Opening statement by GSOC chair Justice Mary Ellen Ring to the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Justice and Equality on 21 September 2016

29 Sep 2016

Opening statement by GSOC chair Justice Mary Ellen Ring to the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Justice and Equality on 21 September 2016

Good morning, Chairperson and Committee Members, and thank you for the opportunity to meet with you today.

As you know, I chair a Commission of three people. You may be aware that our fellow Commissioner Kieran FitzGerald, is indisposed at the moment. I am joined by Commissioner Carmel Foley.

The Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission works side-by-side with other independent agencies, notably the Garda Síochána Inspectorate and the Policing Authority, to provide effective oversight of the policing system. GSOC’s main function, within this framework, is to deal with matters involving alleged misconduct by members of the Garda Síochána, as effectively and fairly as possible.

GSOC has been operational since May 2007. We look forward to celebrating its ten year anniversary next year and believe this is an appropriate time to reflect on the work of the Commission over the last decade.

GSOC operates in line with the provisions of the Garda Síochána Act 2005 and its amendments. Almost a decade of experience of implementing the provisions of this very detailed legislation have highlighted that – in several areas – it does not allow for proportionate, effective and user-friendly handling of complaints and provision of oversight.

Part 4 of the Garda Síochána Act 2005 is, essentially, too cumbersome to allow GSOC to function effectively. This needs review and overhaul.

The objectives of the Ombudsman 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”.

This Committee would clearly have an interest in ensuring that these objectives are achieved by the Ombudsman Commission.

We believe that revising the legislation, to incorporate the lessons learned over the last decade of operation into future arrangements, would enable GSOC to function much more efficiently, effectively and fairly over the next decade, better promoting public confidence in the process.

It would increase confidence in the oversight system and in turn, in the policing system itself. In our submission to the Committee we highlighted some of the main problems and how we believe the system could be more proportionate and more resolution-oriented. This will be to the benefit of the public in getting early disposal of a complaint, but will also bring matters to an efficient end for the gardaí involved.

We included an example of a recent case before the Ombudsman 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 would like to start by briefly relating the details of this case to you:

A complaint was made to GSOC in September of last year, about an incident that occurred at a large public event that month.  The complaint alleged that a garda was verbally abusive to woman when she was trying to comply with conflicting instructions from gardaí directing traffic at the event.

I won’t repeat the language allegedly used by the garda in this room, but you 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 didn’t 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 before, information she clearly thought was important to give to GSOC.

The complaint 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 they stated that it was not possible to reprimand the garda due to the pressures of work on the day.

The whole process took 9 months. It involved 5 interviews, and, in terms of human resources, it involved one superintendent, one member of Internal Affairs (at least), four garda members, two civilians and three GSOC personnel.

There is clearly quite a cost associated with such a 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 Síochána, to GSOC’s knowledge.

This is an example of the type of case which GSOC would say should be dealt with by Garda management.  This member of the public should have been contacted the evening of the incident, or the following morning, and an apology should have been forthcoming.  No person should be spoken to by anyone in the fashion above.

It is the view of GSOC that such an incident should be, and can be, properly handled by the Garda Síochána themselves.  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 really 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 you 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 about 20% of cases we get) would be considered a “service level” issue and would be dealt with in a far more proportionate, resolution-focused way.

That is the first of our key priorities:

Minor service-focused issues should be resolved in a more efficient and proportionate manner, by leveraging the existing line management systems within the Garda Síochána. 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.

Informal resolution mediated by the Garda Ombudsman could also be used more widely and effectively in the future, by giving the Garda Ombudsman the power to decide whether it should be attempted or not, as is the case for the Police Ombudsman of Northern Ireland.

Meanwhile, the lack of proper oversight and accountability in formal disciplinary investigations conducted by Garda Síochána Investigating Officers under section 94 – in circumstances when it is appropriate for this mechanism to be used – 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 cooperation of the Garda Síochána 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.
  • In supervised investigations, eliminating the need for a second senior Garda officer to review an investigation file, when it has already been supervised and reviewed by a GSOC officer, could render this process more efficient. We also believe that the Garda Síochána deciding officer should be obliged to provide a rationale to GSOC when disagreeing with GSOC’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 cooperation from gardaí in order to complete this type of investigation, under section 95, also need to be further clarified and bolstered.

My final point is that continuous improvement in the timeliness of conducting disciplinary investigations and the provision of information by the Garda Síochána 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 lot 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 significant improvements in the oversight system and we hope to count on your support to achieve them.

Thank you.