National Disability Authority Annual Conference 2020

Facilitating the effective and equal participation of persons with disabilities in the Irish criminal justice system (Article 13 UNCRPD)

Wednesday, 21 October 2020 | 10:00am – 4:00pm

Minister James Browne T.D.

Check against delivery.

I am delighted to have this opportunity to be here (albeit virtually) this afternoon to address the NDA’s conference on facilitating the effective and equal participation of persons with disabilities in the Irish criminal justice system.


I have spoken to colleagues in my Department and I understand that this morning’s discussions, which covered a range of topics, including intermediaries, hate crimes and jury service, were very enlightening.


I very much look forward to receiving a report of today’s proceedings and considering how best we can improve the rights of persons with disabilities within the criminal justice sector.


Today’s conference is another excellent example of how the NDA carries out its important role of providing information and evidence-informed advice to Government and officials in the public sector on disability matters, and promoting the coordination of disability policy.


This morning you have heard from a range of international speakers who have highlighted evidence and good practice from other jurisdiction and issues that require attention in an Irish context.


And this afternoon, you will consider disability issues within specific areas of criminal justice by engaging with a range of panellists, including speakers from government departments and agencies.


Developing policy informed by evidence, and promoting greater collaboration amongst disability stakeholders, is at the heart of today’s conference; is at the core of the NDA’s work; and is central to achieving access to criminal justice for persons with disabilities.


Many of the issues which have been discussed this morning, as well as those which will be discussed during the six breakout sessions this afternoon, are matters which my Department is keen to address over the lifetime of this Government. There are a number of initiatives already underway to aid us in that endeavour, and Ireland’s ratification of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities has undoubtedly created an added impetus to our work.


As many of you know, the Department of Justice and criminal justice agencies are currently working in partnership to develop the first ever Strategy for the Criminal Justice System. The purpose of the strategy is to set out our shared vision for a joined-up criminal justice system, to embed and sustain this collaborative work into the future, driving increased innovation and greater cohesion leading to more effective solutions and sanctions and better outcomes for the public.


The Strategy for the Criminal Justice System will provide a framework to further embed a culture of working collaboratively within the criminal justice agencies. It will drive innovation and increase efficiencies across the system, leading to better outcomes for those who engage with the system directly, and for the public more widely.


A cohesive, joined-up criminal justice system is critical to meeting the needs of all persons in or at the edge of the system. Effective multi-agency coordination and collaboration is particularly important for supporting persons with disabilities, including those with mental health issues, who are engaging with the criminal justice system. Our system should be able to meet a diverse range of needs, including communication or healthcare needs.


An effective criminal justice system has to work for everyone, including those with disabilities or mental health issues. The new Strategy will be built around the needs of those interacting with the criminal justice system with actions aimed at:

I know that that a lot of hard work is going on behind the scenes to finalise the Strategy after extensive engagement with stakeholders throughout the year. The Strategy and the associated Implementation Plan will be published later this year with implementation beginning in 2021.


I am keenly aware that one of the issues the NDA would like to see addressed as part of the new Strategy is the important issue of intermediaries as a critical support in ensuring victims, witnesses and the accused can provide their best evidence. My Department recently received an advice paper from the NDA, recommending the development of a pilot project which would inform a national Registered Intermediaries Scheme. This matter was also raised in the recently published O’Malley Review and will be given due consideration in the implementation plan currently being drafted for the recommendation coming out of the O’Malley review.


As some of you may be aware, in August, my colleague, the Minister for Justice, published the O’Malley Review regarding protections for vulnerable witnesses. The review is a thorough and expert examination of the entire criminal justice process around sexual offences, as it is encountered by victims and other vulnerable witnesses, at each point from the initial reporting of an offence through to the end of any court proceedings.


The reforms identified have the potential to transform the manner in which sexual crime is dealt with in Ireland – not only the treatment of victims in the justice system, but indeed also broader societal attitudes and prevention of sexual violence. Implementing the recommendations outlined in the O’Malley Report is a priority for the Government.


My Department, together with the Department of Children and Youth Affairs, has also recently completed a public consultation on a draft youth justice strategy, which I know is the focus of one of the breakout sessions this afternoon.


The Strategy has been developed in light of the experience of State agencies and community partners who work with the comparatively small number of children and young people who come in contact with the criminal justice system. This work has built on the 2008 Youth Justice Strategy and the subsequent Youth Justice Action Plan 2014-2018. And it tries to deal with many of the gaps that remain as well as new challenges which have emerged.


It is intended that the new Strategy will form an important element of the National Policy Framework for Children and Young Adults, which is overseen by the Department of Children and Youth Affairs.


I am well aware that data from Oberstown Detention Centre shows that children with disabilities and children with mental health issues are over-represented in the youth justice system. I am in no doubt that an effective youth justice system is one that meets the individual needs of young people with disabilities and mental health issues.


Linked to this is the need for individuals working in the justice system to be disability aware, and to have an understanding of how best to support and communicate with both adults and children with disabilities. In this regard, I want to acknowledge the NDA’s work in developing guidance for those working in the civil and criminal justice system on how to communicate with and support people who have autism.


It is my view that early intervention and diversion from the youth justice system are extremely important in this regard. And I am keen that these interventions are effectively considered as part of the finalised Strategy.


The new Programme for Government also contains a number of ambitious commitments relevant to persons with disabilities and the criminal justice system.


First, the Programme for Government commits to introducing hate crime legislation within twelve months of the formation of the Government. This legislation will create specific offences to ensure that those who target victims because of their association with a particular identity characteristic - including those targeted because of their disability - are identified as perpetrators of hate crime. This legislation will be based on an aggravated offences model.


As part of the work to update the legislation, a comprehensive public consultation has been carried out which included a public survey and an opportunity for stakeholders to make formal submissions.


In addition, in order to ensure the legislation drafted is effective, the Department carried out comparative research on international best practice on hate crime legislation. This research is currently being finalised and it is expected to be published in the coming weeks.


The Programme for Government commits to establishing a high-level cross-departmental and cross-agency taskforce to consider the mental health and addiction challenges of those imprisoned and primary care support on release. Previous work in this area was carried out through an Interdepartmental Group established in 2012 to consider issues arising from the interaction of the criminal justice system and mental health services.


The group’s first report identified on how diversion at all stages of the criminal process could be facilitated. 


The second report in 2018 focussed on matters relating to mental health services for prisoners, individuals subject to community sanctions and post-release supervision. It also considered matters relating to patients detained under the Criminal Law (Insanity) Act 2006.


This Taskforce will build on the work of the Interdepartmental Group tasked to examine issues relating to people with mental illness who come into contact with the criminal justice system. The Task Force will comprise senior officials from both the Department of Justice and Department of Health, as well as relevant agencies and any other Departments.  The Terms of Reference for the Task Force are under development between the Department of Justice and the Department of Health.


This Taskforce will build on the work of the Interdepartmental Group tasked to examine issues relating to people with mental illness who come into contact with the criminal justice system.


Finally, might I also assure you all today that while the Equality functions of the Department of Justice has recently transferred to the newly configured Department of Children, Disability, Equality, Integration and Youth, the needs and rights of people with disabilities will not be side-lined or forgotten by my Department.


Disability and the implementation of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities very much remain the responsibility of all Government Departments. We are also committed to implementing remaining actions assigned to the Department of Justice under the National Disability Inclusion Strategy.


It is wonderful to have so many colleagues from the Department of Justice and agencies under the Department’s remit participate in and join the conference today. For me, this level of interest and engagement is acknowledgement of the fact that the inclusion of persons with a disability is everyone’s business, including those in the criminal justice sector.


I want to thank you again for the invitation to address you today. I wish you the best of luck with your breakout sessions this afternoon and I look forward to engaging with you further in the months and years ahead on these very important issues.


Thank you.