169. Deputy Jonathan O'Brien asked the Tánaiste and Minister for Justice and Equality if she is aware of the United Nations Commission on Human Rights' concluding observations on Ireland under the July 2014 International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights that expressed concern at the continuing operation and expansion of the remit of the Special Criminal Court; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [12697/16]
Tánaiste and Minister for Justice and Equality (Deputy Frances Fitzgerald): I firmly believe that trial by jury must be preserved to the greatest extent possible. However the threat posed to the criminal justice process by individuals, terrorist groups and organised criminal groups who seek to intimidate jurors or potential jurors cannot be ignored. Article 38.3.1° of the Constitution allows for the establishment of special courts in accordance with the law in cases where it is considered that the ordinary courts are inadequate to secure the effective administration of justice. Section 38 of the Offences against the State Act 1939 provides for the establishment of Special Criminal Courts. Section 38 of the 1939 Act as amended also provides that the Government may, whenever they consider it necessary or desirable to do so, establish additional Special Criminal Courts as they think fit. It also provides that whenever two or more Special Criminal Courts are in existence the Government may, if and so often as they think fit, reduce the number of such Courts and abolish those existing Courts that appear to be redundant.
Given the considerable length of time it takes for cases to come to hearing in the Special Criminal Court, together with the particular types of offences with which the Special Criminal Court is concerned, last year I sought the necessary Government approval to appoint judges to the Second Special Criminal Court, thereby bringing it into existence. The second Special Criminal Court became operational on 25 April 2016 and sat for the first time on 6 May 2016. Prior to the first sitting of Second Special Criminal Court, the waiting time for the hearing of cases, indicated to be ready for trial, was 24 months. This has now been reduced to 18 months and, as the two Special Criminal Courts continue to sit, the waiting times will continue to reduce.
The establishment of a Second Special Criminal Court does not necessarily mean that more cases will be referred to the Special Criminal Courts but that cases will be dealt with more quickly. The Deputy will be aware that the decision as to whether a particular case will be prosecuted before the Special Criminal Court is a matter for the Director of Public Prosecutions who is, by law, independent of the Government. There have been calls for the abolition of the Special Criminal Court, including by the United Nations Human Rights Committee, but the Government is not prepared to consider such a step at this time.