A culture of secrecy and aloofness, combined with poor management, inadequate oversight and a lack of personal accountability has eroded confidence in the Department of Justice to the extent that Minister for Health Leo Varadkar recently described it as “not fit for purpose”. An expert committee has now proposed sweeping reforms but, without hard-wired Government support, the changes could be thwarted by bureaucracy and passive resistance. There is a sad record of past failures.
Reform of administration at the Department of Justice represents part of a larger picture that embraces the Garda Síochána, the Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission, the Garda Inspectorate and a promised Garda authority. Establishing effective oversight and accountability procedures for these agencies and the other bodies that report to the Department of Justice is a mammoth task. Ensuring they work effectively will require long-term and ruthless determination. The Department of Justice is not unique. Its unwillingness to accept new ideas and practices is echoed by outmoded court rules and procedures. Its deferential attitude towards the Garda is reminiscent of the way banks were treated by the Department of Finance and the financial regulator. Responses by officials from the Departments of the Environment and Agriculture to vested interests are little different. Because of that, robust reviews of all departments would help to set new administrative benchmarks.
Splitting the Department of Justice into two sections, one dealing with law reform, crime and security and the other responsible for policing, prisons, the courts and other matters, makes good sense. Over decades, the department has become bloated and fragmented; its traditions of secrecy militating against public accountability while management at all levels failed to respond to modern requirements. The departure of Brian Purcell will have little impact on that situation if the culture within the department persists.
Management failures identified by the expert committee are embedded in the department’s structures. The Garda Inspectorate reached a similar conclusion concerning Garda oversight on penalty points . The need for extensive reforms within all agencies involved with criminal justice, equality, integration and the judicial system is unquestionable. Further official reports in the coming months are likely to generate political controversy and Opposition point scoring. That should not distract the Government and Minister for Justice Frances Fitzgerald from their obligation to challenge mismanagement, abuses and inefficiencies and to put in place more open and accountable structures. The public interest requires fundamental change.