Lack of DNA database is a national disgrace
LEGAL OPINION: This legislation will strengthen the ability of the Garda to detect and prevent crime and, in particular, to snare repeat offenders
A DNA DATABASE is one of the most effective crime-fighting tools ever devised. Thanks to DNA databases, crimes that were previously unsolvable are now being solved and miscarriages of justice are being corrected.
Such databases save valuable time in investigations by quickly eliminating suspects or pinning them to a crime scene. They are particularly effective in sex crimes and in catching repeat offenders such as burglars. They also have uses beyond the criminal sphere in terms of identifying bodies and helping to locate missing persons. In February 2000, the then government announced a plan to establish a DNA database in Ireland. More than a decade has passed and this has still not been done. The lack of relevant legislation is hampering criminal investigations.
To date, three Bills have been drafted which seek to establish a DNA database in Ireland – the Criminal Justice (Forensic Sampling and Evidence) Bill 2007, the Criminal Justice (Forensic Evidence and DNA Database System) Bill 2010 and the Criminal Justice (Forensic Evidence and DNA Database System) Bill, currently before the Dáil.
The first had to be dropped after the decision of the European Court of Human Rights in Marper v the United Kingdom, which led to European-level change in the law on DNA databases; the second lapsed following the change of government last year. In April 2011, Minister for Justice Alan Shatter told a conference of Garda sergeants and inspectors he hoped to publish a new Bill before the end of that year and to progress its speedy enactment. This was postponed to the middle of this year – and it has been pushed back again to the end of the year.
There is currently an ad-hoc Irish DNA database which contains a representative sample of DNA profiles from 300 Irish citizens. To put this in context, the British database contained the profiles of 3.1 million people at the end of 2005. Clearly the scope for accuracy and effectiveness of results is exponentially higher in their system than in ours. In the UK, using the database has resulted in a 50 per cent hit rate. One in two samples on the databanks result in information regarding suspects being provided to the police. At one stage the hit rate was 74 per cent.
When he was in opposition, Mr Shatter said it was “almost beyond belief” that more than a decade had passed and this important legislation had still not been passed. Speaking in January 2011, he said: “It is completely outrageous important issue hasn’t been prioritised, and extraordinary lethargy has been displayed; the legislation is on the back burner. If there was any sense of urgency about it, this legislation would have been implemented last Easter considering it was published last January.”
Over a year has passed since Mr Shatter became Minister for Justice, and legislation has yet to be enacted.
Gardaí and their representative bodies have repeatedly lobbied governments to have this legislation introduced. The first such call was made in May 2001. Gardaí are being denied the use of what is an essential tool in the modern fight against crime and it, combined with the recent cuts, is having a negative effect on Garda morale. Not only does it affect how they do their work but it is embarrassing when they have to admit to other European police forces they don’t have this basic crime-fighting tool.
This legislation will strengthen the ability of the Garda to detect and prevent crime and, in particular, to snare repeat offenders. The country is of course in financial difficulty, but a database will save money in the long run by speeding up investigations, saving Garda time and resources.
When Ireland takes over the EU presidency in 2013 it will be one of only two EU member states not to have this type of legislation, the other being Malta. Of the other European states, only Italy and Greece do not have working databases.
This is a national disgrace. This matter has been marked by years of inaction and neglect by successive governments, despite repeated promises by various ministers.
This Government should not follow the lead of previous governments; instead, it should give this legislation the priority it needs. We need a database.
Matthew Holmes is a practising barrister specialising in criminal law who has recently completed a master’s in King’s College London on the proposed legislation enacting a DNA database in Ireland