Stronger laws against hate crimes planned to make convictions easier

Bill to be brought forward in autumn will create new ‘aggravated’ versions of existing offence

Minister for Justice Helen McEntee is to bring forward a new hate crimes and hate speech Bill in the autumn. Photograph: Colin Keegan/Collins Dublin

The Government will seek to strengthen the law against hate crimes and hate speech, with the intention of making it easier to secure convictions in the courts, the Minister for Justice Helen McEntee will announce on Wednesday.

Ms McEntee will bring forward a new hate crimes and hate speech Bill in the autumn, which will create new “aggravated” versions of existing offences, where those offences are motivated by prejudice against a “protected characteristic” of the victim. The protected characteristics will include race, colour, nationality, ethnic or national origin, sexual orientation, gender (including gender expression and identity) and disability.

If a court is satisfied that an offence – for example an assault – against a person is motivated by the perpetrator’s prejudice on the grounds of one of these characteristics, the perpetrator can be found guilty of a hate crime.

It is expected the new offence would contain harsher penalties than similar offences without a hate motivation.

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An objective “demonstration test” – where guilt can be established if the perpetrator uses, for example, racial language or other evidence of hate against the victim – will be included as part of the legislation. The prosecution will have to show that the perpetrator of a crime demonstrated hatred towards a member of a protected group, or towards a person with a protected characteristic, at the time of the offence.

Ms McEntee is expected to outline on Wednesday that the intention of these changes is to make it easier to secure convictions.

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At present, Ireland does not have specific legislation dealing with hate crime, although a hate motive can be an aggravating factor that judges can take into account when sentencing.

The hate speech elements of the Bill will replace existing incitement-to-hatred prohibitions in the 1989 Prohibition of Incitement to Hatred Act. The new Bill will include online speech which is intended to stir up hatred against a person or group with a protected characteristic.

However, the test will remain quite strict – to be guilty of hate speech, a perpetrator must intend to stir up hatred against a person on the grounds of one of the protected characteristics.

This is stricter than the test sought by some lobby groups during a public consultation on the legislation. During that process, some groups argued to criminalise speech which is perceived by a victim as being motivated by hatred, but there were fears that this would lead to an overly subjective test for hate speech.

The Department of Justice has previously said that the legislation will contain “robust safeguards for freedom of expression, such as protections for reasonable and genuine contributions to literary, artistic, political, scientific or academic discourse, and fair and accurate reporting”.

The Criminal Justice (Incitement to Violence or Hatred and Hate Crime) Bill 2022 is currently at the final drafting stage in the Attorney General’s office and is scheduled to be introduced in the autumn when completed. Sources said it would be a priority issue for Ms McEntee in the autumn term, and it is hoped it will be on the statute books by next year.

Pat Leahy

Pat Leahy

Pat Leahy is Political Editor of The Irish Times