Not the first time gangs have been targeted in law


ANALYSIS:There is no certainty that the Criminal Justice (Amendment) Bill will meet its stated objective, writes CAROL COULTER.

THE MURDER of Roy Collins in Limerick, fast on the heels of the murder of Shane Geoghegan, brought renewed demands for fresh measures to tackle the city’s gangland culture.

Yet it is only three years since the enactment of the Criminal Justice Act 2006, which was heralded by then minister for justice Michael McDowell as the answer to gangland crime. He said at the time: “It will make life more difficult for criminals and will strengthen the hand of the gardaí.”

The Act created a new offence of membership of an organised crime gang, or “criminal organisation”, and made it an offence to assist the activities of an organised crime gang.

Little seems to have changed since, and every time a particularly heinous crime is committed there are calls for fresh legislation. Following the murder of Roy Collins his bereaved father met Minister for Justice Dermot Ahern to discuss further legislation to tackle gangland crime. The Criminal Justice (Surveillance) Bill, and the Criminal Justice (Amendment) Bill have since been published.

The Surveillance Bill provides for the use in criminal trials of material obtained during covert surveillance. The Criminal Justice (Amendment) Bill further defines membership of a criminal organisation, makes it an offence to direct its activities, and creates a raft of new “scheduled offences” which will bring the trials of gang members into the non-jury Special Criminal Court.

Section 8 of the Bill contains a declaration that ordinary courts are inadequate for the purpose of the effective administration of justice. However, the Bill has not been accompanied by any evidence of a failure on the part of the courts or any reluctance on the part of jurors to face up to their responsibilities. Indeed, the principal judge in the Central Criminal Court, Mr Justice Paul Carney, is on the record as stating that when gang members are brought before his jury court there is no difficulty convicting.

There has been a problem in the past of witnesses refusing to stand over statements, and the 2006 Act sought to address that. But the same witnesses will have to appear in the Special Criminal Court. The difference with the regular courts will only be the absence of a jury, and there is no evidence of a problem with jury tampering. In any case, as the Irish Human Rights Commission pointed out yesterday, there are ways of dealing with that short of abolishing the right to jury trial.

Legislation restricting the right to trial by jury was introduced in the UK in 2003. However, the first trial to take place under it is only now going ahead, following three aborted previous trials. Permission was obtained from the Court of Appeal last month because of the danger of jury tampering, in a ruling that emphasised the centrality of the common law right to jury trial.

The same right is enshrined in the Irish Constitution, and the UN Committee on Human Rights has already ruled that sending an “ordinary” criminal to the Special Criminal Court, without him having an opportunity to challenge this, violates his human rights under the UN Convention.

This Bill is likely to be rushed through the Oireachtas, speeded by justifiable anger at the apparent impunity of criminal gangs. But will we be seeing another Criminal Justice Bill next year or the year after, to be told that this one really is the legislative silver bullet needed to deal with gangland crime?