Children (Amendment) Bill 2020

First Stage: 6 Nov 2020
Oireachtas Link:

Bill entitled an Act to amend the Children Act, 2001 to permit the publication and broadcasting of reports and images identifying or likely to identify persons accused or convicted in proceedings for certain offences against children and to provide for related matters.

Ivana's Contributions

Report and Final Stages: 19/04/2021

I welcome the Minister to the House. I welcome the news that this Bill is due to pass today and will be brought into effect, as the Minister said, for 3 May. That will be a major relief for the many who have been so distressed by the anomalies and unintended consequences, as we have heard, brought about by the interpretation of the Children Act. I commend Senator McDowell and his colleagues on bringing forward the amending legislation so quickly and swiftly. While the Senator said that the progress through the Houses was somewhat slow, it has been relatively speedy and that is really welcome. On behalf of the Labour Party, I very much welcome it.

I also thank the Minister more generally for her engagement, not just with Senator McDowell on this Bill, but with many of us in opposition on different Private Members' Bills. That has been a real strength, if I may say, of the legislative process over recent months. I thank her for her engagement with the Labour group in this House on the Born Here Belong Here campaign and reform of citizenship law. I also thank her for her engagement with my colleague, Deputy Howlin, on his Harassment, Harmful Communications and Related Offences Act 2020, or Coco's law, which we were also glad to see come into effect.

I ask the Minister to take note of reports at the weekend, in particular the piece in Saturday's edition of The Irish Times by Jennifer O'Connell, recounting the experience of a young University College Cork, UCC, law student, Alicia O'Sullivan, who was a victim of image-based sexual abuse and identity theft, effectively. She reported the matter to the Garda under Coco's law and, unfortunately, did not receive a very empathetic or helpful reception.

It reminds us that it is not only about passing legal reforms to assist victims but also the need for training for members of the Garda, particularly front-line members who are taking reports from individuals where offences have been committed or allegedly committed. While training for the Garda is hugely important, so too are public awareness campaigns in order that people generally, as well as police, are aware that new laws such as Coco's law have come into effect and are aware that the sort of behaviour that Alicia O'Sullivan had to bring to the Garda's attention is a criminal offence. The report in the newspaper recounted that the social media host, which was Instagram, reacted swiftly but, of course, that is not always the case. Clearly, where criminal offences of this magnitude are involved, the Garda needs to take the matter much more seriously than they appeared to have done. While my party welcomes the passage of this legislation and welcomed Coco's law, I ask the Minister that consideration be given to a public awareness campaign on Coco's law and to training for members of the Garda.

Second Stage: 15/02/2021

I welcome the Minister to the House. On behalf of the Labour Party I welcome this important Bill, which we are glad to support, and I commend Senator McDowell and his colleagues for bringing it forward so swiftly after the judgment was delivered in the Court of Appeal on 29 October 2020. Senator McDowell had this Bill in with us in the first week of November. Other Oireachtas Members, including Deputy O'Callaghan, also brought forward legislation to deal with what others have rightly described as this unforeseen consequence.

I was struck by Senator Seery Kearney's point on the wording of section 252 of the Children Act. Reading it before this line of case law, one might well have thought that subsection (2) would have governed against this interpretation but, in any case, that is to revisit perhaps a previous reading. We have the very clear words now of Mr. Justice Birmingham. We do need to move legislatively to address these words and ensure the terrible injustice that has resulted for bereaved parents is not allowed to continue. The Minister has spoken very eloquently about this and all of us have been deeply moved by those who have come forward through the media to describe the pain and trauma of being faced with this consequence whereby the wishes of victims and families of victims are not respected, and where people are left voiceless.

I want to speak briefly about our views of victims in the criminal law more generally. I know we will be able to parse the detailed provisions of the Bill on Committee Stage, and I am glad we will be able to do so, but we should see it as fitting within a general package of reforms to give victims more of a voice in our criminal justice system. I am really glad the Minister announced on foot of the O'Malley report into the review of law and sexual offences that she will look at giving complainants more of a voice through sex offence trials. Many years ago, along with colleagues in Trinity College, I did a report with the Dublin Rape Crisis Centre on the legal process and victims of rape, as a result of which we recommended separate legal representation for complainants in rape cases where applications were made by the defence in the absence of the jury to bring forward evidence of prior sexual history. It is a recommendation that is now established in our law through the Sex Offenders Act 2001. It is something that the Gillen report in Northern Ireland looked at very closely and made recommendations on foot of it, and we will see change there also.

The Bill is part of a number of ways in which we moved to look at how we can encompass more of a voice for victims in our criminal justice system, without encroaching unduly of course on the rights of the defence. This came home to me last night again looking at a programme about Gerry Ryan's life. On his radio show he gave a voice to Lavinia Kerwick, who so bravely came forward in the early 1990s. Her voiced experience of being the anonymous complainant in a rape trial gave rise to the introduction in 1993 of the victim impact statement, which has made a huge difference in practice in our criminal courts and has enabled victims to feel they have more of a voice in the process. Of course, it took some time, however, for it to be recognised that the families of victims of homicide also needed that voice.

The legislation had not adequately addressed that. Indeed, a sort of practice had built up among trial judges of allowing families of victims of homicide to speak about the impact the homicide had on them. That change was made in 2010. So we are learning and this legislation is part of that process of learning.

I want to speak briefly on a number of other points arising from this Private Members' Bill and the context in which it was brought forward. Others have spoken about the need for careful scrutiny of legislation, particularly criminal justice legislation. That is absolutely true and clearly exemplified by the case law we have now seen on section 252. The 2001 Act itself was heavily scrutinised. It was seen as a major reforming piece of law relating to children at the time. I have to say that subsequently, it was somewhat shambolic in the way in which it was commenced. I recall at the time, as a practitioner, representing children as young as eight and nine years of age before the criminal courts. We all eagerly anticipated the change in the age of criminal responsibility which the 2001 Act was supposed to usher in. It did not happen in the end and the provision lay dormant. It was finally amended in 2006 and only brought into law in July 2007. There were a lot of well-meaning reforms but due to a lot of difficulty with their commencement, it was brought in somewhat in a piecemeal way. Again, this raised the need for codification to ensure we have a very clear body of criminal statute law and of law relating to children, in particular. If we have piecemeal reform, the danger is that provisions are not parsed properly, unforeseen consequences occur and we see developments occurring as we have seen with section 252.

I will finish by thanking the Minister for her engagement with members of the Opposition on a number of Bills, including this one. I thank her for her engagement with Deputy Howlin on important pieces of law relating to children's rights and young adults, particularly Coco's law. I thank her for engagement with me and my Labour Party colleagues on the Born Here Belong Here campaign, which seeks to amend citizenship law for children born in Ireland to parents who are not Irish citizens. It is very important that we continue to engage. I thank the Minister for her willingness to do so constructively with those of us in opposition.