The presumption of innocence

I spoke yesterday at a conference co-hosted by the School of Social Sciences and Law at Dublin Institute of Technology, which was organised by Dr. Claire Hamilton.

The conference examined the current status of the presumption of innocence in Irish law, something Dr. Hamilton has written about this in a book published by Irish Academic Press and elsewhere. Mr Jimmy Martin, Assistant Secretary at the Department of Justice, gave an interesting historical perspective on the changing nature of the Irish criminal justice system and crime. Understanding the history of changes in criminal justice policy rewards those who undertake such a task significantly. Without an understanding of the context of change and, in particular, the politics and personalities involved, analysis of the nature of any change is inevitably limited.

Dr. Hamilton took up this theme also when proposing reasons for what she considers to be a significant and continuing erosion of the presumption of innocence. Amongst other reasons, she considered the influence of the Northern Troubles to be important. I have seen this also in relation to prison policy. The early 1970s was a period of major change in Irish prison policy. The prison system developed a much greater emphasis on security, but there were also more diffuse effects, including a greater secrecy and defensiveness amongst prison policy-makers. I am amazed that there has not been more examination of these effects on Irish criminal justice as I think it is both an obvious and untold story of our history.

Dr. Hamilton also stressed the importance of understanding national-level factors when analysing criminal justice policy. I think this is absolutely correct and essential, though it provides a direct challenge to publishers, funders and academics who emphasise the transnational perspective. I make this point in a review of Michael Tonry’s Thinking about Punishment in which Tonry also advocates for this country-level approach within criminology.

I also enjoyed Dr. Michael Naughton’s views on the presumption, particularly his argument that the presumption of innocence may actually militate against the accused as it has been subject to so many qualifications and has given rise to so many ways of facilitating the prosecution. His provocative opinions about defence counsel, their resources and their expertise were also memorable!

I reflect on the topic of my own paper in a separate entry. Well done to all involved on organising a genuinely interesting and thought-provoking day.

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The presumption of innocence

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