dáil yesterday following the resignation of Alan Shatter from his position this week.

In her first remarks, Ms Fitzgerald paid tribute to garda whistleblowers and said she was ready to listen to criticisms of the system.

She singled out whistleblower Sgt Maurice McCabe for praise, whose concerns about the force and how they were handled by the justice system will be outlined in a major report to be released today.

“Clearly what we need as well is a new era, a new culture so that the Irish people, the Irish citizens can have confidence in our policing system and confidence in our police. Confidence in our justice system is equally critical,” she said.

Priorities in her new role included the setting up of an independent garda authority, implementing legal service reforms as well as setting up the new court of appeal, she said.

While she briefly praised the work of Mr Shatter, Ms Fitzgerald said she wanted to pay tribute to garda whistleblowers, including Sgt McCabe.

However, she noted that a review of Sgt McCabe’s access to Pulse — the Garda computer system — was still under way.

“We do have to listen to critics of the system, we have to be open to hearing what they have to say — that is very important. And I do intend to provide leadership in that regard.”

She also said she wanted to listen to the concerns of gardaí. The new minister said that a full inquiry into claims of malpractice in the force and how those complaints were handled in the justice system would be discussed by Cabinet next Tuesday.

Earlier, Mr Kenny announced her appointment in the chambers, saying that restoring confidence and integrity to the justice system would be the number one priority for Ms Fitzgerald: “As head of Government, I want transparency and accountability in our public service.”

Mr Kenny praised Ms Fitzgerald’s three years of work as minister for children, noting that she had overseen a referendum on children’s rights; the enactment of the Children First guidelines; and the creation of the Child and Family Agency.

“I know she will bring the same energy, commitment and reforming zeal to her new role as minister for justice and equality,” he said.

Ms Fitzgerald yesterday also said that it had been the Taoiseach’s decision to remove responsibility for defence from the ministerial position so she could focus solely on justice-related matters.

She will meet with acting Garda Commissioner Noirín O’Sullivan today.

The issues facing Frances Fitzgerald as justice minister

* Reforming the gardaí/an independent Garda authority

Gardaí have hesitation about this new body. But the coalition wants an authority set up by the end of the year. The Garda commissioner would be accountable to it rather than the minister, as is the current arrangement. There are also calls to give greater powers to the Garda ombudsman, which would allow gardaí initiate complaints. A Cabinet subcommittee tasked with overseeing the new garda authority should take some of the work off Frances Fitzgerald.

* The Cooke report

While Alan Shatter has resigned, a second inquiry is expected to be released soon into claims that the Garda ombudsman’s office may have been bugged. This report will look at what actions were taken when the bugging claims emerged. It will quiz security experts about whether the ombudsman’s offices were put under surveillance. Recommendations from this may also call for greater powers for the Garda ombudsman.

* The Guerin report

The fallout from this inquiry will become clearer today when the report is released. It will look at garda whistleblower claims that gardaí mishandled cases, including assault and murder. Taoiseach Enda Kenny said the findings are only critical of Shatter but also of the force and the Department of Justice. Ms Fitzgerald will probably want to start her term as minister with a clean slate. But criticisms hanging over the actions or inaction of officials in her department will have to be addressed sooner rather than later. It is likely all of this will form part of the new, larger inquiry on garda case handling which the Government will discuss.

* Referendum on same-sex marriage

The Coalition has agreed to hold a vote on same-sex marriage next year. Already, much debate has surrounded commentary on this. The fallout from the ‘Pantigate’ scandal reveals the issue will be divisive. Furthermore, Fine Gael already lost several TDs and senators who went overboard when the Oireachtas voted on the abortion legislation last year. But Ms Fitzgerald has experience dealing with complex legal issues and successfully brought the children’s rights referendum over the line in 2012.

* Garda numbers/budget

As with all departments, Ms Fitzgerald will face budgetary pressures in her new portfolio. Shatter made a €35m cut to garda payroll last year, which saw numbers reduced in the force. His closure of over 100 Garda stations also brought criticism. Concern has also been raised about senior garda members retiring early and about senior posts remaining unfilled. Ms Fitzgerald no doubt will have to tackle similar issues.

* Legal Services Regulation Bill

Lawyers, interests groups and behind-the-scenes fighting among the Coalition have delayed promised reforms under this legislation. Plans to allow barristers and solicitors to set up one-stop shops with other services have been put on hold. The troika is keen to see this reform rolled out to help reduce costs for people hiring lawyers. Mr Kenny gave commitments in the Dáil this week — after Mr Shatter’s resignation — that the bill would proceed.

* The appointment of a new Garda commissioner

Following the resignation of Martin Callinan, the Coalition decided his successor as commissioner would be appointed through an openly advertised process. A healthy working relationship between the new garda chief and Ms Fitzgerald will help reform the force as well as lift morale among gardaí.

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