Almost no trust in the justice system among Travellers, study finds

Distrust stems from widespread discrimination, including profiling by gardaí and regular raids on their homes

Given the extent to which the legislature, gardaí and courts have criminalised key pillars of Traveller identity, “it is perhaps unsurprising that the relationship between Travellers and Ireland’s criminal justice system is a subject of concern”, say the authors of Irish Travellers’ Access to Justice, a report from the University of Limerick (UL) published on Thursday.

Described as “incredibly distressing” by chief human rights commissioner Sinéad Gibney in her foreword, the report documents an almost total absence of trust in the justice system among the community.

This is underpinned by fear and lived experience – of racial profiling by gardaí, regular “raids” on homes, usually without search warrants, repeated experiences of being stopped, searched and verbally abused by gardaí, and receiving harsher treatment in the courts than that experienced by settled people.

In addition to the 2002 Housing Act, which effectively outlawed nomadism, is the society-wide prejudice against Travellers, says Dr Sindy Joyce, one of the four lead researchers – all from the Traveller community. The co-authors are Dr Jennifer Schweppe, senior lecturer in law, and Dr Amanda Haynes, senior lecturer in sociology.


Dr Joyce says most of us will have had no experience of Traveller people outside negative media and social media reports, as we are unlikely to meet them in our workplace, neighbourhood or local bar. “Judges and the police are not getting that contact with the community outside that negative context either, they absorb the same prejudices.”

The hostile disposition of gardaí and the courts result, says Dr Haynes, in Travellers being “overpoliced” – feeding higher prosecution rates and perceptions of disproportionate criminality among the community.

“The young people in particular are subjected to persistent stops and searches. When a community is subject to so many involuntary contacts with the police, of course you are going to see higher rates of engagement throughout the criminal justice system,” says Dr Haynes.

This contributes to the over-representation of Travellers in prison, the report argues. Though accounting for just 0.7 per cent of the general population, Traveller men account for 7 per cent of the male prison population and Traveller women for 14.4 per cent of female prisoners.

Racial profiling

Asked about the most important findings, Dr Joyce mentions racial profiling by gardaí and the finding that 59 per cent stopped in the past five years believed they were stopped because they were Travellers.

“The impact of that on trust [between the community and gardai] is huge,” she said.

Dr Schweppe described as “just shocking” the finding that 50 per cent of respondents had been present when gardaí entered a home uninvited, and that just 11 per cent presented search warrants.

“I can’t understand it. I can’t explain it. The mundanity with which some people described it, saying they didn’t mind them doing their job but if they could just wait until the kids had left for school. We have a Constitution that considers our home so important that we give it explicit protection, and to have that invaded on such a regular basis... It just beggars belief. I would really like hear what the guards have to say about these practices.”

The report is the first of its kind about the Traveller community’s experiences of engaging with the justice system, both as defendants and victims of crime. It is also the first led by Traveller researchers, which Dr Haynes says was invaluable in framing research parameters and gathering “extremely robust” empirical and qualitative data.

Its findings on the quality of responses from gardaí and the courts to Traveller crime victims, especially in cases of domestic violence and intra-community disputes, point to a failure to take these seriously. It finds 50 per cent of respondents had been a victim in the past five years, but 31 per cent had experienced crime and not reported it. Of these, 87 per cent did not believe the gardaí would do anything.

Dr Joyce hopes the report will be “read and acted on”. Dr Schweppe is more forthright.

“Some of the findings of this report are disgraceful and some people in powerful positions need to start answering questions, particularly around raids on homes, the repeated denials the State makes that racial profiling happens. It is happening. I think the judiciary as a whole needs to take a very careful look at institutional practices towards Travellers in court.”

Dr Haynes said the impact of a criminal record on the lives of privileged people was known.

“The impact on the lives of people who are already stigmatised, discriminated against and marginalised is even greater. This is a community with endemic levels of suicide, that cannot live with the status quo in relation to accommodation any more, that cannot live with the status quo in relation to the criminal justice system.”