Today Dermot Ahern published the Criminal Justice (Amendment) Bill 2009.  It’s the latest in a series of changes to criminal justice laws here in Ireland that have been published in the last couple of weeks.

Last month the minister published the Criminal Procedure Bill 2009 with removes the Double Jeopardy rule, under which a person cannot be tried twice for an offence for which they have been acquitted.  Under the proposed legislation there will be three exceptions to the rule; where new evidence becomes available, where a trial was “tainted” by intimidation of witnesses and perjury and where a judge gave a mistaken ruling on a point of law which subsequently led to an acquittal.

It’ll be very interesting to see if any familiar faces appear again in court if this legislation is passed.  There have been a couple of high profile murder acquittals in the past couple of years which I’m sure the gardai and the DPP would love to revisit if they can.

Today’s publication deals with another highly contentious issue – that of organised crime.  With gang violence a major problem in modern Ireland, gangland murder trials have become a fairly common occurrence.  You can always tell when there’s one coming up on a Monday morning because Court 1 suddenly has a garda checkpoint outside it and everyone’s bags are checked and pockets emptied.

Defendants like Gary Campion, convicted in April of the murder of “Fat” Frankie Ryan.  Campion is connected with the Dundon McCarthy gang in Limerick and was convicted in November 2007 of the murder of bouncer Brian Fitzgerald. Both these trials took place in Cloverhill Courthouse, a court where increased security is easier to arrange than in the historic Four Courts complex.

Under the new bill, which the Minister hopes to get passed into law before the Dail rises for the summer, those accused of gang crime, where there was a major problem with witnesses or juries being intimidated, could be tried by judge alone in the Special Criminal Court.

At the moment, the Special Criminal Court is reserved for paramilitary or terrorist crimes.  The idea of extending it’s use to include those involved in criminal gangs is not a new one.  Previous justice minister Michael McDowell had mooted it and there have been one or two of these cases tried there already.

In 1996, Brian Meehan, the only person tried for the murder of journalist Veronica Guerin, was convicted to life in the Special Criminal Court.   But there has always been a lot of opposition to the idea on the basis of civil liberties.  Almost as soon as it was published the Irish Council for Civil Liberties accused the bill of “trampling on the rule of law”.

I’ve heard arguments on both sides for the use of the Special Criminal.  I must admit though that when you’ve sat through a trial where witness after witness will barely admit to their name on the stand or changes their story at the last minute it’s easy to see the sense in a trial where gardai will be permitted to give evidence of what was claimed in these cases.  After all, is there that big a difference between some of the trials that have gone through the Special for those members of an “illegal organisation” and the facts of some of the cases that now take place under the gangland banner.

I remember being taught about the Diplock courts when I studied in Northern Ireland.  We were told that all offences that involved firearms were treated as “scheduled offences” and could be tried in the Diplocks.

I’m sure that we’ll hear all the arguments for and against the changes in the law when the legislation is debated in the next few weeks.  It’ll be a very interesting one to keep an eye on.