Minister defends decision to review rather than amend legislationWednesday 20 January 2016 11.54
The Minister for Justice has defended her decision to review rather than amend legislation that allows some State agencies access phone records without a warrant.
Speaking to journalists this evening, Minister Frances Fitzgerald said the situation was complex, as the debate in Europe about accessing travel data showed.
Ms Fitzgerald said a number of agencies were involved and there were a number of relevant pieces of legislation, the most recent introduced under Fianna Fáil by Dermot Ahern.
She said she had met with the chair of the Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission, Judge Mary Ellen Ring, this morning to discuss the situation but stressed that the agency was independent of Government.
Ms Fitzgerald has appointed former chief justice John Murray to review legislation in the area.
He will report back within three months and his review will cover access to phone records by the gardaí, the Defence Forces and the Revenue Commissioners, who can all obtain the information under current law.
Earlier, Cabinet backed an independent investigation into the accessing of three journalists' telephone records by GSOC.
Under new powers given to it last year, GSOC may access journalists' personal phone records if necessary as part of investigation.
It was recently reported that GSOC accessed the telephone records of three journalists without their knowledge or consent.
This follows complaints about media reports on the death of the model Katy French in 2007 and also media reports on the arrest of Independent TD Clare Daly, who was cleared of suspected drink-driving and found to be below the legal limit.
Ms Fitzgerald initiated a review of the matter while Taoiseach Enda Kenny has said there is a difference between situations of national security and other incidents, and indicated that the legislation may be reformed to reflect that.
Speaking in the Dáil this evening, Ms Daly criticised Ms Fitzgerald's decision.
Ms Daly said all citizens have the right to privacy and called on Ms Fitzgerald to extend the review beyond examining journalists.
She added that "privacy and human rights are deserved by all."
Independent review will not change FF motion
Fianna Fáil’s Justice spokesperson has said the decision to hold an independent review will not change his party’s intention of putting forward a motion on the issue in the Dáil.
Niall Collins said nobody is above the law, including journalists, but that the independence and freedom of the press must be maintained.
Speaking on RTÉ's News at One, Mr Collins said there is no clarity around the test that GSOC apply in deciding whether or not to take a particular course of action.
He said the bill Fianna Fáil intends to put forward will require GSOC to make an application to the High Court for authorisation to access personal phone records.
He said the bill would state that journalists must be informed of any such action and be allowed to make a submission in relation to any concerns they might have.
He said the Government's plan of an independent review is a way of dodging the issue and kicking the can down the road.
Earlier, Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform Brendan Howlin said a balance must be struck to ensure that "a free press was not trammelled in any way".
He said the situation in the UK should be examined where phone records of journalists can only be accessed via a judge's order.
A spokesperson for GSOC said it would not be commenting.
NUJ calls for support to amend law
The National Union of Journalists has called for support to amend the law which allows GSOC to access phone records.
The Irish Council for Civil Liberties and Garda representative bodies have also expressed concern.
A former press ombudsman has said that a judge or person with very senior legal experience should decide on whether GSOC can access a journalist’s phone records.
Speaking on RTÉ’s Morning Ireland, Professor John Horgan said the power appears to have been given to GSOC without stopping to think who should govern that power.
"I don't see that the people who are going to do the interception are the right people to make the judgement about whether this is in the public interest or not," he said.
Prof Horgan added that much stricter and stronger conditions should apply and that prior approval should be sought rather than a retrospective review.
Elsewhere, the Irish Council for Civil Liberties criticised the Government for limiting its review of the law allowing access to phone records.
The ICCL said it welcomed the appointment of former chief justice John Murray, but criticised the limitation of his review to the law as it affected journalists.
The body's executive director Mark Kelly warned that the oversight shortcomings that the review would identify would not be confined to cases where the data belonged to members of the media.