Killian Flood: Don’t expect a crackdown on crime without a properly funded legal system

Killian Flood: Don't expect a crackdown on crime without a properly funded legal system

In the wake of the Dublin riots, it has been interesting to observe the political responses to the scenes of violence and disorder which befell our nation’s capital. The government has been in damage control while the opposition have been circling like sharks. Everyone knows that the riots have altered the political landscape of policing and justice in the State.

Unsurprisingly, the government has been lambasted for failing to keep law and order in the streets. The minister for justice is under pressure to provide answers on how the riots happened on her watch and, perhaps more importantly, outline what will be done to address the general levels of crime seen in Dublin and beyond.

To that extent, we have been promised more gardaí and more equipment to deal with unruly crowds. Water cannons and pepper spray are all well and good, though one suspects that the individuals involved in the riots will welcome the fight. Any increase in manpower is valuable, but as many other commentators have pointed out, new recruits need specific training in crowd control to be effective.

We have also heard much rhetoric about modernising our laws to make it easier to prosecute rioters. Vague proposals to allow gardaí greater access to CCTV and facial recognition technology have been mooted, while the offence of incitement to hatred has also been mentioned as a possible area of reform. How any of this will prevent future mobs from assembling and causing mayhem is unclear, given that many of the rioters appear to have been well-organised by far-right groups. Facial recognition technology will not prevent online radicalisation against immigrants.

It is extremely naïve to think that introducing stricter laws will magically stop the criminal damage and clashes with gardaí such as those seen in recent times. The rioting was not an isolated incident. Asylum seekers were targeted in an arson attack on Mount Street in May, while a violent mob took over Grafton Street following an anti-lockdown demonstration in February 2021. We cannot pretend that those involved in these crimes were simply concerned citizens engaging in their right of assembly.

Similarly, beyond the riots, there is an undoubted sense amongst the media and public that general crime levels are high. Social media is filled with people recording bikes and scooters being stolen in broad daylight, while attacks on tourists in the summer prompted Helen McEntee to pronounce Dublin as a safe city. Generally, when you have to assure the public that the capital city is safe, the inverse in more likely true.

As part of the government’s defence of McEntee’s overall record as minister for justice, it was pointed out that she had introduced harsher maximum sentences for a variety of criminal offences. These reforms included an increase for the maximum sentences for assaulting a garda to 12 years’ imprisonment and for assault causing harm to 10 years’ imprisonment. Quite clearly, the possibility of a harsher sentence made no difference to the rioters.

Even if stronger laws (whatever that means) are an answer to addressing the current levels of crime, we should be careful about ushering in new legislation that will affect all our freedoms. There has been a natural “otherising” of the rioters post-facto due to their shocking disregard for Irish society and values. However, we should be circumspect in the push for broader surveillance powers which will apply to all of us. Do not be fooled to think that these laws are only for people living in certain parts of Dublin.

Obviously, from a practical perspective, the government must be seen to do something in response to the riots. So far, the focus has been on policing, but the riots also showed us the value of criminal justice more broadly. It is therefore disappointing that, while the case has been made for stronger law enforcement, there has been no mention of improving the criminal courts.

It should go without saying that criminal lawyers are an essential cog in the justice process. If the government is serious about cracking down on crime, it simply makes no sense to give extra resources to the gardaí without also providing additional resources to the court system.

It was only two months ago that criminal barristers engaged in a withdrawal of services arising from the persistent failure of successive governments to reverse the cuts imposed on them during the financial crash. The link between an underfunded legal system and the rises in crime is obvious. The government has committed to a small increase in fees which will apply in 2024, but this will not alleviate the systemic problems in criminal justice.

There is a growing shortage of barristers and solicitors willing to act in criminal cases and this will not be solved by a strained, piecemeal restoration of fees by the State. Anecdotally, there are very few newly-qualified barristers who are training in criminal work each year and it is asinine to think that this will suddenly change without genuine investment. Moreover, it takes years to build up enough experience to routinely appear in trials on indictment (that is, cases beyond the District Court) so there is an acute need for the government to act on restoring legal aid levels if it is serious about tackling crime in the short term.

So much has been made about the number of gardaí on the streets, and yet there is a disdainful ignorance by the government of the number of lawyers available to prosecute and defend cases. Equally, the overall resourcing of the criminal courts means that it can take years for criminal trials to take place and this should not be the norm. Long delays are unfair to both the victim and the accused, but also create practical difficulties such as witnesses’ memories fading over time.

In its 2022 annual report, the Courts Service compiled data regarding court activity and case numbers between 2019 and 2022. In that time, there has been a sharp increase in incoming cases, with the Central Criminal Court receiving 25 per cent more cases and the Circuit Court seeing a 10 per cent increase. There are nearly 500 ongoing cases in the Central Criminal Court and approximately 6,500 in the Circuit Court. At District Court level, there are more than 800,000 offences currently listed. There is no doubt that we need more lawyers and administrative staff to deal with all these cases.

To be fair, the government has committed to increase the judiciary by 44 judges and some have been appointed already. This will hopefully reduce the backlogs in the criminal courts, though without a similar increase in court staff, their impact may not be as expected. Equally, a failure to properly invest in the legal aid system dilutes the value of a more judges. Simply put, trials cannot run if there are empty benches in front of the judge.

The withdrawal of services by barristers in October was a sign that we are at a crossroads in criminal justice. The survival of the criminal bar is at stake, and this should be borne in mind by those politicians promising a crackdown on crime.

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