Ireland and the CRC at 20

This blog post was contributed by Dr Ursula Kilkelly, Co-Director of the CCJHR.

On 20 November 1989 the General Assembly of the United Nations unanimously adopted the Convention on the Rights of the Child. The Convention thus reached its 20th anniversary last month with reviews as to its impact taking place around the world. In Ireland, a party to the Convention since 1992, the Convention’s birthday has also been celebrated. Much progress has been achieved in the implementation of Convention provisions since ratification and many of the reforms can be traced back to the recommendations of the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child, which has reviewed Ireland’s progress in this regard on two occasions – in 1998 and 2006. After a slow start, Ireland adopted the National Children’s Strategy in 2000, established the Office of Ombudsman for Children in 2002 and put in place a longitudinal study on children to better understand children’s lives. Structural reform has seen the appointment of a super-junior Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, with a seat at the cabinet table, and the establishment of a government department dedicated to children’s issues – the Office of the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs. Additional strides in the advancement of children’s issues include the adoption of the National Play Strategy and in youth justice, the adoption of the Children Act 2001, the National Youth Justice Strategy and the establishment of the Irish Youth Justice Service. Many of the advances in the reduction of child poverty, the improvement of special needs education and the modernisation of the youth justice system were possible due to the allocation of increased resources to these areas. The severe economic conditions will undoubtedly see many of these investments rolled back. This is when the legal commitments in the Convention to take all measures to secure all rights to children become especially important.

On the negative side of the balance sheet, there are still many outstanding areas where the Convention has clearly had no or little impact. There is no 24 hour social work service for children at risk and no strategy to combat violence against children; children struggle to access any mental health services; they are rarely heard when the courts decide matters that affect them in family law and criminal proceedings, and there are many especially vulnerable groups of children – separated children, Traveller children and children who are homeless – who struggle to enjoy even the most basic of human rights. These barriers include a lack of investment, a failure to provide dedicated supports and services for children and a general invisibility of children in the making of law and policy. As research for the Ombudsman for Children showed in 2007, there are still many significant barriers in the way of children realising their Convention rights in Irish law, policy and practice.

More generally, the question still remains as to whether the Government and indeed Irish society have really engaged with the idea that individual children are autonomous rights-holders. Given that two decades have passed since the Convention was adopted, can we say with confidence that we take children’s rights seriously? In this regard, the Committee on the Rights of the Child recently reiterated its criticism that Irish law and policy does not reflect the rights-based approach set out in the Convention; nor are children heard in decisions that affect them. Critical to the development of a children’s rights culture is the integration into law and policy of the Convention’s guiding principles – the best interests principle, non-discrimination and the child’s right to be heard. Yet, notwithstanding the recommendations of numerous bodies, and the commitment of former Taoiseach Bertie Ahern over two years ago to put the child at the heart of the Irish Constitution, proposals for meaningful constitutional reform are still outstanding. This, above all else, is a very worrying sign that regardless of our international commitments and daily reminders of the appalling treatment that children received in our name, the Government is not willing to take the ultimate step to ensure that children’s rights will no longer be ignored or underplayed.

Semi-Plenary II – Policing, Accountability and Youth Justice

This second of two semi-plenary sessions comprised a presentation by Niamh McKeague of the Garda Siochána Ombudsman Commission (GSOC) followed by a Q&A; session from the floor with Ms. McKeague and Michael O’Neill BL, Legal Advisor to the GSOC. The session was chaired by Sophie McGuinness of the Office of the Ombudsman for Children.

Ms. McKeague began by outlining the functions and processes of the GSOC as provided for by the Garda Síochána Act 2005. The GSOC began to operate in May 2007 and can consider complaints relating to Garda conduct (including breach of discipline), investigate any practice, policy or procedure of the Gardaí with a view to reducing the level of complaints relating thereto, and consider matters referred by either the Garda Commissioner or the Minister for Justice.
After outlining the remit, functions and processes of the GSOC Ms. McKeague proceeded to provide a number of statistics about the Commission’s work up to the end of January 2008. From its establishment to the end of January 2008 the Commission had received over 2000 complaints, just under 2% of which had come from children and young people. The Act provides that a complaint may be made by any member of the public and does not impose any age-related standing requirements for complainants, therefore children are eligible to submit complaints to the commission. It was on the appropriate way to deal with such complaints, and the particular challenges arising therefrom, that the remainder of the presentation focused. More information on the GSOC is available here.

Ms. McKeague firstly considered the challenge of deciding on the definition of ‘child’ for the purposes of the GSOC – although the Act does not prohibit children from complaining, it does not offer any substantive guidance on the particular challenges connected thereto. Having considered the various ages by which childhood is defined in different instruments (UNCRC – 18; Non Fatal Offences against the Person Act 1997 – 16;12 for criminal responsibility) the GSOC decided to treat all complainants under the age of 18 as child complainants in order to ensure that, as much as possible, potentially vulnerable complainants would be identified and appropriately dealt with. In this connection she also noted the commitment of GSOC to providing appropriate training to GSOC staff and the cooperation between GSOC and the Office of the Ombudsman for Children in equipping the GSOC to deal with child complainants.

Ms. McKeague then addressed two particular challenges to the GSOC in dealing with child complaints. The first related to information and the provision of information to certain parties once a complaint had been lodged. She noted the importance of making it clear to child complainants that GSOC can not guarantee the absolute confidentiality of complaints, particularly since s. 103 requires that all interested parties be kept informed about the progress and results of an investigation. In this context, interested parties might, she reflected, sometimes include parents of the child complainant. The issues surrounding information are further complicated by s. 81 of the Act which prohibits the disclosure of information to anyone where such disclosure may have a harmful effect. Although certain bodies are exempted from causing harmful effect through receipt of information, the HSE and parents are not included in this list. Thus, the investigators must make a case by case determination of whether or not disclosure of information to a non-exempted party such as parents or the HSE might have a harmful effect and advise the individual commissioners in each case as to whether or not they can sanction release of information. The disclosure of information in violation of s. 81 can result in criminal sanctions and can therefore cause significant difficulties for investigators working in the GSOC.

Ms. McKeague also considered the difficulties relating to duty of care. While all parties accept that there is a duty of care to children, certain structures involve numerous actors all of which may have a duty of care but where there is no clear delineation of whether one party’s duty stops and another’s begins. In this context she referred specifically to the area of child protection and the Children First strategy in which parents, the HSE and an Garda Síochána are all relevant actors. Children First has been incorporated into the Garda code, therefore a question arises as to whether or not a member could be investigated for and found to have engaged in dereliction of duty for not acting in a particular way in relation to a child and the difficulties that would pose in a situation where there is no clear delineation of duties between the three main actors.

Finally Ms. McKeague reflected on the usefulness of meaningful communication and co-operation between GSOC and various different bodies in developing a policy relating to child complainants and considering the manner in which the questions that arise in the early stages a new scheme can be resolved in a manner that ensures the paramouncy of the child’s best interests.

The Q&A; session involved a fruitful exchange between the representatives of the GSOC and delegates from Include Youth (Edel Quinn), Children’s Law Centre (Paddy Kelly), Finglas Child and Adolescent Centre (Colette Walsh), the Bar (Mary Ellen Ring SC), and the Ombudsman for Children, Emily Logan.