UN committee criticises plan for new non-jury court

Human rights committee to ask Government to explain second Special Criminal Court

Minister for Justice Frances Fitzgerald: a spokesman said the next available date for the hearing  in the Special Criminal Court is June 2017 and that this was “not acceptable”. Photograph: Cyril Byrne

Minister for Justice Frances Fitzgerald: a spokesman said the next available date for the hearing in the Special Criminal Court is June 2017 and that this was “not acceptable”. Photograph: Cyril Byrne

 

The UN Human Rights Committee has rebuked the Government for its decision to establish a second non-jury Special Criminal Court to try terrorist and crime-gang offences.

The committee, which met in Geneva yesterday, has consistently called for the abolition of the court in Ireland and member Yuval Shany told The Irish Times the Government would be called upon to explain its latest actions.

“It has been the long-standing position of the Human Rights Committee that trying civilians in special courts may raise serious problems as far as the equitable, impartial and independent administration of justice is concerned,” he said.

The committee last year expressed concern about the extension of the Special Criminal Court’s jurisdiction to organised crime, he said. “The committee would expect Ireland to report on the manner in which it gave effect to all of the committee’s recommendations, including with respect to the continued operation of the Special Criminal Court.”

Criticised

The Department of Justice defended Minister for Justice Frances Fitzgerald’s move to appoint seven judges to a second court. The Law Society welcomed measures to address delays in processing cases.

Dermot Walsh, professor of law at Kent Law School, expressed concern: “Nowhere is the jury more important than in the determination of guilt or innocence in cases where the State is prosecuting individuals for serious offences which are presented as posing a threat to the stability of the established political and economic orders. It is a major concern, therefore, that the Government should be thinking of enhancing the prominence of the Special Criminal Court when the time for abolishing it is long past.”

Solicitor Michael Finucane said it was “disappointing” the Government was “reaching for non-jury extraordinary legal mechanisms to address scheduling difficulties in the current courts system”.

He said such courts, once established, “ become a permanent feature on the landscape, just as the current one has, despite being described as an emergency measure”.

A Department of Justice spokesman said Ms Fitzgerald firmly believed trial by jury must be preserved to the greatest extent possible. However, the threat posed to the criminal process by individuals, terrorist groups and organised criminal groups seeking to intimidate jurors or potential jurors could not be ignored.

“The next available date for the hearing of a case in the Special Criminal Court is June 2017 – this is not an acceptable timeframe,” he said. “The Minister’s proposal does not mean that more cases will be referred to a Special Criminal Court but that cases will be dealt with more quickly.”