Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees
Wednesday, 21 September 2016
Joint Oireachtas Committee on Justice, Defence and Equality
Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission
I very much welcome our guests from the Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission, its chairperson, Ms Justice Mary Ellen Ring, and the commissioner, Ms Carmel Foley. I understand they are joined in the Visitors Gallery by Ms Lorna Lee, communications officer. The purpose in this part of the meeting is to have an engagement with Ms Justice Ring on the priorities and challenges for GSOC in the coming years. The joint committee has identified a review of An Garda Síochána and GSOC as one of its priorities in this short 2016 work programme period. On its behalf, I thank Ms Justice Ring and her colleagues for attending. The format of the meeting is that she will be invited to make an opening statement which will be followed by a question and answer session.
Before we begin, I draw attention to the fact that witnesses are protected by absolute privilege in respect of the evidence they are to give to the committee. If, however, they are directed by it to cease giving evidence on a particular matter and continue to do so, they are entitled thereafter only to qualified privilege in respect of their evidence. They are directed that only evidence connected with the subject matter of these proceedings is to be given and asked to respect the parliamentary practice to the effect that, where possible, they should not criticise or make charges against any person or an entity by name or in such a way as to make him, her or it identifiable. Members should be aware that, under the salient rulings of the Chair, they should not comment on, criticise or make charges against a person outside the Houses or an official, either by name or in such a way as to make him or her identifiable.
I invite Ms Justice Ring to make her opening statement.
Ms Justice Mary Ellen Ring:
I thank the Chairman and members of the joint committee for giving us the opportunity to meet them. We are delighted to have the opportunity to talk to them about the priorities of the Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission, GSOC, in its work in the near future and perhaps the next decade.
As the committee will be aware, I chair a commission of three persons. As stated, I am joined by the commissioner, Mr. Carmel Foley. The committee may be aware that our fellow commissioner, Mr. Kieran FitzGerald, is indisposed.
The Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission works side by side with other independent agencies, notably the Garda Inspectorate and, in recent months, the Policing Authority. We all seek to provide for oversight of the policing system. Within this framework GSOC's main function is to deal as effectively and fairly as possible with matters which involve alleged misconduct on the part of members of An Garda Síochána.
GSOC has been operational since May 2007 and we look forward to celebrating its tenth anniversary in May next year. We believe, therefore, that this is an appropriate time to reflect on the work of the commission in the past decade.
GSOC operates in line with the provisions of the Garda Síochána Act 2005 and its limited amendments. Almost a decade of experience of implementing the provisions of this detailed legislation has highlighted the fact that in several areas it does not allow for proportionate, effective and user-friendly handling of complaints and oversight. In particular, Part 4 of the Act is, essentially, too cumbersome to allow GSOC to function effectively. I refer to the section in the Act that deals with complaints, investigations and other procedures. It is in need of review and an overhaul.
The objectives of the commission, as set out in section 67 of the Act, are "to ensure that its functions are performed in an efficient and effective manner and with full fairness to all persons involved" and "to promote public confidence in the process". The committee clearly have an interest in ensuring tthese objectives are achieved by the commission. We believe revising the legislation to incorporate the lessons learned in the past decade of operation into future arrangements would enable GSOC to function much more efficiently, effectively and fairly in the next decade and better promote public confidence in the process. It would increase confidence in the oversight system and, in turn, the policing system.
In our submission to the committee we have highlighted some of the main problems and how we believe the system could be more proportionate and more resolution oriented. This would be to the benefit of the public in the early disposal of a complaint, but it would also bring matters to an efficient end for the gardaí involved. We are conscious that for everyone, including gardaí, delay causes distress.
We have included an example of a recent case before the commission as an appendix to our submission, as we believe this is the best way to illustrate the need for the complaint handling system to become more proportionate and more resolution oriented. I will start by briefly relating the details of the case to the committee.
A complaint was made to GSOC in September last year about an incident that had occurred at a large public event that month.
The complaint alleged that a garda was verbally abusive to a woman when she was trying to comply with conflicting instructions from gardaí directing traffic at the event. I will not repeat the language allegedly used by the garda in this room, but members can read it in the submission. The complainant went to speak to the garda again after her car was parked and he continued in the same vein. She then approached a sergeant, whose initial response was that she obviously did not follow the garda's instruction. The sergeant then said that the garda would be spoken to about the matter.
The complainant highlighted that she was a 55 year old woman who had never been in trouble previously. That was information she clearly thought was important to give to GSOC. The complaint was made immediately after she returned home. It was admitted and designated for an unsupervised disciplinary investigation, as the Act provides for this type of complaint. A letter was sent to internal affairs within the Garda Síochána under section 94(1) of the Garda Síochána Act 2005, and a superintendent was appointed to carry out the unsupervised investigation in December. The final report was received by GSOC in July. The garda concerned was found to be in breach of discipline on two grounds, misconduct and discourtesy, and fined €100 for each breach. The sergeant was found not to be in breach of discipline, as it was stated that it was not possible to reprimand the garda due to the pressures of work on the day.
The entire process took nine months. It involved five interviews and, in terms of human resources, it involved one superintendent, at least one member of internal affairs, four Garda members, two civilians and three GSOC personnel. There is clearly quite a cost associated with such a process. We have become recently aware that there may be an appeal in this matter, which will add further time to the process. The outcome for the complainant was that she was informed that the garda was formally sanctioned, but she has not received an apology for how she was treated from anyone in the Garda to our knowledge.
We see this as an example of the type of case which should be dealt with by Garda management. This member of the public should have been contacted either on the evening of the event or the following morning, and an apology should have been forthcoming. No person should be spoken to by anyone in the fashion outlined in this complaint. GSOC's view is that such an incident should be, and can be, properly handled by the Garda. In this instance, there was a finding of a breach of the discipline regulations and a fine, which is of some comfort to the complainant, yet it is not what she wanted. It is clear that the regulations are centred on gardaí and do not provide for an appropriate response to the member of the public affected by the misconduct.
I am sure the committee will agree that this describes an overly bureaucratic, complainant unfriendly process. Our vision is that, in the next decade, this type of complaint, which represents some 20% of the cases we get, would be considered a "service level" issue and would be dealt with in a more proportionate, resolution-focused way. The first of our key priorities that we have set out is that minor service-focused issues should be resolved in a more efficient and proportionate manner by leveraging the existing line management systems within the Garda. This would allow more leeway for resolution of issues, rather than focusing on retribution. We believe it could be achieved more efficiently through line management than through the formal process dictated by the discipline regulations.
GSOC could become a second port-of-call for issues that could not be resolved, as is the system operated by our counterparts in the UK. In other words, if the woman came to us, we would assess it to be a service level complaint and send her back to the appropriate person within the relevant station. She could then come to us if the management of her complaint was not being dealt with or was not being dealt with to her satisfaction. We do not envisage us stepping back totally but that is the type of complaint that the Garda should deal with. If I was rudely treated in a shop, I would expect the management, if I made a complaint, to deal with it; I would not expect to be told to go somewhere else.
Under our second priority, informal resolution mediated by the Garda Ombudsman could also be used more widely and effectively in the future by giving the ombudsman the power to decide whether it should be attempted, as is the case for the Police Ombudsman of Northern Ireland. That provision has been in place in the North since 1998. Furthermore, in 2000, the ombudsman there was given the role, where appropriate, to mediate. Why can we not look at more information resolutions where GSOC is the decider?
The third area we are concerned about relates to the lack of proper oversight and accountability in formal disciplinary investigations conducted by Garda investigating officers under section 94, in circumstances when it is appropriate for this mechanism to be used. This should be addressed. This is necessary to promote public confidence in the process for resolving complaints, which is one of the two objectives laid out for GSOC in the Act. The co-operation of the Garda would be required to achieve this. There are several elements to this. In unsupervised investigations, a complainant’s right to a review of the complaint investigation by GSOC under section 94(10) should be rendered meaningful. At the moment, we can examine the process that has taken place but the outcome stands. If there has been finding of no breach and there is a complaint to us where section 94 has been invoked, we can examine the process and we may find there was a problem with it but the outcome stands and that leaves complainants often frustrated, if not angry.
In supervised investigations, eliminating the need for a second senior Garda officer to review an investigation file, when it has been supervised and reviewed by a GSOC officer, could render this process more efficient. We also believe that the Garda deciding officer should be obliged to provide a rationale to GSOC when disagreeing with the ombudsman's recommendations in supervised investigations. This is also relevant to those investigations into non-criminal matters undertaken by GSOC itself. GSOC’s powers to secure co-operation from gardaí to complete this type of investigation under section 95 also need to be further clarified and bolstered. There is no uniformity of response. When we send recommendations to the Garda, discipline is for them and we are happy to say, "That is your area; you make a decision", but we would like a rationale in order that when we go back to the complainant who has come to us, we can at least say, "This is the discipline outcome and this is the rationale for that outcome". Complainants may still be unsatisfied but, at least, they would understand a decision was made not to discipline, to discipline and impose a penalty or to provide for severe penalty. We are sometimes given information as to why a decision was made but, in other cases, we just get an outcome. The Garda must give us an outcome but the rationale for it is sometimes absent. We need more clarity on behalf of complainants regarding our co-operation with the Garda.
My final point is that continuous improvement in the timeliness of conducting disciplinary investigations and the provision of information by the Garda still needs to be encouraged. While there have been definite improvements since GSOC first highlighted the extent of the problems experienced with timeliness in 2013 and since the legislative amendments of last year, there is still a great deal of room for improvement. This can only benefit both members of the public and gardaí subject of complaints. We believe that these changes will result in sufficient improvements in the oversight system and we hope to count on the committee's support to achieve them.
While we are present to examine the work of GSOC, we recognise that every day there are thousands of interactions between members of the public and gardaí.
Those members of the public come away having dealt with gardaí who were good, excellent and sometimes courageous. It is our view that good oversight will encourage more of that kind of interaction, will reduce complaints and, in time, will allow GSOC to deal with matters that are serious and need its attention because it will have the resources and experience to look after those types of cases.
I thank Ms Justice Ring and welcome her presence and that of the commissioner, Ms Carmel Foley. The Garda review and GSOC combined is one of the key areas we have set for our work programme for the remainder of this year. We hope to be able to progress the process of addressing these and related matters over the coming weeks.
We will open it up to members of the joint committee to ask any questions. Ms Foley and Ms Justice Ring can engage with the questions at their own comfort and ease. The normal procedure is that there is a show of hands to indicate if a member wants to set the engagement in motion. We are all very shy this morning.
I thank the witnesses for coming. I will get to the core of what GSOC is asking the Oireachtas to do. Is Ms Justice Ring saying that Part 4 of the Act is too cumbersome because the ombudsman commission is required to investigate what are considered very minor complaints which should preferably be dealt with by the Garda as the employer?
Ms Justice Mary Ellen Ring:
We see them as unnecessary areas of our work. We could supervise the carrying out of service complaints but the actual dealing with complaints should be done by the Garda. Any effective business has such procedures in place. At the moment, unfortunately, we get too many people who come to us saying they have gone to the station to complain about something and they are given a form and told to go down to GSOC for it to deal with it when those gardaí have no idea of the level of severity or trivial nature of the complaint. They do not deal with matters. We see a role for gardaí to deal consistently and efficiently with matters of a certain level. If they have to come out from behind the desk and say "I am sorry someone spoke to you in that way," that is for them to decide. That would allow for greater resources within GSOC to concentrate on other areas where it is not possible for gardaí to deal with them.
When we look at the process of dealing with them, as is evident from our reports and experience, most of our investigations are at a low level and go back to the Garda under section 94(1) for investigation. That requires the initial appointment of a superintendent who then has to find time within his or her perhaps busy district to commence an investigation. We have no comeback. We can write reminding them that agreed procedure times have passed but we have no way to get them to deliver a report back to us. There is no penalty in Part 4. It was a good idea in 2005 or the Oireachtas would not have passed it. Let us look at it again and ask whether it is still efficient in 2016 and 2017. Can we move matters more appropriately in a business-like way through our organisation and the Garda?
GSOC's report says there were 1,990 complaints in 2015. It is a difficult question but what percentage of complaints come within this minor category that Ms Justice Ring thinks GSOC should not be dealing with?
Ms Justice Mary Ellen Ring:
We have assessed it at about 20%. It also raises the question, which is perhaps the bigger one, of how, as a force, the members learn management if every complaint goes outside their organisation. How is a garda, who might become a sergeant, inspector, superintendent or maybe more, learning management, discipline, and good practice? It is very well for the Commissioner to say "We want to do this" but if on a simple complaint of bad language the station responsible for the member who used the bad language is not dealing with that simple management issue, how can it deal with the bigger issues? Where is the experience being learned? Where within the force is discipline being applied except in very formal ways?
Last year GSOC carried out research into public attitudes to it. Is Ms Justice Ring concerned that there would be a lack of confidence on the part of the public if the Garda was going to be investigating these complaints notwithstanding that they are minor?
Ms Justice Mary Ellen Ring:
That is why I do not say that we should exit totally but rather we should look at how the complaint is managed. If it is not being managed, the issue should not be whether a particular garda said something to a citizen, it should be why the complaint is not being managed. We would not be looking at the garda on the beat but at his or her supervisors and asking what they are doing and why they cannot deal with the complaint in a timely and efficient way.
I might come back in on a couple of things to start off. The profile of GSOC is much higher as a result of many of the Garda controversies over recent years. That is a good and a bad thing. The figures show that out of 2,000 complaints in 2015, which represented more than 5,000 allegations, roughly half were not pursued. That means that half the people who took their time and felt they had a genuine grievance did not get any comeback. I do not think they had a vendetta against the Garda but they were left unsatisfied by the process. One of the things Ms Justice Ring is highlighting and which we need to tease out is where that problem is. People are going to GSOC and are not getting what they feel is the accountability of the Garda. Much of it is to do with the system being set up in such a way that the Garda still investigates itself. That cannot be divorced from the bigger culture. The witnesses have proposed some legislative changes. Do they think there is a need for more?
Related to the change in attitude has been the role of whistleblowers. This is a function that has been devolved to GSOC under the new protected disclosures policy. What is Ms Justice Ring's opinion on it? From what I can see, there are enormous problems with its operation. I would like information on the number of Garda whistleblower cases GSOC is currently dealing with. We are aware of some of them. There are cases that were brought to the attention of GSOC more than two years ago which involve gardaí with young families and who are off payroll, have no income, have been emotionally stressed and have made allegations of bullying against Garda management. Despite this, after two years GSOC has not interviewed any gardaí. Is the problem a lack of resources, a lack of ability to hold the Garda to account or is GSOC not getting co-operation from Garda sources? How could something as serious as that go on for two years with nobody against whom allegations have been made being called in?
If Ms Justice Ring looks at GSOC's annual report, the sanctions applied to gardaí who misbehave are relatively minor. Out of the thousands of complaints, 19 were sent to the Director of Public Prosecutions, DPP, only two of which were pursued. That just cannot be. There is something wrong there somewhere. Those figures do not add up. When one looks at the sanctions, they are pretty minor. In the disciplinary cases, most people leave if they are in trouble. Fifteen people retired before something happened. It is not good enough.
Is GSOC aware of situations where people against whom complaints have been made are being promoted and moved up the ranks while the complaints are being investigated? Does Ms Justice Ring not think that this constitutes a huge cultural problem relating to people who want to speak out when they see those against whom complaints have been made being elevated? Does this not contribute to the difficulties involved?
Ms Justice Mary Ellen Ring:
That is a straightforward question. I will start with the first part of the Deputy's question. We have said that Part 4 of the Act, which is the area dealing with investigations, complaints and process, needs to be examined. While we have highlighted certain things, we would say that this area needs to be considered. How we do use everyone's time efficiently? How do we bring the gardaí into the process of managing their own force but still provide oversight? This is why we say Part 4 of the Act needs to be considered.
Perhaps the biggest problem into which we have made inroads is the provision of information. We open a complaint. Perhaps there has already been another type of investigation and we need to see the information about that matter. We look for documentation where relevant - exhibits or matters of that nature. We have put in place a procedure which has certainly reduced the time but we are aware that in major matters, a longer period is being taken. We know there might be unnecessary perusal of documentation before it ever comes to us. We should see it. It should not be read three times before we get to see it. Again, we have no penalty. We ask for the documentation, evidence and any relevant information and we get it when we get it. While we have a process, it is not a statutory process and there is no penalty for not following that process. We are working with the co-operation of the gardaí, which is good, but in some instances it takes longer. This is why on page 19 of our submission, we look for a solution to that problem, namely, a straightforward statutory provision that can be put in anywhere. It would replicate the model of our sister organisation in Northern Ireland which talks about the chief constable and the board. We would say that the Garda Commissioner shall supply the ombudsman with such information and documents as the ombudsman may require for the purposes of, or in connection with, the exercise of any of its functions. It is not a complicated provision. In terms of failure to comply with that, it means that the ombudsman in Northern Ireland can seek legal redress. They can seek an order directing the chief constable - it would be the Garda Commissioner in our jurisdiction - to provide the relevant documentation. In this jurisdiction, we cannot make such an application.
Having been present when the Chief Constable in Northern Ireland was in the company of Dr. Michael Maguire, who is the Police Ombudsman for Northern Ireland, I heard the former say that he accepts that the ombudsman exists, they have a role and if they look for documentation, there is a purpose and it is given to them. We would like to see the same sentiment and process here. We will then feel that where there has been a failure to respond which hampers the commencement of an investigation, for example, where we cannot start until we get the relevant documentation or cannot interview people because we do not know who to interview because that information is within the purview of the Commissioner, such a failure to respond will result in an application to the courts. At least, it would give us teeth. In respect of getting information - and getting it in a timely fashion - we credit the process that has been put in place and we have certainly improved the ability with the co-operation of the Garda to get information. The key element is relates to the co-operation of the Garda. Where we do not have co-operation or it is slow in coming, we have no teeth in the context of moving that along.
In respect of protected disclosures, that is clearly an issue. As with any complaint, getting all the relevant information can take time, particularly if there have been prior interactions between a discloser and the police. In the operation of the Act, and this issue applies to any organisation covered by it, there are teething problems. There are teething problems because of learning what it applies to. One of the issues that has arisen concerns where people approach us with what are HR problems. When they are teased out, they are not matters that come within the tight definition of a protected disclosure. At the moment, there are four investigations and they clearly come within the definition. It may be the case that over time, people will know when they should come to us and will be aware of the complaints that are relevant under the Act.
In the context of the sanctions mentioned by the Deputy, discipline and sanctions are matters for the Garda Commissioner. We may make a recommendation and she may take it on board or ignore it. In respect of files sent to the DPP, it is for the DPP to decide whether to prosecute. We have no prosecutorial role. We investigate and provide a file and it is up to the DPP to decide whether or not to take it forward for full prosecution. It is important to see where our role stops and those of the Garda Commissioner and the DPP begin. We sometimes get very limited information as to why somebody has been disciplined or why a prosecution has not been directed. Again, those decisions are outside our control. It is something we are not anxious to get involved in unless things are totally changed and we are given discipline. One would then be looking at quite a different organisation in terms of resources and personnel.
In its annual report at the end of 2015, GSOC outlined that it had 77 staff. This compares to 105 in 2007. GSOC said that it was going to engage with the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform in respect of increased resources and staffing levels. Has Ms Justice Ring met the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform in recent months and, if so, what was the outcome of those discussions or negotiations?
Section 67(1)(b) of the Act concerns promoting public confidence in the process for resolving complaints. On one hand, we are trying to promote the efficiency and effectiveness of the ombudsman and An Garda Síochána in resolving complaints. On the other hand, up to 40% to 50% of allegations are discontinued or withdrawn or gardaí have retired. Many of these people have hit a brick wall and have nowhere to go with their allegations and no conclusion. If we need greater intensification of recruitment, we need to be careful that we do that to ensure we have effective oversight and that we investigate those allegations rather than flipping the majority of them back to An Garda Síochána when many of these people have entered a cul-de-sac and hit a brick wall.
In its annual report, GSOC mentioned that it had given feedback to the Garda around systemic or management issues and complaints.
In many circumstances, the response has simply been an acknowledgement. Alternatively, no complaint whatsoever has been received or it has simply been forwarded to the relevant section or department of An Garda Síochána. Is that good enough? Is that an effective follow-through or system of oversight? Are those concerned simply nodding at what the commission has identified as a systemic issue without giving any real information, response or offer of mutual engagement on the follow-through? When one examines the threads of the 36 complaints, one sees very little by way of a conclusive response from the Garda on the matters of systemic importance raised by the commission.
Ms Carmel Foley:
On the staff issue, we have not yet met the Minister. We deal with the Department of Justice and Equality directly on these matters, although we believe we will also be able to deal directly with the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform. Like all Civil Service bodies, ours was hit, understandably, by the cutbacks and austerity measures, but at the same time we believe our case for further staff in particular areas is valid. The procedure in this regard has been started and I hope to see progress this year.
As the Deputy pointed out, with further recruitment to the Garda force, it is statistically likely that there will be further complaints and the oversight body should also see its resources increase proportionately. I certainly agree with the Deputy in that regard.
We have been very careful to examine how we can maximise our resources and determine how, with better training of our own people, we can make better use of the public funds we have available. We do not necessarily always look outside for extra help. Of course, we are accountable for making the best use we can of our resources. That ties in with having more effective legislation that would not require our investigators to take the long way around in some cases, involving procedures and delays that could be avoided through a change to the Act.
I will hand over to Ms Justice Mary Ellen Ring on the other issues.
Ms Justice Mary Ellen Ring:
On the issue of following through on systemic recommendations, it can be very frustrating if we perceive an inadequate response when, based on our experience and consideration, we forward matters which we believe are important and in respect of which a change would assist. However, the force is an independent body and it is up to it to decide how it operates. Linking with our sister organisations, the Garda Inspectorate and the Policing Authority, will give us more comfort and us all more consistent reporting on issues. However, we know from the Garda Inspectorate's experience that many considered recommendations made in many reports have not been acknowledged or followed through. I am not here to speak on behalf of the Garda Inspectorate, but that is an issue that applies not only to us but also the inspectorate and, perhaps, the Policing Authority, even in terms of its own recommendations. That may be a matter to take up with the people responsible for dealing with these recommendations, be they from us or others.
On the question of not following through and meeting brick walls, we deal on many occasions with very frustrated people. That is why we say we have to ascertain how the Act has been operating and how to deal with it. For instance, there is no review of a decision made, yet people write back time and again asking us to reopen consideration of a complaint. I refer to determining, on examining the Act, whether there should be some review to ensure a complaint is handled properly by us and the Garda, where it is involved. Once a complaint is dealt with, we notify the complainant, but under the Act, there is no review of that decision. Part of the issue is that if someone has been told he or she is not going to be disciplined, his or her rights arise in the reopening of consideration of a complaint. He or she will have been told the outcome of the complaint. For him or her, is it fair to reopen consideration of the complaint? Therefore, it is important that we get it right the first time. It is important that we have an outcome over which we can stand and with which we are all happy in order that we do not have to come back to re-examine it in our work or the work of the Garda.
I thank the delegates for attending. I wish to refer to one or two points on which Ms Justice Mary Ellen Ring commented. She outlined the split between the figures of 20% and 80%, as she saw it, and then spoke specifically about the timelines. Obviously, an effort was made to tighten them. In how many of the cases in the 20% and 80% categories would Ms Justice Mary Ellen Ring describe as unsatisfactory the timeline associated with An Garda Síochána's response?
Ms Justice Mary Ellen Ring:
I think we would say it was uneven. We have experience of sending complaints to certain districts and they are dealt with very efficiently. In other districts they are not dealt with as efficiently. There may be valid reasons for this, including that we must send cases to superintendents. If we send a minor complaint, albeit major to the complainant, to a superintendent in a busy area, as opposed to a case involving a crisis in policing or a serious crime in the area, it will be down the list of priorities, perhaps not surprisingly. The process can, therefore, be uneven for good reasons. It can be difficult if someone is sick or unavailable for interview and one cannot force people to come in. Therefore, there may be real but sometimes questionable delays in that regard. As noted by Deputy Clare Daly, if somebody retires during the handling of a complaint and is no longer amenable to discipline, the investigation will come to an abrupt end. We would like to see more consistency and certainty in how an investigation progresses. Our role is simply to send reminders. However, as I said, if these reminders have no teeth, they are just added to the pile of correspondence on a superintendent's desk.
I thank Ms Justice Mary Ellen Ring for what was a very comprehensive answer in which she outlined the reasons, but it was not actually an answer to the question I had asked her. I asked specifically whether she had numbers for me in the 20% category which she has highlighted and the 80% category, in respect of which the commission identifies a timeline issue associated with how An Garda Síochána is responding? I appreciate the information on all of the reasons this issue arises, but I am trying to gauge from the submission whether it arises 20%, 50% or 90% of the time. Is it happening 90% of the time in the 20% category which Ms Justice Ring rightly points out is very important? Does the issue arise primarily where there are more serious complaints? What numbers is GSOC experiencing?
I appreciate that. I would like to go back to another aspect of the general tone of Ms Justice Ring's contribution. She spoke about the complaint procedure that applies when somebody is dealing with a shop manager about a person who has been rude to him or her. I appreciate and fully accept that it was an analogy. The problem with that analogy is that members of the Garda are in a very different position in terms of how they interact with the public. The vast majority of serving gardaí are there to do their level best every day to protect the communities they come from and serve. That is absolutely critical. A problem can arise because of the structured nature of the force. I would prefer it if a body such as GSOC were dealing with such basic complaints. I say that on the basis of many of the factors advocated by Ms Justice Ring, such as people's need for openness and transparency and the feeling they are going somewhere. While I appreciate what she said about finding internal Garda solutions in such cases, I would be wary about going that way for a number of reasons. Ms Justice Ring indicated that the level of involvement of a superintendent, a member of internal affairs, four Garda members, two civilians and three GSOC personnel might be a reason for taking the approach she is advocating. I imagine that the number of people involved in an internal Garda disciplinary structure would not be much smaller, given the need to be fair to the public and the serving member of the force involved. I would be cautious about what Ms Justice Ring is advocating. I think the public likes the current approach. Even though a complaint like that mentioned by Ms Justice Ring is minor in the great scheme of things, it would be a very serious matter for the member of the public involved. We are talking about someone who has been abused not by another member of the public, but by a member of the Garda Síochána. I would be wary of trying to internalise that back in the Garda again, as Ms Justice Ring is advocating.
Ms Justice Mary Ellen Ring:
We are not saying we should not be looking into matters of discipline. We are asking whether everything should be about discipline. If somebody is rude, should we invoke a disciplinary process? I suggest it would suffice for the person involved to say "I am sorry, I was under pressure. I should not have said it, I will not do it again". I would be in favour of that kind of response. Does it have to become a disciplinary issue? When there is a bad interaction that is simply due to the pressure of work, does it have to become a formal process? We all accept that traffic policing is difficult for gardaí and for those being dealt with. We are looking at resolution of matters. Does everything have to be an issue of discipline? Informal means of disposing of matters are being considered throughout the justice area in total. Restorative justice is seen as having a place, although obviously not in every case. We are not saying this should be done across the board. Other forms of resolution are now accepted as meeting the needs of the community and the needs of the people involved generally. There has to be a formal process of discipline. That is ultimately a matter for the Garda Commissioner. Does everything have to be about discipline? Can we resolve matters in another way? As I have said, there is a provision for mediation in the legislation in the North, which is not that different from the Southern jurisdiction. In the majority of cases, people interact with the police in the North in a good way. The same thing applies in the South. If informal resolution and mediation is possible, in addition to discipline, what is wrong with exploring it?
I thank Ms Justice Ring for her presentation. She said that GSOC deals with very frustrated people. I get the impression that it is fairly frustrated by the challenges it is facing. Ms Justice Ring made the point that it would be good if minor complaints could be dealt with within the Garda. She argued that resolutions should be found before disciplinary measures are required. I see merit in the idea of the Garda dealing with minor complaints, but I wonder whether Ms Justice Ring would agree that a change of culture is required in the force before the public can be happy with such an approach. Various whistleblowers have made us aware that there seems to be a serious reluctance on the part of the Garda hierarchy to co-operate with GSOC and give it the information and documentation it requires, especially when it comes to dealing with some senior members of the force. Ms Justice Ring said she would probably like the idea of legal redress, which happens to be available in the North. If she would like the same system to be in place here, has she discussed that with the Government?
I wish to ask about the protected disclosures system. GSOC is now looking after the whistleblower facility, but it has not really been given significant additional resources. We think the €1 million it was given is a pitiful allocation. It would appear that GSOC does not have the wherewithal to manage the whistleblower system as well. It is not being resourced as well as it should be to hold the Garda to account. Would Ms Justice Ring agree that being given responsibility for protected disclosures is an additional layer too many for GSOC to carry? She spoke about the possibility of the system being changed so that real disciplinary proceedings are in place for serious offences. At the moment, disciplinary actions and sanctions are in the hands of the Garda Commissioner. Would she be in favour of taking them away from the Garda Commissioner? Does she think that would be a good idea, in terms of giving GSOC a better chance to be the organisation it would like to be? I will conclude by referring to an issue that goes back many years. Many gardaí have escaped any form of sanction or redress because they have retired. Does Ms Justice Ring agree that a garda who chooses to retire while he is under scrutiny for one thing or another should remain subject to scrutiny by GSOC after he has retired?
Ms Justice Mary Ellen Ring:
I will start by responding to what the Deputy said about the change in culture. It is a case of the chicken and the egg, in many ways. I accept that some of our changes may require a contemporaneous change of culture. Somebody has got to start. Ultimately, we respond and answer to the public and the Members of the Oireachtas. The Garda should also be responding to the public. We welcome the talk of a change of culture in the Garda Síochána. Like everyone else, we want to see how that talk translates into action. It will not happen overnight. We welcome the commitments that have been made. I hope changes in the training of people coming into the force will deal with matters from the start. We now go to Templemore. We started with the superintendents and we are now addressing the sergeants. I envisage that in time we will meet people as they come into the force so that they recognise who we are, what we do and the importance of what we do. Change takes time. We certainly think we should be clear in what we do.
If we meet resistance from anyone to that, we have to deal with it as it comes along. In terms of co-operation with the hierarchy, we recognise that there have been significant measures, in meeting with us and hearing what we have to say. The difficulty is that when something does not come about, we do not know why because it is a force that operates to its own tune so to speak. We want more information provided to us. It may make decisions but we should get the rationale behind the making of those decisions. When we put in systemic recommendations, we should get a response as to what they are going to do, if anything, with those recommendations. The co-operation we have been getting to date can be expanded and we look forward to that.
We have raised with officials from the Department of Justice and Equality the section 66 provision as being perhaps a way to meet some of our needs in getting information from the Garda. I am sure the Minister is aware of it and that is a matter for her and her colleagues to take it further if they are inclined to do so.
In respect of adding responsibilities to GSOC under the terms of the Protected Disclosures Act 2014, we would like to be able to give more time to those. There is no doubt about it. They are complex investigations. They have certain practical difficulties. If someone comes to us under the protected disclosure legislation even to get records information from the Garda, there have to be channels which we have put in place for getting information from the force. It took some time to work out how best to deal with that. In time, we will understand how many of these complaints are coming in and it would be of benefit to have a team who are skilled, knowledgeable and work in this area only. At the moment the resources are such that they do protected disclosure work with other investigations. My ideal is that we would have a protected disclosure section so that they would know the people within An Garda Síochána they would have to deal with and there would be no mixed messages because they would deal with them consistently. They would be skilled, aware of perhaps the complexities of the force in terms of such complaints, but we do not have those resources yet. That is why considering what areas we can give back to the Garda to free it up would be helpful.
Ms Carmel Foley:
I do not mean to contradict any member of this committee but I am not aware of us having €1 million for protected disclosures. I am not sure if there is something in the budget. Our entire budget is less than €10 million and as the judge has just said, we do not have a ring-fenced separate protected disclosures financial allocation. It is possibly a very good idea but we do not yet have a separate allocation.
Ms Justice Mary Ellen Ring:
In response to the question about the retired gardaí, it is a problem because when they retire they are technically not subject to the disciplinary regulations that attach to serving members. How we deal with that is not a matter for us but for the gardaí. They would have a very valid argument to say what can be done to them. They are no longer gardaí and no longer subject to disciplinary investigation. A criminal investigation is separate. Being retired does not protect one from a criminal investigation. In so far as it is a disciplinary issue, that is a practical problem and any suggestions are welcome.
In reply to that, members of NAMA who have retired are going to find it difficult to avoid serious scrutiny in the next couple of years.
On the issue of the €1 million, it was used in the Chamber by the Minister saying that we are moving the whistleblower operation to GSOC and we will give it an extra €1 million. Obviously, the €1 million is for GSOC’s general operation but I brought it up because it was used in the Chamber as an excuse for how it was going to be handled which did not seem great as a separate area. I thank the witnesses.
Many of the questions I was going to ask have probably been covered at this stage but I will touch on them to see if there is any additional information. On section 94(3) with regard to public interest investigations that GSOC is now permitted to commence without a complaint, is the commission aware of, or does it participate in the oversight of the secondary element of that process where it is reviewed by another Garda inspector which is mentioned in the GSOC report? Is there a Chinese wall within An Garda Síochána in regard to that process? Does GSOC have any oversight of that? Is it a truly independent process when it gets to that secondary stage?
In respect of the operational experience of section 102 subsections (4) (a), (5) and (7), which are also referred to in the report, that section is quite an interesting one. I would be interested in the witnesses’ view of how it operates.
Deputy Chambers touched on the resource issue. Every agency that comes before an Oireachtas committee wants more resources. That is only right and proper, given the circumstances we are emerging from. All members of the committee would be happy to fight the witnesses’ corner on that. I take on board Deputy Wallace’s point about operational funding and on specific allocations. Do the witnesses feel that GSOC is adequately resourced to deal with section 106 of the examination of practices and policies of the Garda Síochána Act and the gardaí? To what extent does GSOC’s role influence that, if at all?
I would appreciate if the commissioners could identify what section of the Act covers fines or if it is simply an internal management function because I agree entirely with the points made by my constituency colleague, Deputy Daly, that the fines the witnesses highlighted appear ridiculous. With regard to Ms Justice Ring’s point about all processes stopping when a person retires, I would be interested in her views on how the structure of the Act, or the amended Act, could be changed to cater for that, or if it would be a matter for Garda management or the Department of Justice and Equality to come up with some practical way to say the matter needs to be investigated because GSOC as an independent oversight authority believes it is of sufficient merit to continue the investigation, even if the party has retired or gone on to other things, or even passed away. Sometimes there are practices and procedures which could be improved to ensure that the allegations contained within the original complaint are not carried out in the future or not at all, if it turns out that this person was innocent, from the point of view of a practical learning experience for An Garda Síochána. I do not think it is appropriate for all investigations to simply stop and I know the witnesses would agree with me on that.
Ms Justice Mary Ellen Ring:
The concept of Chinese walls in any situation has always been a curious one.
I cannot speak about the walls within An Garda Síochána; somebody else will have to deal with that. There should be confidence not only among the public but among the members of An Garda Síochána that our investigations are proper, proportionate and fair. If, in a supervised investigation we have reached a decision, that should be good enough. Therefore, in terms of looking at it again, why would the Garda have to do that? We are conscious that when talking about building up public confidence we need to confirm with the Garda our expertise, independence and fairness. If we do an investigation, particularly in co-operation with the Garda, we would like to see that investigation reaching its conclusions having gone through the proper procedures and there would be no need for a review at that stage.
With respect to section 102, in terms of cases coming before us, particularly by way of referrals, part of the problem is that, for instance, as we speak, there may be an incident that would be referred to us and would be of such importance in terms of the criminal allegation involved, that suddenly all the work of the commission would have to adjust to take that into consideration, and that would be proper. Clearly, serious complaints coming to us should be able to be absorbed and dealt with at the time. In terms of the functioning generally of section 102, we should not be afraid to examine it in terms of how better it can work for the gardaí and the public involved and for our own personnel. On the issue of resources and when we are talking about looking at what the Garda should be handling, that also involves examining how best to use resources. The Deputy's colleague, Deputy Brophy, is concerned about matters getting out and public confidence. If we can come up with a mutually agreeable form for dealing with certain matters, it would allow for resources to be used to best effect, in the event of them not being increased. That is not to say we would not welcome an increase, but irrespective of our resources, using our resources to best effect should always be our objective.
Under section 106, when we look into practices and procedures within the force, and we are conscious the inspectorate may have also looked at areas and we do not want to duplicate work, we will look at it from a different point of view. We have been slow in the past to do that but we have started to do it and with better adjustment of the work we are doing in the complaints department, so to speak, we would have more time to give to that kind of investigation.
For example, in the case of public order arrests, gardaí are often put in a very difficult position when it comes to dealing with a person who may be under the influence of an intoxicant and who may be a child, being a person under the age of 18, or with a person who has health difficulties and none of the appropriate agencies is available. At 3 a.m. Tusla is not available to do deal with the child; there is nobody in the community available to deal with the person with mental health difficulties; and, we do have drunk tanks where people can literally dry out. Often the Garda is the only agency available at that time in the morning. Public order provisions do not give gardaí the right to detain people yet they are damned if they do and damned if they do not. If they let a child, the person who is in the throes of a mental health crisis or the person who is intoxicated back onto the streets and they cause violent injury to somebody, fall into a river, or something happens to them, it will be the garda's fault. However, under the current legislation, if a garda detains the person until an agency's office opens at 8 a.m., 9 a.m. or 10 a.m., they will be in trouble because, legally, they have no right to detain them. That is an area where, in common with the Garda, we recognise the problem. We are investigating it so we can deal with some of the problems that arise but also we would see it as being something the Garda will join us on because that is legislation that is clearly defective. At 3 a.m. none of us wants to pick up that telephone, so the Garda is, often unfairly, left to deal with deficiencies in services.
With respect to fines, this detail is to be found under the 2007 discipline regulations, it is not in the Act. That is all part of the discipline process. If the Chairman and members of the committee are looking at, for instance the 2005 Act and our role under it, the discipline regulations will also be ten years old next year. Therefore, if the committee is going to look at our work, and the extension of our work often leads into the discipline area, perhaps it is time to look at the 2007 regulations. That is a matter for the Garda Commissioner and I am sure she and her members will have much to say on that area.
The retirement issue is a difficult one. We are looking at how best we can bring an investigation to an end, so that we do not just end it necessarily. We have limited ability. If a person retires and says he or she will not co-operate with our investigation, that is a practical problem. To get around that, we may have to say that we should have more teeth to bring that person in or to make that person amenable in some way, but it is not an easy answer. In fairness, gardaí who retire have certain rights and they will be anxious to air those rights to the committee in that regard. We have to look at how we can get around it, how best to send reports to the Commissioner. We are looking at overhauling our website. We should get the information out despite the retirement. They may be no sanction but that does not mean we cannot get information out to the public.
I am new to this committee and newly engaging with Ms Justice Ring's good office. In my previous role as a Belfast city councillor, fortunately or unfortunately, I had quite a number of interactions with the Police Ombudsman in the North. Ms Justice Ring will probably appreciate why this engagement has been so informative and why I am somewhat astonished at the lack of legislative teeth, as she put it, and protections that exist for her, given her work.
I have a few observations and, if Ms Justice Ring will indulge me, a few logistical questions around her office. A concern about the retirement issues seems to be emerging among the members in addition to the timebound nature of some of her work. Certainly in the North, many of the cases that have been examined by the Ombudsman have been legacy issues, some of those primarily conflict-related legacy issues. Is there a timebound nature to the complaints that come to her office that she can examine? Not all complaints relate to a garda being rude or using foul language, some of those coming forward are quite severe and serious. Is part of her role to recommend a prosecution or court action, or does she have to immediately absent herself from that if that becomes the case?
I know the Chairman has agreed a work plan for this committee to the end of year but beyond that we might have the opportunity to hear from representatives from the police ombudsman's office to examine some of its best practice; that is not to say that office is perfect either, but it would help inform members and be of benefit to this committee.
Ms Justice Ring mentioned speaking to the gardaí at various leadership levels around the cultural change Deputy Wallace raised. One element we have seen in terms of transforming a very embedded culture within policing in the North has been to facilitate engagement with citizens and with community organisations at a grassroots level.
Is it a resource issue? Does Ms Justice Ring have the capacity to initiate that direct interface or does it rest elsewhere? It has not resolved all our ills but it has been very beneficial in the North.
Ms Justice Mary Ellen Ring:
We engage with the public in a limited form on a regular basis and we have a statutory mandate that we have to fulfil. Obviously, it would be great to have more time in terms of education. We brought in people, for example, who are dealing with new communities because we are anxious to be able to make sure that people in new communities who may be having difficulties in their interactions with the Garda come to us.
I mentioned our website. One of the reasons we have to update our website is because there is no information on it in any other language and there should be. We have translation facilities available but we tell people that in English. Clearly, there are members of the public in communities that we may not be reaching. That is added time and effort being put on us in terms of our statutory mandate. I have no difficulty in engaging with the public but I have to do the other functions we have as part of our mandate. The Senator may rest assured that members of the public respond to us in terms of how they feel about what we are doing and what the Garda is doing. We get a great deal of interaction in that regard.
The Senator mentioned recommending court action. We put forward a case to the Director of Public Prosecutions, DPP. We may recommend that the matter go forward for prosecution. We may make no recommendation. In some cases we recommended no prosecution but we send those to the DPP because, ultimately, the decision rests with that office. It is a separate function. We send forward what we see as a good case, just as gardaí send forward cases they see as good cases and there is no prosecution. In other cases where we are not expecting a prosecution, there is one. Those are matters for an official in another office.
In the North they have had the benefit of starting from ground zero in many ways. There was perhaps an old attitude and old issues but there was a new force and the Ombudsman was brought in at the same time. I am aware, from looking at the Dáil debates on the setting up of the Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission, GSOC, that a good deal of reference was made to the experience in the North and, for whatever reason, different procedures were adopted here. That is a matter of history at this stage.
The North has its problems. It has very old, ongoing, troubling investigations. We have those problems. There are practical issues north and south of the Border as to how we deal with a case where time has passed and people have died or moved on but, often, the complainant, the victim of a crime, never moves on. His or her memory is very clear, but around them time has meant that experiences or evidence has been lost. That is a challenge. The Garda often cannot deal with that satisfactorily when it receives an oral complaint in respect of a crime that was committed many years ago. That is a challenge that perhaps will have-----
The Ombudsman can investigate officers who have subsequently retired. That recommendation is an important one that would bolster the remit of Ms Justice Ring's office. That issue is key in terms of us looking at how we may discuss and make recommendations that would be of advantage to her.
On the issue of the time-bound nature of complaints, could someone with a complaint from 2011 bring that to GSOC next week and expect the same processes?
Ms Justice Mary Ellen Ring:
Under the original Acts, there was a six-month time limit. That has been extended to 12 months. We have the capacity, in a given case, to decide to extend the limit. For smaller cases, that makes sense. We should have some parameters. We need to make sure that people know in that 12 month period that GSOC exists and that they can come to us. On the larger issues, if it is a criminal matter, there should not be any time limit. There is no time limit with regard to criminal offences so why should we have any time limit in that regard? We would certainly look at a complaint and if it was of a criminal nature, we would have to have regard to the fact that a man or woman could go into a Garda station in the morning and make a complaint of an alleged offence which occurred some ten, 15 or 20 years ago. In some cases we have seen them go as far back as 40 or 50 years ago. The problem can be in the actual effective investigation. We may open an investigation but whether we can effectively investigate it can be dependent on who is available, what the information is and whether we get people willing to come forward.
I thank the Chairman. I thank Ms Justice Ring for coming before the committee today and for her presentation. I have two brief questions. First, on the 20% of complaints about which we spoke, has that percentage increased in recent years or has it been a consistent percentage during the ten years of GSOC?
Second, on the extra resources Ms Justice Ring would require, if extra resources were allocated, would they be directed towards hiring more staff to deal with the complaints or would they be directed towards staff to increase the accessibility of GSOC, for example, the public engagement my colleague, Senator Ó Donnghaile, spoke about, taking into account the 12-month timeframe within which members of the public may make complaints?
Ms Justice Mary Ellen Ring:
On the issue of the 20%, there was a higher spike when GSOC was established but it has been fairly consistent over the years at around 20%. Generally, the level of complaints have been consistent.
In terms of our planning, it is an area where we have a history to show that our complaint level is at a certain stage and our division of that into service level-type complaints is accurate.
With regard to extra resources, I might look at it differently. We need to look at our effective functioning. We need to look at Part 4. Can we make it better for the public, the people at work, and the Garda? Having done that, we then look at the implications for resources. In that regard, if we are to get back more investigations, we need to have people properly resourced to do those investigations. Knowing how much work comes back to GSOC, there is no point saying we will need ten or 15 staff if we will need more or less if there are changes. While any money is welcome, I believe we should examine the legislation - any changes that arise - and then look at the resources, as part of a package. That is not to say that any extra money will not be properly used in the interim.
I will be brief. Some serious points have been made. We have to view them against the backdrop of the legislative change we introduced in 2014 when, in fairness, we raised many of the same points.
We were told by the Minister - who is now also Tánaiste - at the time that everything was fine and that the changes and improvements to GSOC's operation would make it fit to do the job the public thinks it should do, namely, hold the Garda to account and investigate complaints. What we have heard now is that this is clearly not the case. The Tánaiste and the Department are on record on multiple occasions as saying that the protocols have all been improved and are working brilliantly. We know that was not the case. The commission is saying that it has improved a bit but not by enough. That means the job is not being done. Our task is to decide whether we are going to push for this to be changed. That is the first thing. What I am hearing - I would like this to be made clear - is that the protocols are not being adhered to. GSOC cannot do its job because it is not getting the information. In fairness, the Commissioner said it, in particular with regard to the situation on whistleblowers. This is key to everything because the input from whistleblowers has actually been instrumental in raising the whole issue of Garda culture and accountability into the public domain in the first instance. Under the new system, there is no confidential recipient. GSOC is the confidential recipient and there are four cases at present which are not being dealt with. We are being told about the records, channels and not getting information. I make the point again that cases have been there for two years. Loyal members of An Garda Síochána have been off the payroll for over a year. They have families and their cases are not being investigated.
If the problem is a lack of both legislative power and co-operation, it must be dealt with as a matter of urgency. If it is not, other people will not come forward. I would like a confirmation that I am on the right track. I am sure I am. We have made these points before. This really serious and, in fairness to the commissioners, the onus is on us to take it forward.
To clarify, when we go into private session to deal with today's business after our public engagement with the commissioners, we will lay out our intentions very clearly. This is not an engagement in isolation. This is part of ticking the box in a very focused way in respect of Garda review and GSOC reform. I call Deputy O'Callaghan.
Many people who have complaints against An Garda Síochána come to Members of the Oireachtas. We are conscious that we only get a partial hearing of the circumstances relating to such complaints. However, many of them say they have been to GSOC, which is where we tell them they should go, but their complaints have not been completed and no conclusion or report has issued. What is the reason for delays in important cases that come before GSOC? Is it a question of resources or a failure of An Garda Síochána to provide information?
GSOC will have received a report from Mr. Justice Frank Clarke in June under section 109 of the Garda Síochána Act in respect of the deaths of Sergeant Michael Galvin and Ms Sheena Stewart. I am not asking the witnesses to get into the substance of it but I will inquire as to whether GSOC has changed its practices as a result of that report. One of the criticisms made by Mr. Justice Clarke was that the decision to designate the fatal injury to Ms Stewart as a criminal investigation was made too quickly.
Ms Justice Mary Ellen Ring:
I will deal with the first part on complaints generally. We know there are people who are dissatisfied with what has taken place in GSOC. Some of them may never be able to be satisfied for all sorts of reasons. In the context of dissatisfaction with us on time issues, if a complaint investigation goes outside under the provisions of section 94(1), the time that passes is outside our control. We try to keep complainants up to date but it gets to a point where sending another letter saying we still have no word for does not add to their peace of mind. In so far as serious matters are concerned, we do our best. We are obliged to keep people up to date. There may be valid delays. I am not saying that any delay in an investigation is all the fault of the Garda. There can be valid delays and some of our investigators are dealing with other matters. We are looking at our own timeliness and have made improvements in that regard. That we can control, but other areas we cannot. I know the frustration because people write directly to me also. We are all conscious and consider what people have to say very seriously.
On Mr. Justice Clarke's report, it was the first report of its kind under section 109. It had taken a great deal of time and arose out of the most serious and tragic circumstances. We are going through the report and we have changed our practices. The committee will recollect that while the decision was made too quickly, there was no question of the bona fides of the people making the decision being challenged. We need to work and are to ensure that what we do is done within the terms of the law and in a proportionate and fair manner. We are looking at practical ways to better deal with that and how we document. One of the issues that also arose was the element of communication between GSOC and An Garda Síochána. We are preparing our own set of information leaflets to make available to gardaí in circumstances that arise as to how an investigation will progress. We will be dependent on Garda co-operation to get that information to the gardaí involved.
I thank Ms Justice Ring. I wish to inform members that on the conclusion of our public session, we will take a five minute sos. Ms Justice Ring and Commissioner Foley have kindly agreed to have a photograph taken with the members of the committee. That will be taken immediately outside this room. Members might like to join us for same.
I go back to two questions I asked the first time but which the witnesses might have missed. Reference was made to the fact that legal redress is available in the North. I asked if GSOC had discussed this with the Tánaiste and Minister for Justice and Equality and asked for the same. I also asked about disciplinary proceedings and sanctions. At the moment, they are within the remit of the Garda Commissioner. Should they be removed from her and structured in a different way?
I have two new questions. On promotions, is GSOC aware of people being put forward for promotion who are under some form of investigation? We are aware of one whistleblower who has complained of serious bullying by some members of the hierarchy in the station where he works. Despite this, it seems to be continuing. How can that be dealt with? It is not being dealt with at present. Does GSOC have any idea as to how best to deal with that problem?
Ms Justice Mary Ellen Ring:
On discussions with the Government, I thought I had said that we had raised the issue of section 66 of the Police (Northern Ireland) Act with officials in the Department. I assume, therefore, that they have raised it with the Tánaiste. After that, I cannot say where it has gone.
On taking over the issue of discipline from the Garda Commissioner, that is a big issue. To be frank, that is not a role we have had or which we have considered because it has been a matter for the Commissioner. That is a whole new area and I am not going to go into it. It is not something we have considered. That is a matter for the Commissioner and the committee to examine. We have not had a role other than in terms of bringing matters to a certain point and handing them over the Commissioner. I go back to the core message which is that there must be some experience of management of discipline and controlling behaviour and misbehaviour. If one farms everything out, where is that experience going to grow within An Garda Síochána? Those are the other concerns. If one is going to have a disciplined force, which is an important aspect of any police force, it must, ultimately, discipline itself.
How to build that in is a real issue. I do not think it is for us to say. We have enough to deal with oversight. The issue of discipline is for the Garda Commissioner unless the Oireachtas changes our role and gives us powers in terms of discipline regulations; we are not asking for them.
The issue of promotions is an internal matter. If, for example, somebody is the subject of a complaint or is part of a complaint process, they do not notify us that they have sought promotion. Again, we do not know how they get promoted and what matters are considered. People have been promoted, but that is not something in which we are involved. The information the Commissioner has and the decisions made are internal matters. We deal with the complaint, the person and the process. If during the course of that process, people die, people are promoted and people leave, those are matters that just happen. However, we have no hand, act or part in them.
On bullying and whistleblowing, I am conscious - with four cases - not to go into particular matters. In any protected disclosure in any workplace, clearly a person comes forward and puts themselves on the line. Even while a matter is being investigated, things arise and that can be difficult to supervise and deal with in any workplace. However, because these are new procedures, all employers, all workplaces and all workers are having to learn how best to deal with them. We are new to the protected disclosure procedures. We will learn and make mistakes in the process. We will have to come back on it and we will make mistakes; the Garda will make mistakes. That is not good enough, but it is a whole new process.
Ms Justice Ring has said that the promotions issue is an internal matter. If, however, GSOC is looking at individuals who are about to be promoted by means of the internal process, does Ms Justice Ring not think that there should be a freeze on such promotions while those officers are under scrutiny by the commission?
Ms Justice Mary Ellen Ring:
We are not part of the promotion process. I do not know whether it is known they were even under investigation by the people looking at promotions. We are going back to Chinese walls; we just process it. The complaint process takes too long. If we can reduce the time and make the complaint process more effective, some of these issues may be resolved to everybody's satisfaction.
I wish to make some observations and ask for a brief response before we conclude. Much of what we have been discussing were responses to complaints made, including those relating to discipline, more serious criminal actions or even, in lesser situations, a reprimand within the system. That is the fire-brigade response. Is the genesis of all this not the absence within the Garda Síochána training process of the importance of respect and the right of members of the public to courtesy, and to be met fairly and equally across the board? Although I have had the experience of being courteously received in a Garda Síochána barracks setting, many people say the first point of contact rarely, if ever, commences with "What can I do for you? May I help you?" That is not the experience of members of the public presenting at Garda stations. It is simple courtesy to get off on the right note.
We are coming up to the tenth anniversary of GSOC in May of next year. It is very appropriate that this is one of the issues we have highlighted for priority address. This is not just about how GSOC has responded to its complainants' issues. Does Ms Justice Ring have a view on how it has served the public interest in the wider context? How is the role of GSOC regarded by individual members of An Garda Síochána, with whom it has had to address specific issues and, perhaps even more importantly, how is the role of GSOC regarded by An Garda Síochána, as a policing body?
Ms Justice Mary Ellen Ring:
Regarding interactions, in fairness, day in and day out, gardaí interact with the public. Day in and day out, people have no complaint and we should not lose sight of that. We have to remind ourselves in our organisation that because we deal with complaints not every experience is a bad experience; we are just seeing the people who are complaining about their experience.
I know the training has improved. I have been in Templemore and seen what has been done in recent years. I see great people down there with great intentions. The downside of increasing numbers puts pressure on training. There is a temptation to speed up the training. There is a thought out practice for training new members and I would hate for the increased numbers to reduce that training period because it is thought out. There are some very good people and they are looking at all aspects.
I heard the then Chief Superintendent McMahon talking about how someone failed an exercise because they showed no empathy. They got the right answer, but it was a training exercise and they had no empathy in dealing with the member of the public who was part of the exercise. The training has improved tremendously. Good practices are being taught. There are now mentors in stations. In the past, someone might have arrived at a station and been told "Forget what you learned in Templemore. This is where you'll really learn how to be a guard." It has brought in mentors into the station to counter that attitude. I would hope that in that regard the training is embedded.
In fairness to the Garda, the reduction in resources including numbers has brought greater pressures. On a human level, we all perform better when we have resources and time and when there are fewer demands on us. For a garda alone behind the counter in a station with the phone ringing and people outside, and where somebody who has been arrested is brought in, it can take a lot to say, as should be expected, "How may I help you?" because so many people are looking for attention.
Resourcing should allow for that relaxation, so to speak, and should allow for the proper responses. That again goes back to discipline. It is not a formal discipline, but a sergeant should pick up on a rude response or a lack of response and say "Look, I noted how you dealt with that member of the public. You'll have to do better." It should not be made a formal discipline issue; it is just good practice. In the wider context of the Garda and GSOC, I would like to see a reduction in their work.
I would like to see that people do not come to us because they do not have cause, and that means more effort on the part of the Garda.
That would give us more time to deal with the serious matters. The less time spent dealing with the service level the more time we have to deal with serious matters. Whether it is the whistleblowers, incidents that happen out of road traffic incidents or whatever, we could deal with those more effectively and more efficiently. It would also mean that because we are under less pressure we could engage more appropriately with the public and, hopefully, the members of the public would have greater trust in us to deal with its complaints because in the first instance the public would find its complaints were being dealt with by the appropriate personnel within An Garda Síochána. It is a connected process. Culture within police forces is difficult to change. Whether it is North-South or across both bodies of water, it is a challenge. It will not happen either with legislative change or overnight.
On behalf of the committee, I thank Ms Justice Ring and the commissioner, Ms Foley, for coming before us this morning. It was a detailed and intense examination of the issues involved. Ms Justice Ring, in the concluding remarks of her address to us earlier, spoke of significant improvements in the oversight system and the commission's hope to count on this committee's support to achieve them. No doubt I speak on behalf of the committee entirely when I say that we would like to confirm that the commission can count on it.
I propose that the committee suspend for five minutes and invite members to join the chairperson of GSOC and the commission, Ms Foley, for a photograph immediately outside.