23rd June 2022
Researchers at University of Limerick (UL) have published Irish Travellers’ Access to Justice, examining the relationship between Travellers and the Irish criminal justice system. The research was conducted over an 18-month period, funded by the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission (IHREC) and the Irish Research Council, and explored the perceptions and experiences of Irish Travellers with the criminal justice process, focusing on relations between the Travelling community, An Garda Siochana, and the judiciary.
The report used an authoritative analysis and made evidence-based recommendations which highlighted the need for radical change. A mixed method approach was implemented with surveys, interviews and focus groups used to capture the lived experience, with a sample size of 1 in every 100 Travellers from 25 out of 26 counties.
Lack of Trust
A key barrier for Travellers to access the criminal justice system in a way which protects their human rights was the lack of trust between the Travelling community, An Garda Siochana, and members of the judiciary. The report showed that Travellers do not trust the Irish criminal justice system to treat them fairly, and that their mistrust is grounded in personal and shared experiences of unsatisfactory and sometimes biased treatment at the hands of criminal justice professionals, as victims and suspects.
Respondents from the Travelling Community explained how ethnic profiling, experiences of garda harassment, threats to abuse power, garda provocation, gardaí deliberately escalating conflict and degrading treatment resulted in damaged relationships between the two parties. The report also noted that Travellers have recounted feeling unsafe when being held in Garda custody. The report finds that the levels of trust that Travellers have in the gardaí is approximately half that of the general population, with these trust levels lower again among Travellers who have been victims of crime.
Engaging with the Criminal Justice Process
The report found that Travellers were vastly overrepresented in prisons in 2021, where they made up of 7.3 per cent of the prison population, but just 0.7% of the general population according to CSO 2016 Census data. Ethnic profiling and derogatory, antagonising behavior have been shown to be some of the reasons that Travellers feel they cannot trust the criminal justice system and the report found that this behaviour commonly occurred when Travellers presented in court. Respondents recounted hearing police, members of the judiciary and judges using discriminatory language at proceedings, which they believed was intended to be degrading. The report also reflected that Travellers felt that prejudice could prevail in criminal proceedings based on the power of the police, and that police had the most power to influence the judge regarding sentencing.
Although most respondents did feel they experienced discrimination within the criminal justice system, there were some respondents who spoke about the support they received from Judges and members of An Garda Siochana when they were found to be experiencing difficult circumstances. One respondent recounted a Judge ruling for the accused to be committed to a rehabilitation facility instead of being remanded in order to address the mental health needs of the defendant. Other respondents also recalled guards pleading their case to the judge, where they were not a ‘menace’ to society. While the report found that Travellers are overrepresented in prisons and are perceived to receive harsher sentences, it was concluded that further research is required to explore the impact of Traveller ethnicity on sentencing practices and imprisonment.
Findings and Recommendations
Drawing on the findings, the research makes extensive evidence-based recommendations, including:
Read the full report on the University of Limerick website here.