A new policing powers bill, which could see someone jailed for five years for refusing to give gardaí their passwords for phones or computers, has been described by legal and privacy experts as “very concerning”.
The general scheme of the Garda Síochána (Powers) Bill was published on Monday and will see sweeping changes made to the system of search warrants and detention currently used by gardaí.
“It is very concerning, there are huge powers being created here,” said Dr Vicky Conway, associate professor of law at Dublin City University.
“I’m surprised at this, it feels like a bit of a land grab by the Department of Justice.”
The new bill seeks to expand the powers gardaí have to access private communications in ways that had previously only been available under certain pieces of legislation. It has been described by the department as serving to “modernise existing law and make it more consistent”.
Justice Minister Heather Humphreys said in launching the bill that the law in the area of search and detention is “currently very complex”.
“Bringing it together will make the use of police powers by gardaí clear, transparent and accessible,” she said.
“Where we are proposing to extend additional powers to gardaí, we are also strengthening safeguards,” she added.
That statement was disputed strongly by Dr Conway, who said the proposed bill as it stands is “exceptionally weak on safeguards”.
“There are about 20 of them which are absent. The more powers you give the gardaí the more safeguards you should have,” she said, adding that one of the “more shocking” absent safeguards is “that the presence of a lawyer at an interview is no longer guaranteed”.
“So if the gardaí don’t like how the lawyer is behaving they can get rid of him,” she said.
Dr Conway added that under the bill a breach of the law by gardaí cannot result in either civil or criminal prosecutions is “huge”, as is the fact that such a breach does not affect the admissibility of evidence.
The Irish Council of Civil Liberties (ICCL) will be making submissions to the Department of Justice, but said it is “concerned” about a number of facets of the prospective law.
A spokesperson said the ICCL took issue with the bill’s provisions for seizing privileged information, while the fact that search warrants could be issued by Garda superintendents, as opposed to judges, in “exceptional circumstances” is worrying, given those circumstances are not defined.
Associate professor of law at UCD TJ McIntyre described the bill as “a missed opportunity”.
“It continues the practice, which the Supreme Court has found unconstitutional, of self-service search warrants,” he said.
“In every case, that application should go through a judge, there is no reason why there can’t be a scheme to do it urgently.”
He described the bill as “quite worrying”.
“It’s taking a very invasive power which is highly controversial in other jurisdictions and extending it in a blanket way to all search warrants in an unjustified and disproportionate way,” he said.