Dáil debates

Friday, 10 December 2010

Handling of Criminal Matter in Longford: Statements


1:00 pm

Photo of Pat RabbittePat Rabbitte (Dublin South West, Labour)

On my own behalf and that of the Labour Party, I join colleagues in the House to express sympathy to Marie Keegan and her children and their wider circle of family and friends at the loss of Mr. Noel Keegan in such tragic circumstances last New Year's Eve.

The report by the prisons inspector concerns the most serious failings of our criminal justice system. I join the Keegan family in describing what happened as inexcusable and catastrophic failings and administrative errors on the part of the State. We know that when crimes are committed there must be investigations, arrests, charges and trials. If a conviction follows, there must be a sentence. We can understand errors during investigations and trials and we have procedures of oversight to deal with these. However, we expect the basic administrative paperwork to be done. This case shows that a person arrested and charged with a serious assault, with fatal consequences, was at liberty to commit that crime at a time when he should already have been in prison. He had been already sentenced to a significant term of imprisonment, in respect of a prior and separate conviction.

Judge Reilly's investigation and his report into this affair were completed in just four months. He identified what he described as a litany of flawed systems, outmoded work practices and the failure of organs of the "justice family" to communicate with each other. These failures, combined with lapses of judgment, misjudgments and inattention to detail, ended in the tragic death of Noel Keegan. Judge Reilly reported that because of systemic failures in systems and a lack of oversight by superiors public servants did not adhere to the highest standards. He expressed his hope that the report will be used to address such failures, provide appropriate oversight and act as a warning to public servants at all grades that they must be careful and scrupulous when attending to their public duties in order that the general public can have complete confidence in the system.

In regard to Martin McDonagh, there were two prior convictions and two major failures. First, a warrant for Martin McDonagh was not issued by the Circuit Court office in Longford between 1 May 2009 and 5 January 2010, more than eight months later. His sentence should have commenced on 1 May 2009 but the combination of this failure by Longford Circuit Court office to issue the warrant and the absence of appropriate checks and balances meant that Martin McDonagh did not begin to serve a sentence imposed on 28 April 2009 until 5 January this year. Mr Noel Keegan was walking from his home with his wife, to meet friends for a drink on New Year's Eve, when he was attacked by Martin McDonagh and later died.

The second failure relates to an earlier sentence imposed on Martin McDonagh on 22 April 2009 and is perhaps the more serious because it involves more personnel and more agencies. Martin McDonagh had been granted temporary release in November 2009, subject to conditions, as he was nearing the end of such sentence. If proper procedures had been in place and adhered to, Martin McDonagh would have been deemed "unlawfully at large" since 28 November 2009. As Judge Reilly pointed out, procedures could then have been put in place to effect his apprehension subsequent to 28 November 2009. That this did not happen is as a result, according to the judge, of "many failures across three agencies, namely, the Irish Prison Service, An Garda Síochána and the Probation Service". Of these he stated: "These failures cannot be explained away by reference to inattention to detail by junior members of these services, rather, management should have been aware of the deficiencies in such systems."

Not alone was relevant information not shared between these agencies but, according to Judge Reilly, it is also clear that certain information was not shared within agencies. He concluded that this lack of sharing of information contributed to Martin McDonagh being unlawfully at large and to the fact that he did not commence his second sentence for eight months after it had been imposed. The startling aspect of this case is that so many failures combined together. However, this does not provide reassurance that it was an isolated, once-off, incident, rather it does the opposite because any one of these errors could have led to the same result.

We have tried repeatedly through the parliamentary process to get details about the number of unexecuted warrants, the number of prisoners unlawfully at large and the operation of the temporary release system. We have tried to get some picture of how the system works in practice. However, we are none the wiser. As Judge Reilly put it: "During the course of my investigation surrounding the release of Martin McDonagh on the 27th November 2009 I discovered many inadequacies in the temporary release procedure which, while applicable in this investigation, are inadequacies generally within the criminal justice system".

At one level, one can blame IT systems and the fact that they are not integrated - the Garda's PULSE system does not liaise with the Prison Service's electronic records system. There also seems to be a reluctance to share information that may be inaccurate or out of date, for fear of litigation. However, even allowing for these points, the Judge Reilly found that in excess of 25 members of varying ranks of the station party in Longford Garda station knew, or should have known if they were reading their bulletins, that Martin McDonagh was unlawfully at large. He stated he can only conclude that the apprehension of persons unlawfully at large is not given the priority it merits at senior management level.

Judge Reilly's recommendations came under two headings, namely, those that required immediate implementation, and those that should be worked on in the longer term. The immediate recommendations concern tighter control on how warrants are executed, on temporary release conditions and on maintaining a register of released prisoners. Longer-term recommendations include measures to enhance communication between agencies.

We are told that all of the judge's recommendations identified for immediate action have now been fully implemented. I hope that statement is accurate. We are also told there is a strategy to implement the medium-term recommendations within a three year timeframe. I am not sure why the Minister believes we need a three year timeframe to implement all of these medium term recommendations. They are few in number and pretty basic. For the record, I will list them.

First, when a criminal case is adjourned in the Circuit Criminal Court it should be made clear by the court as to whether an accused is remanded in custody, remanded on bail or that his or her case is simply adjourned. This order should be noted and if appropriate should form part of the transcript. Second, information relating to important directives to all members of the Garda Síochána, which currently appears on the portal of the Garda website, should be incorporated into a specific section of the PULSE system. Third, there should be an interface between the Irish Prison Service computer system, particularly the prisoner log, and the PULSE system operated by then Garda Síochána. Appropriate protocols should be introduced.

Fourth, relevant information should be shared between appropriate sections of all State agencies. Fifth, the personal details screen' on the PULSE system should be extended to indicate whether a suspect is in custody, unlawfully at large, on day release, attending court while in prison custody, in hospital while in prison custody', or on temporary release. Sixth, the criminal case tracking system that operates in the District Court should be rolled out in the Circuit Criminal Court.

The Minister, Deputy Ahern, and I can both remember the childish and vindictive way in which his party, when in Opposition, reacted to an equally significant administrative error in the Department of Justice and Law Reform, when a judge who had been delisted from membership of the Special Criminal Court was not told of that fact and was permitted to continue to sit without authority. As a result 16 high security prisoners remanded in custody had to be released, although they were immediately re-arrested and detained. The Minister's party sought to take party political advantage and to heap personal blame on the then Minister, Nora Owen. It demanded her resignation. The Minister, then Deputy Dermot Ahern, accused Nora Owen of "flying blind" in office and of "passing the buck". He accused the Government of trying to "blame the civil servants". In particular, I found a passage in the speech of the future Minister on 13 November 1996 interesting. Due to a letter not being posted in the Department of Justice, Deputy Dermot Ahern stated:

The Government is a sham and has forfeited any right it had to govern. It is time its members did the honourable thing and accepted that the security system, its first and foremost duty, is an absolute shambles. Deputy Owen has yet again surpassed herself as a hapless and hopeless Minister... Fianna Fáil has a good history in the Department of Justice and there can be no learning curve when one is dealing with the security of the State. There is no place in the Department of Justice for inexperienced people... Ministers must be competent and capable of handling their briefs. They must lead, take responsibility for their decisions and abide by the law of the land as set out in the Ministers and Secretaries Act 1924. As regards the Taoiseach and the Minister for Justice, the least we can expect is that the Government will not damage public confidence in the ability of the judicial system to deal with people accused of heinous crimes... The failure of the Minister for Justice and others to resign in these serious circumstances has set a precedent which makes a sham of the doctrine of collective and ministerial responsibility. Accountability in the political lexicon will have to be replaced by the doctrine of political survival, whatever the cost to the public.

Although the parallels are clear, I do not wish to use this opportunity to retaliate in kind. The handling of warrants in Circuit Court offices is not the Minister's personal responsibility, but this is yet another monumental administrative cock-up within the most secretive and hide-bound Department of State and with the most serious consequences. Ministerial accountability means not just taking responsibility for matters that are under one's control. It means taking control of matters that are one's responsibility. The Minister has not exerted any influence, let alone control, over the agencies the deficiencies of which are so starkly highlighted in Judge Reilly's report.

Judge Reilly has conducted this investigation with his customary thoroughness. Since his appointment, he has shown a commitment to his mandate and an independence of mind that is immensely refreshing and also unusual within what is referred to here as the justice "family". We can only hope, but not expect, that the other reports published by Judge Reilly in his capacity as Inspector of Prisons and Places of Detention will receive the same necessary immediate attention as this one. Since his appointment, he has detailed in annual and special reports his concerns regarding overcrowding, the health of prisoners, the use of "special" cells, the procedure for dealing with prisoner complaints, the procedure for dealing with the disciplining of prisoners, the prevalence of drugs and the investigations of and reporting on deaths in custody. He has published standards for the inspection of prisons and reports on the duties and obligations owed to prisoners, specifically dealing with overcrowding of prisons and the use of "special" cells. He has given guidance on best practice relating to prisoners' complaints and prison discipline. His report in August 2009 dealt with the history and design capacity of Mountjoy Prison and its programmes, facilities and deficiencies.

It seems clear that, with so many systemic and chronic issues on its plate, the Prison Service is operating on a dysfunctional basis. This report highlights that basic standards of communication of information vital to its functioning are not met by the Prison Service, the probation service, the Courts Service and the Garda Síochána. The fear must be that basic errors with the most serious consequences, such as the one highlighted in this report, will only be repeated.


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