The Irish Times view on the Department of Justice: the real tests are ahead

Having overhauled how it works, the department must now be ready to act in areas where it was for too long protective of the status quo

Minister for Justice Helen McEntee at the launch of the Department of Justice’s plan for 2021 at Government Buildings. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

Minister for Justice Helen McEntee at the launch of the Department of Justice’s plan for 2021 at Government Buildings. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

 

The Department of Justice is still in recovery mode following a spate of controversies that resulted in the departures of ministers, secretaries general and Garda commissioners. A damning report in 2018 found that there was a complete lack of accountability among officials in the department, that its structures were not fit for purpose and that there was limited performance measurement within it. The report painted a picture of a closed, defensive-minded organisation built around the needs of decades ago and struggling to cope with the disparate and complex challenges it faced.

It will require a long, sustained battle to take on the vested interests in the legal profession who have an interest in ensuring nothing changes

Those structures have been overhauled in the past two years. The department is under new management, some of its functions have been moved elsewhere and its policy documents now emphasise things such as service delivery and transparency – the latter not a word traditionally associated with the Department of Justice. A comprehensive action plan for the year ahead, published on Monday by Minister for Justice Helen McEntee, is another welcome sign of the changed environment. In content and form, it’s an ambitious agenda, with individual timeframes for progress on 240 measures. Some are old ideas, or have been in train for some time, but others are new. A scheme for the regularisation of long-term undocumented migrants and reform of judicial appointments – two areas where the department’s record is abysmal – are welcome and long overdue.

The plan prompts a big question, however. With 240 different things to do, it’s difficult to discern where the priorities lie. No minister has the time, energy or political capital to take on everything. So while it is good to hear McEntee talk about the problem of exorbitant legal fees, for example, it will require a long, sustained battle to take on the vested interests in the legal profession who have an interest in ensuring nothing changes. The Department of Justice has shown it can change how it organises itself. The real test will be whether it is now prepared to act in areas where it was for too long protective of the status quo.

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