Head of rights commission says the immediate task is to raise awareness

 

"I can't formulate policy because I've no commissioners, and I can't do anything because I've no money," Mr Justice Donal Barrington says cheerfully when asked about the Human Rights Commission, of which he is the first president.

However, he has some ideas, which are just that, until the rest of the commissioners and a chief executive are appointed. Mr Justice Barrington says the new body would be built from scratch and an infrastructure put in place to allow it to take on the array of tasks with which it has been charged. This includes initiating inquiries into breaches of human rights, advising the Government on legislation and acting in the courts on behalf of individuals and bodies who think their rights have been infringed.

The Human Rights Commission could take up the cases of asylum-seekers who felt their human rights had been infringed by the Department of Justice, according to Mr Justice Barrington. His first appearance as president of the commission was at the is suing last month of a Refugee Council report on the asylum determination procedures of the Department. It was highly critical of some decisions reached by Department officials.

Other areas where Government policy and practice might come under scrutiny include treatment of patients in mental hospitals and the Travelling community, he says. The first challenge, though, would be getting adequate funding. It was allocated £600,000 when the legislation was passed, but "I don't think anyone takes that seriously." Funding, which at the moment comes through the Department of Justice, should be independent, he says.

"If it is going to receive the priority indicated in the Minister's speech, it is going to cost money. It has very extensive powers, including power to run sworn inquiries - though we wouldn't be anxious to launch into that immediately.

"Ours will be the most powerful commission of its kind in the world, but we'll feel our way very carefully. Our immediate task will be to raise consciousness of human rights, and of course that will generate more complaints.

"The Government may ask us to examine legislation. We will need a highly qualified staff. Some will have to be lawyers, but some might be social workers. If we purport to advise the Government we will need a very highly qualified person."

The first of these will be a chief executive, who will run the commission on a day-to-day basis, leaving the commissioners to concentrate on policy and on the tasks laid down in the legislation.

"We'll have to work out our own rules of procedure. There will be different areas - handling complaints, the Constitution, litigation. I expect there will be subcommittees of commissioners, with major problems coming before the whole commission."

The commission will have the power to institute proceedings in the courts and to provide legal and other assistance to a person taking action. It will also be able to appear as amicus curiae (friend to the court) in High and Supreme Court hearings which involve human rights.

Asked if homeless and marginalised children now seeking vindication of their rights in the High Court could, had it existed, gone to the commission as their first port of call, he says, "Possibly." If a person had a human rights-related complaint against a State agency, instead of seeking a judicial review in the High Court, "we could seek the file and perhaps resolve the dispute at an early stage".

What about complaints against the Garda? "There already is the Garda Complaints Board. We're not meant to be a court of appeal for these agencies, but . . . we'll keep our eyes open. Even with a proper budget, we won't be able to do everything."

The commission will also play an important North-South role, which could have broader implications in Europe. A North-South committee drawn from representatives of the two commissions on the island is specified in the Belfast Agreement.

"The Act is delightfully vague about what we're to do," comments Mr Justice Barrington. "I imagine it is to have a system of common jurisprudence so that no matter what your political allegiance, your rights will be the same." He has already met the Chief Commissioner of the Northern Ireland body. This work will have a wider application, he thinks. In an expanded EU, there will be countries with a weak human rights culture and with national minorities from bordering states within their boundaries. "Our commission may be used as a precedent for them."

Asked if he expects tension with Government bodies and departments which might find themselves under investigation by the commission, he thinks not. "One of the things that has surprised me has been the faithful adherence of all governments, from all parties, to the decisions of the courts, however cross they might be with them."