The past 15 months have seen a lot of change in the justice sector, writes Frances Fitzgerald.
THE past 15 months have been a period of substantial change in the justice sector. However in the aftermath of the publication of the interim report of the Fennelly Commission of Investigation, there have been some ill-informed suggestions that no change has taken place in the sector or the promised reforms have stalled. The facts show a very different picture.
When I took over the justice portfolio in May 2014 the department had just come through perhaps the most difficult period in its history. It was immediately clear there was a large body of work to restore the department to a place where, in the eyes of the public, it commanded respect, confidence and trust in the administration of the justice system. That is why, on my appointment, one of the first things I did was to establish the independent review group of the department, with a high-calibre team chaired by Kevin Toland. Their report was published in July 2014.
While it recognised the value of the contribution made by the department in many important areas down through the years, and the calibre of its staff, the findings of the Toland review were, nonetheless, hard-hitting and they have now been re-echoed and reflected in the findings of the interim Fennelly Report.
What is clear is that the findings of both Toland and Fennelly relate to a period pre-March 2014.
A lot has changed since then. Substantial changes have taken place in the justice sector, led by senior management of the department and I, in the period since publication of the critical findings of the Toland review.
The Toland review group came up with a comprehensive programme of reform which they envisaged would be carried out over a two-year period. The implementation of this change programme has been the top priority for the department and very substantial progress has been made.
Of particular relevance, in the context of the Fennelly Report, has been the establishment and implementation of new reporting and oversight arrangements with agencies including An Garda Síochána.
Of critical relevance on foot of the findings of Fennelly has been the introduction of a new protocol for the processing, tracking, and monitoring of all correspondence to the minister and department including “red-flag” priority correspondence from An Garda Síochána under the Garda Síochána Act 2005.
The Department of Justice and Equality manages an annual budget of €2.2bn for the justice sector, employs 2,200 staff and receives over 1,000 pieces of correspondence every week. Nonetheless, there is rightly an expectation that correspondence to the minister and secretary general of a department should be dealt with appropriately at all times.
Since March 2014, the department has put in place revised systems and procedures to ensure that correspondence is handled appropriately and in particular, that it is brought to my attention or relevant officials in a timely manner.
Other reform implemented on foot of the Toland review include the establishment of a new management board structure, with the minister holding monthly meetings with all senior managers, which did not always happen in the past. New senior positions, including a new post of deputy secretary and a number of key assistant secretary posts have been filled. In addition, the department has developed and rolled-out new HR and training policies and introduced new audit and risk management procedures; a new corporate secretariat has been established, while work is continuing on a major upgrade of the department ICT systems.
The scale of actual and meaningful change under way in the Department of Justice and Equality is substantial and make a lie of any accusation that nothing has changed.
As minister I am overseeing an unprecedented programme of reforms in relation to the oversight of An Garda Síochána, while providing practical support to the gardaí carrying out their important work.
The establishment of the new independent Policing Authority will bring a further layer of public accountability to the administration of policing services in Ireland. The new authority will be able to demand reports and information and it will hold regular (at least quarterly) public meetings with the Garda commissioner and senior Garda management where they will be able to keep them to account on policies and priorities and ask the tough questions as necessary. This will open up, in a very transparent way, the oversight of An Garda Síochána in a way that has not happened in the past; and which contributed, I believe, to many of the issues addressed in the Fennelly Report.
The Government has also appointed a new Garda commissioner following an open and independent selection process for the position of Garda commissioner; legislation was introduced and enacted to strengthen the role and remit the Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission (GSOC); and a new chairman, Judge Mary-Ellen Ring, has been nominated to GSOC.
In terms of investment we have had the very welcome reopening of the Garda College to new recruits, sanction for the recruitment of 550 new gardaí and greatly-increased investment in new garda vehicles.
We are backing this up with an ambitious programme of criminal law reform including a landmark victims rights bill, reform of our bail laws, new provisions to tackle repeat burglaries, and stronger legislation to protect and support victims of domestic violence.
Of course, there are faults to be fixed and lessons to be learned. But equally any challenging programme of transformation is helped by a recognition along the way of the clear progress which is being made and the good work that is being done.
Once again the Fennelly Report has thrown into stark focus what did need to change in the Department of Justice and Equality. That change is well under way.
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