Minister will have veto over GSOC inquiries into Garda chief

Draft law gives extra powers to ombudsman but FF questions ‘ministerial veto’

Minister for Justice Frances Fitzgerald: published draft laws to expand the powers of the Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission. Photograph: Alan Betson

Minister for Justice Frances Fitzgerald: published draft laws to expand the powers of the Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission. Photograph: Alan Betson

Thu, Aug 21, 2014, 01:00

The Government has published draft laws to expand the powers of the Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission, but the Minister for Justice will have the right to block investigation of any alleged crime by a Garda commissioner.

The Government resolved last month to bring the commissioner within GSOC’s ambit for the first time, one of several measures to boost public confidence in the justice system after a series of controversies.

However, draft laws published yesterday by Minister for Justice Frances Fitzgerald state that any investigation that GSOC itself initiates into an alleged offence or serious misconduct by a commissioner would be “subject to the consent of the Minister”.

This provision in the Garda Síochána (Amendment) (No 3) Bill was questioned last night by Fianna Fáil justice spokesman Niall Collins, although he said many elements of the legislation would strengthen GSOC.

Further scrutiny

“I’m concerned that there will be a ministerial veto on GSOC investigating the commissioner. This requires further scrutiny and debate as it could potentially compromise the absolute independence of GSOC,” he said.

GSOC itself, which said the Bill was a “significant step” towards improving its capacity, had nothing to say about the requirement for ministerial consent for an investigation into a commissioner.

Asked whether GSOC had any reservations about this particular measure, a spokeswoman said it was “premature” to comment on the Bill.

The Bill states that a minister would be required to provide reasons if GSOC was refused permission to initiate an investigation in the public interest into a commissioner. The question of consent was not mentioned when the Government published the heads of the legislation last month.

However, a Department of Justice spokesman said the provision for ministerial consent was in the scheme approved by the Government at that time. He also said it would be open to the Minister to ask GSOC to carry out an investigation into a commissioner. He noted GSOC had said the Bill addressed “several” of the concerns it raised in a submission to the Oireachtas justice committee.

Providing information

A Garda commissioner would be required under the legislation to ensure that any information to be provided by the Garda to GSOC for an investigation was supplied “as soon as practicable”.

GSOC will have new powers to carry out investigations where the identity of the garda concerned may not be known when the investigation is undertaken, or where the alleged offence may also involve a person who is not a member of the Garda.

The Bill confers additional police powers on GSOC for criminal investigation purposes, including the right to intercept communications.