Wednesday, 29 September 2021
Ceisteanna - Questions
I propose to take Questions Nos. 13 to 15, inclusive, together. The public service, justice and policing reform unit sits in the social policy and public service reform division of the Department of An Taoiseach. The unit supports the Civil Service management board, including the Civil Service renewal programme; contributes to the oversight and governance of the new public service reform plan; supports me in my role as Taoiseach on criminal justice, community safety and related matters; and incorporates the policing reform implementation programme office that oversees the implementation of A Policing Service for our Future, which is the Government's plan to implement the report of the Commission on the Future of Policing in Ireland.
The unit also assists the work of the Cabinet committee on social affairs and equality, and the associated senior officials' group established to oversee implementation of programme for Government commitments in the areas of social policy, equality and public services, including matters relating to arts and culture, children, justice, policing reform and community safety, disability, social inclusion, gender equality, direct provision, the Irish language and sport.
The unit also has departmental oversight of the National Economic and Social Council and provides me with briefing and speech material on social policy and public service reform issues. It also participates in relevant interdepartmental committees and other groups.
A significant issue arose earlier this year regarding the provision of legal aid for the Stardust families. The families and their advocates, including myself, argued that the Minister for Justice could resolve this matter through the introduction of a regulation to waive the requirement of the financial eligibility test. Eventually, the Minister for Justice signed the civil legal aid regulations to allow all families on an exceptional basis to access legal aid for the Stardust inquest, regardless of their means. That was welcome progress and the families believed the final hurdle put before them by the State had been overcome. However, disgracefully, that was to prove not to be the case. Families have recently learned that the Department has not engaged with the Legal Aid Board since the regulation was signed, nor has the necessary budget been provided by the Department for the legal costs associated with the inquest. It is, of course, deeply unfair on families to have the State continuously put up blockages when its stated position is that it wants to do all it can to support them. Families have had to fight too hard for too long. This matter surely should have been resolved between the Department and Legal Aid Board in advance of the regulation being signed and not left for the families to deal with. It is unacceptable for the Department to take the position that this is a matter between the Legal Aid Board and the families. I have raised this issue with the Minister for Justice and the Minister of State, neither of whom have deemed it fit to respond. I now raise the matter with the Taoiseach and ask him to intervene on behalf of these families and to sort out this issue as a matter of urgency.
I will continue to speak about the case I raised of the 17-year-old child with autism who is wandering the streets and reliant on homeless accommodation. As the Taoiseach rightly said, the agencies that are the first ports of call should work. In this case, we are talking about Túsla, which has constitutional responsibilities. We had a referendum in 2012 about the specific responsibility of the State in terms of children. We have also signed the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities in terms of our responsibility to people with disabilities. The young man concerned has an intellectual disability and severe forms of autism. He is in homeless accommodation, wandering the streets and his life is in danger. His mother has gone to the ombudsman who is going to look into the case but that young man is still on the streets. His mother has gone to court to try to compel Túsla to provide the proper placement and services he needs. The first port of call is not working. That is where we come in. We have a constitutional and legal obligation to a child like this. I will pass on the details of the case to the Taoiseach. I appeal to him. The whip needs to be cracked and the services need to be provided.
I will come back to the case of James O'Connor again. The Taoiseach says that the first port of call, the agencies and so on, should work. I agree. They should work but the point is that it is very clear that they did not work and that there is a problem and, therefore, a need for reform. The central issue is that the massive imbalance of power between a family law judge and a person coming before that judge was simply not taken into account. The woman I quoted earlier said this puts you in a position where you feel you cannot say "No" because you know you are going to be back in front of the judge. To return to the story I told about this woman going into the courthouse and the judge lunging at her, she had to go back before that same judge again in a situation where he could potentially have been deciding whether she would keep her kids. I am not asking the Taoiseach or the Government to make themselves into the Garda, the Judiciary or whatever but the Government was contacted multiple times by this woman and then by me with regard to this case. Did the Government do anything about it? Did it spot that there is an issue here that needs to be resolved through reform of how such matters are deal with?
I will revert to the Minister with regard to Deputy McDonald's question on the Stardust inquiry. The Government is committed to ensuring the Stardust inquests and the families involved are provided with all relevant supports. As the Deputy said, the Government did respond to that issue. Funding of €8 million has been allocated for the new inquests. This includes funding for legal aid for the families and for the fit-out of a bespoke courtroom in the RDS. The Minister, Deputy Humphreys, has signed the Civil Legal Aid Regulations 2021, which allow all families to access legal aid, on an exceptional basis, for the Stardust inquests regardless of their means. I am informed that the Legal Aid Board, which is independent in the conduct of its function, is engaging with the legal representatives of the families to agree an appropriate funding structure and schedule. The Minister for Justice understands that the public-facing elements of the inquests are expected to commence once the necessary preliminary hearings conclude. The conduct of the Stardust inquests is entirely a matter for the senior Dublin coroner. The coroner's independence in regard to such matters is set out in the Coroners Act 1962. The Minister for Justice does not have a role in that regard. The senior Dublin coroner has held five preliminary hearings to date and has scheduled a sixth pre-inquest hearing, to take place on 13 October. The Deputy raised a number of issues this morning. The Minister has signed the regulations. It is law now. Funding has been provided and is there to be drawn down. I do not see what the issue is but I will pursue the matter with the Minister for Justice and seek a response from her.
Deputy Boyd Barrett raised the issue of that young man with autism. It is a matter for Tusla, service providers and the HSE working with those providers to get the optimal care model in place for that young person. I do not know what the various actions that have been taken to date amount to, in respect of that young man in terms of any particular service that he was a part of. I do not know whether he grew up accessing particular services provided by a section 38 body, for example.
The answer then is that we need to get the optimal place for him where he will be given the necessary supports. That is what we need to do. If the Deputy will send on the details to me, I will certainly pursue the matter with the authorities to see if we can get a place for that young man. It is certainly not acceptable for him to be on the streets.
With regard to Deputy Paul Murphy's point, the Deputy has acknowledged that the Government cannot act as the Garda or as GSOC. There is a wider issue regarding the Judiciary and the behaviour of judges. Progress has been made on the Judicial Council but I do not know whether this applies within the timeline of this particular case. That is a further complication in this regard. The Government does not want to become GSOC on an ongoing basis. Increasingly I am getting feedback which suggests that many people who go to GSOC are not happy with the outcome. I do not know whether that is because people's expectations are too high or whether there are issues regarding how GSOC operates but there are real issues here with regard to the degree to which the Government can supersede the role of the various agencies involved. That is a legitimate problem. Having said that, very serious allegations are being made in respect of someone who is no longer operating as a judge. That person is entitled to contest those allegations and assertions. Determining the degree to which the Government can respond or how it will respond is not simple but I will examine the matter.