Department of Justice ‘not fit for purpose’ before recent reforms

Organised crime and terrorism continue to pose challenges, says secretary general

The Department of Justice and Equality was "not fit for purpose" prior to a recently completed overhaul, according to its most senior civil servant.

The reform of the department, which took place in the wake of several policing controversies such as the Maurice McCabe saga and the penalty points scandal, was completed in September of last year.

The reform programme was “the most radical restructuring of a department in the history of the State,” Secretary General Aidan O’Driscoll told a conference on Wednesday.

It involved splitting the department into a criminal affairs section and a section dealing with civil matters, similar to the functions of home affairs departments in other European countries.

Sections were further broken down into broad subject areas such as “transparency”, “legislation” and “service delivery”. These replaced the previous operational categorisations such as policing or prisons.

The reform process, which Mr O’Driscoll said has gone relatively smoothly, is expected to be used as a template for the restructuring of other government departments.

The traditional structure of the department served the State well for decades, Mr O’Driscoll said, but “in our view it was no longer fit for purpose in a changed world”.

In 2018, it was decided the department needed to be transformed in a “fundamental way,” he told justice sector officials.

“Crucially we needed to become much more open and transparent,” he said.

"And we've done it in a very short time tine and in the context of a rapidly moving and even volatile external environment and an Ireland where trust in institutions is very hard earned."

Gangs and new technology

The restructuring involved reassigning some 450 civil servants to the newly created sections. Much of the focus was making policing and public safety the responsibility of multiple agencies including the Probation and Prison services as well as the Garda, he said.

The sector still faces “enormous challenges,” Mr O’Driscoll said. “I don’t want to give the impression that everything is rosy in the garden.”

The growing sophistication of criminal gangs is a particular problem, he said, adding that they are increasingly using new technology to commit crimes.

“We have also terrorist challenges and we have all the challenges that arise from our inequality in our society.”

Immigration is one of the areas in the department which has undergone significant reform, Mr O’Driscoll said.

The department has seen “significant increases” in its workload in the area including through border control and asylum applications.

There is currently a “welcome and robust” debate over the future of the direct provision system and this is a positive thing, Mr O’Driscoll said.

There is a lot of focus on the asylum sector and less on the “much larger” number of people who arrive in Ireland through other mechanisms to “work, stay and play”.

One of the priorities for the department is to speed up immigration processes, he said.

Another priority is the review of current legislation regarding hate speech and hate crime.

A public consultation on the issue has now completed with the receipt of about 200 submissions and 3,000 survey responses.