There was a significant increase in complaints against gardaí during the pandemic despite phone lines and a walk-in office at the Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission (Gsoc) being forced to close down, an Oireachtas committee has heard.
Gsoc also said it is dealing with increasing complexity in the nature of complaints and could require a major bump in the number of investigators given forthcoming changes in policing legislation.
The agency received 2,189 complaints in 2021 (compared with 1,921 in 2018 and 1,700 in 2019) although last year, just 61 per cent were deemed admissible.
Its chairman, Judge Rory MacCabe, told the Public Petition’s Committee on Thursday that staff had adapted to the challenges of Covid in 2020 and 2021, and fielded a “significantly higher volume of complaints”.
“In that context it’s perhaps a bit strange because… we had to close down our public office so people hadn’t got a walk-in facility,” he said. “And for some period of time we hadn’t got a telephone facility.”
Aileen Healy, Gsoc's director of administration, said its normally manned phone line was replaced with a recorded message service because staff could not be allowed to take calls from home due to their often "traumatic nature".
The lines were closed between March and September 2020. The committee was told that despite the reopening of the public office, most demand had shifted to phone and email channels.
Ms Healy said resourcing continued to be a challenge and that even though Gsoc secured funding for 42 new staff in 2018, it took most of 2019 to fill the roles.
“There is a particular challenge not only in constant[ly] replenishing our staff but also in getting staff with some of the specialist expertise that we need,” she said. “And with the increasingly complexity of our cases means that we need more and more specialist skills and competencies.”
Additional funding this year will allow for 30 extra staff. Nine new investigators are due to be in place in the coming weeks.
Asked about future staffing requirements, Mr MacCabe noted when Gsoc was originally being established in 2005, then minister for justice Michael McDowell had estimated that between 150 to 200 investigators would be required to process anticipated caseloads. Today, Gsoc has approximately 60.
Judge MacCabe said forthcoming legislation on policing reform, specifically the Policing, Security and Community Safety Bill, would mean the 150 to 200 estimate would probably be “not an unrealistic number”.