Plenary 3: Máiréad Seymour – The Irish Youth Justice System

In Dr. Seymour’s paper she endeavoured to give a brief overview of the Youth Justice System in Ireland as a way of setting the scene for the session. She began by pointing out that developments in this area are relatively new. The Children Act 2001 was the first piece of legislation to deal solely with children since 1908. The 2001 Act has been broadly welcomed but Seymour pointed out the well known problem with its slow implementation. She pointed out that a significant reason behind this delay was the fact that there were a number of departments responsible for children. She went on to add that the Criminal Justice Act 2006 contained several provisions relating to children. This resulted in amendments to some sections of the 2001 Act before they had even been commenced. She then highlighted the fact that a Youth Justice Review took place at the end of 2005 with the Irish Youth Justice System set up in 2006 as a result of this. Seymour pointed out that this conference was timely as the National Youth Strategy 2008-2010 had been published in recent weeks. She concluded her examination of the background of the Irish system by highlighting the dearth and quality of data and research in the area of Youth Justice. However she was confident that this is changing thanks to various third level institutions and interest groups.

Seymour then moved on to point out some of the key aspects of our juvenile justice system. She began by speaking about our age of criminal responsibility which was raised to 12 in the 2001 Act. However, she added that in the 2006 Criminal Justice Act an exception was introduced to charge 10 and 11 year olds with serious offences. The consent of the DPP is required to prosecute a child under the age of 14. Seymour then moved onto explain the Garda Juvenile Diversion Programme. She ran through the eligibility requirements, the responses available and how it all works in practice. She pointed out that the diversion programme has now been extended to 10 and 11 year olds despite the fact that they can only be prosecuted for serious offences at this age as envisaged by the 2006 Act. Garda statistics would indicate that the programme is a resounding success, but Seymour argued that there is limited data and the Garda statistics lack transparency. There are concerns around net widening, the absence of due process that are available in the legal process and the absence of external evaluation. She then briefly reviewed behavioural orders which are a recent addition in Irish law. The breach of this civil order can bring a child into the criminal system but to date no such order has been issued.

Seymour then moved on to the Children’s Court. The 2001 Act has much to say about how these courts should be run. They should take place at a different time and preferably a different place to the normal business of the court to avoid the mixing of juveniles with adult. She pointed out that this is easy in Dublin where there is a dedicated Juvenile Court but more difficult everywhere else. Hearings are in private but if a child is sent forward to the Circuit or Central Criminal Court for trial they may be identified in the media if it is in the public interest. Parents are obliged to be present but often do not come to court. This results in the issue of a bench warrant.

She then highlighted the principles contained in the 2001 Act that form the basis of the system. The child has a right to be heard and to participate, criminal proceedings should not be used to sort out care and protection issues, detention should be a last resort and be for the minimum amount of time possible and the child’s age and maturity should be taken into consideration. She went on to examine some of the sanctions available but emphasised that not all sanctions are in operation due to funding issues. 17 % of cases finalised result in detention. There appears to be a downward trend in the use of custody, but Seymour expressed caution here as the continuous flow of prisoners if counted may give a different result. The main detention facility for those 16 and over is St. Patrick’s Institution. Seymour revealed a statistic that is quite staggering in respect of Pat’s, a third of all detainees are on remand.

She concluded her paper by examining the challenges and issues faced by Ireland. She stressed the need to comply with international standards, the need to co-ordinate the delivery of effective youth justice services and the need to build a knowledge base for youth justice in Ireland.

Summary submitted by LL.M (Criminal Justice) candidate, John Cronin.