I am speaking today on behalf of Minister Alan Shatter who would like to thank the Senators for raising this matter today. This is an important topic which Minister Shatter has been considering alongside the many other reforms of our court systems that are already underway.
Community Courts are locality-focused courts that attempt to harness the power of the justice system to address local problems. They can take many forms, but all focus on creative partnerships and problem solving. They strive to create new relationships, both within the justice system and with external stakeholders such as residents and business community. Such courts are innovative in their approach to public safety and to addressing problems in the communities.
As the Senators will be aware, a number of jurisdictions have developed what are sometimes referred to as ‘problem solving’ courts. Models include ‘community courts’, drug courts and restorative programmes. These courts can vary in character but generally incorporate a combination of sanction for the crime, assistance in rehabilitation and reparation to either the victim or the community in which the offence took place. They combine punishment with help such as drug treatment or mental health counselling.
The community court model in the United States works on the basis that courts should be problem-solving, and should not merely be ‘administering’ justice. In general terms, there are five key elements to the problem-solving approach:
· a tailored approach to justice
· creative partnerships
· informed decision making
· a focus on results
You are, of course, aware that in 2007 the National Crime Council published a report entitled “Problem Solving Justice, the Case for Community Courts in Ireland”. The report examined the position in the United States and in the United Kingdom to see how these courts work in practice and made recommendations for the establishment of a court on a pilot basis. To date, these recommendations have not been implemented; this may have been due, in part, to the fact that such courts are potentially resource intensive.
However, Minister Shatter believes that it is now time to fully explore whether or not Community Courts can be of benefit within the Irish criminal justice system. Minister Shatter is not alone in this view and you will be aware of the recent work of the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Justice, Defence and Equality which held a public consultation process on Community Courts on the 29th of January last. I would like to commend the Committee’s chairman, Mr David Stanton, T.D, for his excellent work in pursuing the idea of a having a Community Court here in Ireland.
Earlier that same day, the Dublin Business Association held a Seminar on Community Courts. Invited international speakers with experience in the establishment and operation of Community Courts participated in both events and their input proved to be very informative. The knowledge gained from those presentations and the surrounding debates will be further considered. It is very beneficial to draw on international experience which can help to broaden insights we might have on what works and what does not work.
The Dublin City Business Association must be commended for its proactive approach and it is also good to know that the business community is open to a partnership approach in dealing with anti-social behaviour in the city centre. Having said that, it is also important to say that generally Dublin City Centre is safe and it is a small number of offenders, usually those with particular problems such as with alcohol or drug abuse, that give rise to a significant portion of the anti-social behaviour. The Community Court approach will provide an integrated problem solving solution to dealing with such repeat offenders and will also provide a rapid response to dealing with the type of one- off offending that can occur in the city such as public order offending.
As already mentioned, I know that Minister Shatter has already been giving this topic some thought. In December 2013, he sought the views of the President of the District Court on his proposal to establish a Community Court in Dublin City Centre and she has indicated that the judiciary is positively disposed towards such an initiative. She also welcomed the opportunity for further judicial engagement in developing an appropriate model in Dublin.
An initial project is envisaged in Dublin city centre operating on a pilot basis where stakeholders will engage in partnership, in conjunction with the local business community, to progress the project. The project must operate in a fully integrated way. I am informed that Minister Shatter is initially suggesting a pilot in the Dublin city centre because he wants to evaluate how the Community Court model will work in the Irish context. It has to be mentioned that not all Community Courts have been a success. Indeed in the recent seminars we heard how where such courts are not successful, it can be difficult to establish exactly why that may be the case. Again the Minister is interested in hearing more about such experiences so that we can analyse the various reasons why they were not successful and benefit from lessons learned.
Minister Shatter believes that appropriate planning is the key to getting an effective court in place. Therefore, before moving to establish the court, a considerable amount of preparatory work needs to be undertaken in collaboration with all stakeholders. In the current climate, each of the stakeholders involved is operating with fewer and fewer resources so the preparation and planning stages of the project are essential to ensure that the resources involved are used effectively. As Minister for Justice and Equality, Minister Shatter is conscious that scarce resources must be used wisely and effectively.
In addition, following the establishment of a pilot project, it would be important to have proper monitoring and robust evaluation so that we can see if the Community Court is delivering the necessary results.
Part of the planning process will involve determining the type of offences and offenders that are suitable to be dealt with by a Community Court model. In its 2007 Report, the National Crime Council considered the type of offences that might be dealt with, such as; drunk in public, disorderly conduct, illegal street trading, certain assault cases, criminal damage, theft, drug use and handling stolen property cases. In line with Minister Shatter’s own thinking, the Council also recommended, in the first instance, that a Community Court be established in the inner city of Dublin to deal with “quality of life” offences. It was recommended that the caseload be built up on an incremental basis. It was also considered essential that all services such as drug and alcohol addiction counselling be available on site. The cooperation of the stakeholders providing the necessary services such as education and health and treatment services will be essential and a full review of the necessary supports that need to be in place will have to be undertaken in consultation with stakeholders.
You will, of course, be aware that we already have a Drug Treatment Court operating in Dublin and this court was designed as an alternative measure for dealing with less serious and non-violent drug offenders. The Drug Treatment Court shares some similar characteristics to the community court model, however, the community court would involve a more integrated response from State Agencies to offending and it also places an emphasis on community restitution.
While a Community Court represents an innovative collaborative approach to dealing with offenders, it is a prerequisite that whatever model is decided upon must conform to Ireland’s Constitutional requirements and must also respect the Constitutional standards of due process.
I mentioned earlier the importance of the planning stage of this project and it will be essential to fully consider:
· what kind of court do we want?
· what types of offences do we want to be dealt with in this way?
· what type of offender can benefit from the Community Court and how should the selection process be managed to ensure effective operation of this resource intensive option.
· where should the court be located – can the necessary facilities be harnessed by coordination measures or do they need to be located in close proximity?
· how should the court be funded – should the exchequer fund the traditional criminal justice aspects of the court’s facilities and should the business community which is advocating the establishment of these types of courts contribute towards the provision of some necessary services such as counselling or mediation?
· would it be desirable to have legislation to underpin the courts’ operations?
I stress again the importance of proper planning and ensuring that the resources which will need to be dedicated to this project by the various stakeholders will used effectively. We also need to ensure that we get the right type of court to deal with the particular issues which need to be addressed in the Dublin city centre area. I know that Minister Shatter looks forward to working with interested stakeholders, including the judiciary, relevant agencies, as well as with the Oireachtas Committee on Justice Equality and Defence in developing this initiative. Further research will be necessary and Minister Shatter intends to request officials in the Department of Justice and Equality and the Courts Service to look at other Community Court models, particularly those operating in similar environments to the Irish justice systems so as to identify the key elements required to establish a successful court in this country.
When the matter has been fully examined, Minister Shatter intends to bring forward proposals on the development of a pilot Community Court in Dublin City Centre.