Retiring judge calls for rethink on special court

 

A High Court judge who has had a high-profile association with the Special Criminal Court said on his retirement yesterday that the future of the court would have to be assessed in the light of the rise in organised crime in this State.

Mr Justice Robert Barr added that he was surprised the views of the judiciary had not been sought by a committee which has furnished a report to the Government on the court's future.

He hoped that before the Government came to any conclusions in "this fundamental area" it would consult the judges.

Mr Justice Barr, who retired after 17 years, said the Special Criminal Court's primary purpose had been the trial of terrorist offences but in recent times there had been a sea change in its work.

Organised crime, particularly relating to the importation and marketing of illegal drugs, had become a major threat to society.

It had been found there had been a significant risk of jury intimidation, and as a result the DPP had sent forward for trial in the Special Criminal Court some persons accused of major organised crime.

If such crime was likely to be a permanent feature of life in society and if it was perceived that through risk of intimidation jury courts were unsuitable to try such cases, then the question was whether the Special Criminal Court should become part of the permanent court structure.

Mr Justice Barr said the Special Criminal Court, a creation of the Offences Against the State Act 1939, was not a permanent court but existed only as long as the government of the day perceived that certain persons could not be tried properly in the ordinary courts because of the risk of jury intimidation.

It was re-created in 1972 with the emergence of proscribed terrorist organisations, the product of the conflict in the North.

Contrary to the fears of those indicted before it, the statistics established that between 1972 and 1974 a total of 526 persons were tried; 384 were convicted and 142 acquitted, more than one in four of those tried.