Justice reform must go to roots of crisis

Overhaul of department must prioritise changing a closed, defensive culture

Proposed structural reforms to the Depart of Justice will do relatively little to ease the huge administrative burden that both the Toland review group and, more recently, Minister for Justice Charlie Flanagan, have identified in this sprawling department. Photograph: Gareth Chaney/Collins

Proposed structural reforms to the Depart of Justice will do relatively little to ease the huge administrative burden that both the Toland review group and, more recently, Minister for Justice Charlie Flanagan, have identified in this sprawling department. Photograph: Gareth Chaney/Collins

 

The Department of Justice has always jealously guarded its own patch. From the earliest years of the State’s existence, when its officials generated new powers for themselves and resisted the principle of judicial review, it has regarded itself as a place apart.

Like every department that has broadly retained the same name and structure throughout the State’s history, the Department of Justice developed its own identity and its own culture. It was a place to which its staff showed unshakeable loyalty and commitment. When the State faced grave threats to its security, those attributes served it well. But in tandem there developed the flipside – defensiveness, closedness, a resistance to outsiders. The sensitive nature of its work, and the wide exemptions both it and An Garda Síochána secured under the Freedom of Information Acts, shielded it from the routine scrutiny that forced other departments to open up.

These problems were at the root of the crises that engulfed the department in recent years and continue to cause it damage. The Garda whistleblower scandals have claimed two ministers, two secretaries general and two Garda commissioners, and the scale of the organisation’s dysfunction continues to emerge at the Charleton tribunal at Dublin Castle.

The department’s problems, outlined in the damning Toland report in 2014, fall into two categories: structures and culture. In an attempt to deal with the first, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar announced recently that the department would be split in two – a response to Toland’s recommendation that the justice and home affairs portfolios be divided. Several European countries have separate departments for those functions, but the Government’s proposal is for a far more modest separation, with a single minister and secretary general continuing to oversee both divisions. Even with the appointment of two new deputy secretaries general, that will do relatively little to ease the huge administrative burden that Minister for Justice Charlie Flanagan recently identified in this sprawling department.

Significant progress has been made in implementing Toland’s recommendations, but two-and-a-half years after the report’s publication, other changes are still in the planning stage. The more important shift, however, is cultural and attitudinal. The department has taken some steps in this area, including the adoption of a “culture and values charter”, staff training and a stronger human resources capability. It must also renew itself by prioritising lateral movement of staff within the civil service. A great deal hinges on the next secretary general. That individual must set a new tone, open up the department, reassert its distance from the gardaí and insist on one basic principle: its function is to serve not the gardaí or any other authority, but the public.

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