Ombudsman defends new powers for Gsoc replacement body

Drew Harris says new legislation is a ‘flagrant breach of human rights’

 Gsoc chairwoman, High Court judge Mary Ellen Ring,  welcomes the proposed extension of powers and the streamlining of investigative rules. Photograph: Corporate Photographers Dublin

Gsoc chairwoman, High Court judge Mary Ellen Ring, welcomes the proposed extension of powers and the streamlining of investigative rules. Photograph: Corporate Photographers Dublin

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The Garda Ombudsman has rejected Garda Commissioner Drew Harris’s charges that new oversight powers over the force, including the right to investigate Garda civilian personnel, are unconstitutional.

Mr Harris has complained that the new legislation to reform policing oversight, including Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission’s (Gsoc’s) replacement by a body with stronger powers, is “disproportionate” and “a flagrant breach of human rights”.

Investigations into gardaí accused of wrongdoing could go on for years and they would not be told if they were facing disciplinary or criminal allegations, he told the Oireachtas Committee on Justice last month.

However, Gsoc, chaired by High Court judge Mary Ellen Ring, has welcomed the proposed extension of powers and the streamlining of investigative rules.

Saying she was “surprised” by the claims of unconstitutionality, Ms Justice Ring said the Policing, Security and Community Safety Bill brought the ombudsman’s powers into line with other bodies, including the Garda and Revenue.

‘Cultural problem’

Rejecting complaints about excessive oversight, she said resistance from gardaí to any oversight, including tribunals, was “part of a cultural problem”, though she believed the situation was “improving because it is 2021”.

The search powers offered in the Bill, including power to search Garda stations, are identical to what Gsoc already has and it wants additional powers to search Garda vehicles and Garda property around stations.

The Gsoc chairwoman, who finishes her six-year term next week, also queried whether Government and Opposition politicians were “fully” committed to achieving “meaningful” independent oversight of the gardaí.

Saying Gsoc had been faced with Garda failures to co-operate in the past, Ms Justice Ring said the legislation should be amended to impose a “clear” obligation on all relevant parties to ensure effectively and timely investigations.

For the legislation to be effective, the ombudsman must have “meaningful” independence “on paper and in practice” and adequate resources to perform its functions adequately and efficiently, Gsoc argues.

It is “extremely concerned” the Bill provides for a review after three years by the Minister for Justice which could see some categories of complaints to the ombudsman being rescheduled to be dealt with by the Garda.

Gsoc wants that proposal deleted, saying it is not in line with the recommendations of the Commission on the Future of Policing CFP and has potential “to fundamentally undermine the enhancement of police oversight which is the aim of this Bill”.