Statement by Dermot Ahern T.D., Minister for Justice and Law Reform on a criminal matter Co. Longford 10 December 2010

 

A Cheann Comhairle, I want to share time with Deputy Peter Kelly.

 

The circumstances of this case are extremely tragic and I have extended my deepest sympathy to Mrs. Marie Keegan and her family on the very sad death of Noel, their husband and father who was a retired member of the Defence Forces and highly respected in his community.  I can assure the House that from the moment this case came to light it has been treated with the utmost gravity by my Department and the entire criminal justice system.    

 

I want to pay tribute to Mrs. Keegan and her family for the dignified and admirable way in which they have conducted themselves throughout this incredibly difficult time.  No doubt all Deputies will join with me in offering the family our sympathy on their terrible loss.  I have written to Mrs. Keegan to say how sorry I am for the position in which her family found themselves and expressed the great regret all of the agencies involved for the failures in procedures which took place, and I do so again now publicly in this House. 

 

Last January, when I first became aware of this matter, I requested Judge Michael Reilly, the Inspector of Prisons, to investigate the circumstances of this case across all of the relevant agencies.  At my request, the Keegan family were informed of the facts as we were aware of them and the investigation that Judge Reilly would be conducting.  I also briefed the then spokespersons of the opposition who acknowledged that we were taking the correct action in response to this situation.  

 

Before his appointment as Inspector of Prisons, Judge Reilly was a highly experienced and respected District Court judge so he was particularly well placed to assess what had occurred.  His wide-ranging terms of reference were as follows:

 

  • To investigate the manner of and procedures applicable to the recording and communication of the sentencing of Martin McDonagh in Tullamore Circuit Court on 28 April 2009. 

 

  • To establish (i) whether a warrant recording this sentence was issued by Longford and/or Tullamore Circuit Court Offices and (ii) was received by Castlerea Prison. 

 

  • To make inquiries with any other relevant persons and authorities including An Garda Síochána and the Probation Service.

 

The judge was also asked to make appropriate recommendations arising from his investigation and requested to report to me as soon as possible. 

 

Judge Reilly reported in May and his very clear report highlights a number of very serious failings which took place in this case across all the agencies concerned.  The matter arose following the sentencing in absentia of Martin McDonagh to four years imprisonment at Tullamore Circuit Court on 28 April 2009. 

 

Several of the failures resulted from human error and others occurred because of the lack of systematic procedures to pick up on these errors when they occurred.  The judge makes it clear that the errors occurred, not through any malicious intent, but because there were insufficient checks and oversight arrangements in place within the offices and agencies concerned. 

 

Having said that, senior Courts Service management have met with the individuals concerned to remind them of the necessity, as highlighted by Judge Reilly, of careful and scrupulous attention to detail when attending to their public duties.   The Secretary General of my Department has met with the heads of all the agencies concerned to emphasise the seriousness with which this matter should be treated and the necessary priority afforded to putting the necessary solutions in place.  I have also arranged for this report to be transmitted to the President of the Circuit Court and he has drawn the importance of the relevant recommendations to the attention of the judges of the Circuit Court.  Obviously all the agencies concerned have co-operated fully in implementing the recommendations Judge Reilly made and significant lessons have been learned.  

 

In order to ensure the speedy implementation of the Reilly report, I then appointed Mr. Pat Folan, a former Director General of the immigration services, to oversee the implementation process.  Mr. Folan convened an inter-agency group of senior officials which undertook a detailed work process and reported to me in September that all of the Judge's recommendations identified for immediate action have now been fully implemented.  The group also set out a clear strategy to implement the medium term recommendations – several of which involve information communication technology (ICT) infrastructure projects - within a three year timeframe. 

 

Three main areas were identified where failures had occurred:-

  • the process and procedures in relation to the issuing of warrants;
  • the process and procedures relating to notifications of the temporary release of prisoners; and
  • communication between the relevant Justice sector agencies.

 

Since then, each of the agencies, both individually and collectively, has examined their part in the processes concerned and, as the Folan Group reports, changes in work practices and systems aimed at rectifying the identified failings have been implemented.

 

For example, verification procedures have been included in the preparation, checking and issuing of warrants in court offices.  I should point out that many of these practices were already followed in court offices all around the country.  The new protocols simply involve a consistent application of best practice and clear lines of accountability.  The measures include a second official double checking the detail of any warrant prepared before it is signed by the relevant senior official.  From now on, if posted, warrants will be issued by registered post thus affording a record of postage and receipt.  Where a committal warrant is issued on the day of court, a new process has been introduced to acknowledge receipt of a warrant in writing by a prison officer and likewise acknowledgement by receipt by An Garda Síochána or the Irish Prison Service where a warrant is received directly by a prison or the Gardaí.  An Garda Siochána and the Irish Prison Service have issued instructions within their respective organisations in relation to these new procedures.

 

Protocols both within individual agencies and, especially, between the agencies dealing with warrants have been put in place to further enhance the measures introduced.  The new procedures will serve to increase efficiency and effectiveness and enhance the overall accountability requirements on agencies and individual officials to certify their specific element of the process, thereby reducing significantly the risk of a warrant being overlooked.

 

The series of recommendations requiring immediate action in the Reilly Report relating to temporary release have been implemented and will enable the responsible agencies to more effectively manage the process.

 

The Irish Prison Service has examined the terms and conditions which are included on the temporary release form and, where appropriate, has amended the wording to provide an unambiguous and clear statement of the terms of a prisoner's release.  This will facilitate each of the agencies involved in the temporary release process to more accurately assess when a breach of temporary release has occurred.  Details of all temporary releases are notified by the Irish Prison Service to all of the agencies concerned with the release of prisoners.

 

A joint protocol has been agreed between An Garda Síochána and the Irish Prison Service in relation to the co-ordination of the receipt and onward transmission of temporary release notifications and the Irish Prison Service and the Probation Service have put in place joint protocols for the management of prisoners on temporary release, who are also subject to Probation supervision.

 

An Garda Síochána will maintain a register of prisoners on temporary release in all relevant Garda stations.  The register will include the terms of the prisoner's temporary release in addition to the signature of the prisoner and the times and dates of signing on.  Again this represents an enhancement of the existing practice.

 

The Garda authorities have confirmed that the apprehension of persons unlawfully at large is, and will continue to be, a priority for them.  The arrangements for notifying the Gardai when a person is unlawfully at large have been significantly strengthened as a result of the joint protocol they have entered into with the Irish Prison Service. This protocol makes provision, in particular, for the IPS to notify the relevant Garda Superintendent when a person is unlawfully at large.  The notification will be undertaken in both electronic and hard copy form.  In addition, the appropriate Garda station will be contacted by the IPS by telephone.

 

An important element of the protocol is that it ensures that regular reviews of prisoners deemed unlawfully at large will taken place involving the Garda authorities and the IPS.  This is a process that has commenced and I have no doubt that it will help to ensure that effective measures are in place to deal with situations where a prisoner is unlawfully at large.

 

I am assured the introduction of all of the above measures will contribute significantly to the reduction of risk in the management of offenders.

 

Communication, information exchange and cohesion between the relevant agencies are identified by Judge Reilly as central to addressing the particular weaknesses identified in the agencies' systems and processes.

 

The recommendations in Judge Reilly’s Report which were designated as ‘immediate’ and have been implemented have significantly advanced the sharing of data and information across the relevant Justice sector agencies.  However, a number of recommendations will more effectively be implemented over the medium term as they require enhancements to the existing information communication technology (ICT) in the individual agencies and enhancement of the ICT inter-connectivity between agencies.

 

The Criminal Justice Interoperability Project (CJIP) was developed in recent years between the Gardai and Courts and facilitates the exchange of summonses and court outcomes in relation to all criminal cases before the District Court.  This system has been operating successfully for over two years and as well as reducing errors and risks, it has also had a very positive impact in reducing duplication of input and thus saving staff time.  This system will now be expanded to include links with the Irish Prison Service and Probation Service.  A feasibility study to consider scope, functionality, implementation timeline and costs has already commenced and that initial phase will be completed in the New Year.

 

The enhancements to the Garda PULSE System and the extension of the Courts Service, Criminal Case Tracking System from the District Court to the Circuit Criminal Court which Judge Reilly identified as desirable will also be advanced in the medium term.

 

The recommendations Judge Reilly made are now largely in place.  The ICT developments being progressed will underpin the manual processes.  While not seeking to minimise the failures which occurred I would point out that thousands of cases are dealt with every day in the courts without difficulty. 

 

I would also point out that, far from any attempt to conceal these events, as long ago as last January I made a public statement outlining that I had appointed Judge Reilly to investigate a matter of grave concern which for legal reasons could not yet be made public.  I also privately briefed the then opposition spokespersons on the circumstances which were then known.  I then published the reports at the earliest opportunity following the conclusion of the trial on Tuesday last.  Following the conclusion of the trial of Martin McDonagh last Tuesday I arranged to have copies of both of the reports furnished to the Keegan Family in advance of publication.

 

By appointing Judge Reilly to independently investigate the circumstances of this case and by quickly establishing the Implementation Group to oversee the implementation of Judge Reilly’s recommendations, I am satisfied that rigorous measures are now in place aimed at ensuring that a breakdown in procedures, such as occurred in this case, does not happen again.  No Minister can stand before this House and give guarantees that systems will not fail; people will make mistakes.  Very serious errors were made in this case, there is no doubt about that.  It is our responsibility to ensure safeguards are in place to reduce the risks involved in a system which processes over 400,000 criminal prosecutions every year.  I can assure this House that my Department is doing everything in its power to address these failings.