When it comes to the legal system, Ireland has often followed the trends of the United States – albeit five to 10 years behind.
That may be changing, however, with the advent of social media and movements such as #MeToo, according to Dr. Shane Kilcommins, head of the Law School at the University of Limerick in Ireland.
Dr. Kilcommins crossed the Atlantic to represent the University of Limerick at SUNY Broome’s Transfer Day on Nov. 1, as well as the Fall Open House. On Nov. 2, he spoke to a range of Criminal Justice & Emergency Services classes about victims, the public interest and the criminal process.
SUNY Broome currently has a partnership with Limerick, and is working on transfer pathways in criminal justice, music and mathematics, along with others in the planning phase, according to Andrea Roma, acting chair of the college’s Outreach programs. The university, located in western Ireland, is SUNY Broome’s first international partnership.
“We’re the only community college the University of Limerick is working with for these kind of agreements,” Roma said.
During his lecture to CJES students, Dr. Kilcommins charted the transformation of western law from an exculpatory model, in which victims themselves took cases to court and the accused was required to speak, to a more centralized system in which the state prosecutes and investigates crime.
The changes developed in tandem with an increasingly urbanized and industrialized society, he noted. They also removed victims from the central role in the legal process, which became increasingly the province of lawyers and afforded the accused a fuller range of rights.
These shifts also effectively removed emotion from the criminal process, and afforded victims little role outside of reporting crimes or serving as witnesses. But little by little since the end of World War II, the role of the victim has increased in the legal process. Mass surveys on victimization gathered essential research in the United States in the 1970s, Wales in the 1980s and Ireland in the 1990s, he said.
Social media and the #MeToo movement represents a further development, in which the role of the victim is central. Ireland experienced its own version of #MeToo last spring, following the trial of four men in Belfast accused of rape after a party. Following a jury trial, all were found not guilty. During the trial, the woman involved in the case was repeatedly cross-examined by the men’s attorneys.
Thousands protested in the streets, and engaged in a social media trend using the hashtag #IBelieveHer – and, for those of different opinion, #IBelieveHim.
Hashtags and social media allow people to organize in public spaces, and give people more opportunity for engagement in the public sphere, Dr. Kilcommins noted. But they can also fly in the face of the presumption of innocence – part of the Irish legal system as well as the American. And in the Irish system as well as the American one, juries are given two choices: guilty or not guilty. A not guilty verdict doesn’t necessarily mean that the accused is believed to be innocent; rather, it may simply indicate that the case wasn’t proved beyond a reasonable doubt.
CJES students asked Dr. Kilcommins a range of questions about the differences between Irish and American law, and the perception of the American court system in the wake of the contentious confirmation of Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh. Decisions by the U.S. Supreme Court were historically taken seriously in Ireland, which often followed with similar decisions. In recent years, the U.S. Supreme Court has held less weight internationally because it is viewed as overly politicized, he said.
Students also asked about the impact of terrorism on Irish law. The country has a lengthy history of terrorism connected to the Irish Republican Army and its efforts. The decades of conflict resulted in two parallel legal systems – one that deals with regular crime and the Special Criminal Court, focused on terrorism, which involves non-jury trials and lengthy detention.
Even when the terrorism threat has abated, authorities were unwilling to give up that second legal system, which became applied to different groups, such as gangs. Once such a system is established, it’s difficult to dissolve, Dr. Kilcommins said.
“It becomes normalized,” he said.