The “gulf of misunderstanding and mistrust” between the judiciary and Travellers will not be easy to bridge, but must be addressed, Supreme Court Justice John MacMenamin has said.
Speaking at the publication of a University of Limerick (UL) report, Irish Travellers’ Access to Justice, he said the importance of its findings could “not be overestimated”.
The report, published at UL on Thursday, says a majority of Travellers feel they are presumed guilty before the courts and disrespected by judges. More than half did not fully understand what was going on when they were in court and believed they were more like to receive harsh sentences than their settled peers.
Some 91 per cent of Travellers felt disrespected by gardaí, with 59 per cent believing they were subject to racial profiling when stopped by the force and 64 per cent saying they would not feel safe in Garda custody.
It stated that Travellers are “simultaneously overpoliced as suspects and under-policed as victims”, experiencing “hostility and discrimination from criminal justice professionals” including gardaí, judges, barristers, solicitors, court officials and probation officers.
Mr Justice MacMenamin, said most of his colleagues would be “deeply hurt” by assertions that they were “consciously unfair”. This “illustrates the gulf of misunderstanding the gulf of mistrust”, he said.
“They all pay attention to the fact that the Constitution itself, in its preamble, talks about the dignity of the individual. They all pay attention to the fact that the Constitution talks about the common good. And yet we have this report and it demonstrates how fundamentally important it is that there is so much work to be done. That work is bridge-building and bridge-building is not easy.”
Describing the report as a “brilliant first step”, the judge said the judiciary would have to “put in real conscious efforts to reach out”.
“We have to look at our commitment to how the justice system works. We have to look at issues such as unconscious bias,” he added.
Work was beginning on unconscious bias in judicial training and Mr Justice MacMenamin called for increased efforts to bring Travellers into the legal professions. “We have to look at [Traveller] representation in the judiciary. That will take some time, let’s not delude ourselves. But that’s something that has to happen.”
Supt Michael Corbett, of the Garda National Community Engagement Bureau, described the report as being “of huge significance”. Racial profiling had “come across strongly in the report”, he said.
However, he added that there was “no legal basis for the collection of ethnic identifiers during Garda operations” which would be needed to establish the presence and prevalence of racial profiling. “An Garda Siochana is in favour of being able to collect such data and has explored this issue. However legal advice is that legislation is required and this matter is being pursued with the Department of Justice.”
The force would soon unveil a video aimed at Travellers telling them their rights when stopped and question by a Garda, he said.
Maria Joyce, co-ordinator of the National Traveller Women’s Forum, said the report laid out the evidence of the “reality for Travellers in our everyday interactions”. Most of the findings would not surprise Travellers but were “shocking” nonetheless, she said.
“We need to hold on to the anger and the hurt and the damage that this is doing to our community.”
She said “from experience” she could confirm searches on homes “were incredibly damaging and have a long lasting impact” on children and young people. There was no way for Travellers to lodge a complaint about a judge “despite the racist comments and remarks being made to Travellers in open court,” Ms Joyce said.
“I do appreciate there are some judges who are supportive and good but it is not good enough to say that this is just a few judges. When no one speaks out against it and there is no accountability it is institutional.”