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Explainer: Why have just seven ASBOs been issued in Ireland in five years?

While thousands were issued in the UK in the years before they were overhauled recently, the use of Anti-Social Behaviour Orders in Ireland has been minuscule. So are they working and do we still need them? TheJournal.ie investigates…

Protests against the introduction of ASBOs in Ireland by Labour Youth in 2005.
Protests against the introduction of ASBOs in Ireland by Labour Youth in 2005.
Image: Leon Farrell/Photocall Ireland

OVER FIVE YEARS after they were first introduced into law in Ireland just seven anti-social Behaviour Orders (ASBOs) have been imposed in Ireland.

The latest figures up to the end of April this year show that just four have been given to adults while three have been issued in respect of children. That same number for children was reported in November 2010 indicating that no child has been the subject an ASBO in Ireland in the last two years.

Their lack of use by authorities in this country is in sharp contrast to the situation in the UK where the government recently announced an overhaul of the system following widespread criticism of the way they were being used.

So why have so few been used in Ireland? What was the point of them in the first place? And is the government planning to change anything about them? We’ve been finding out…

What is anti social behaviour?

Briefly, anti-social behaviour is defined as being any behaviour where a person causes or is likely to cause one or more persons harassment, significant or persistent alarm, distress, intimidation or fear or significant or persistent impairment of their use or enjoyment of their property.

Examples could be if your neighbour is playing loud music in a way which interferes with your peace and quiet or if large numbers of people are gathered outside or near your property, be it your home or your business and are causing you alarm or distress. More serious cases might be theft and vandalism but these could also theoretically lead to a criminal prosecution.

What is an anti-social behaviour order or ASBO?

An ASBO is a civil order made against a person who is shown to have engaged in some type of the aforementioned behaviour. In Britain they were introduced under the government of Tony Blair in the late 90s as a way in which to address minor yet significant incidents that would not ordinarily see criminal prosecutions.

ASBOs typically lay down certain terms and conditions. For example if your neighbour is indeed playing loud music and an ASBO is issued they would be prohibited from doing so. Breaching the terms of an ASBO could lead to a criminal prosecution.

What is their history in Ireland?

The introduction of ASBOs were part of the Criminal Justice Act,2006, introduced by the then Justice Minister Michael McDowell. The legislation offered different procedures for how orders are handed down to children and adults. The provisions of the Criminal Justice Act set out an incremental approach to addressing anti-social behaviour with an ASBO considered to be a measure of last resort.

At the time of their introduction there was widespread criticism of them from the likes of the Irish Penal Reform Trust (IPRT) and children’s interest groups such as the Children’s Rights Alliance and Youth Work Ireland. Their concern was that ASBOs would be handed out left, right and centre.

“Effectively we thought people would be getting one for hanging around on street corners,” Michael McLoughlin from Youth Work Ireland explained this week, citing worries at the time that ordinary behaviour would be criminalised as a result of ASBOs.

It was not hard to see why given their history in the UK where they were handed out in great numbers for behaviour which ranged from vandalism, theft and harassment to a woman who was forbidden from making excessive noise during sex anywhere in England.

How exactly do they work in this country?

As explained above, the approach in Ireland is very much incremental and the steps taken differ for adults and children.The Criminal Justice Act provides for the issuing of Behaviour Warnings for both adults and children, Good Behaviour Contracts for children and, as a last resort, ASBOs or as they are officially known Behaviour Orders (for a child) and Civil Orders (for an adult).

In the case of adults, the issuing of 0f a behaviour warning means putting a person on notice that their behaviour is causing others in the community distress or fear and is interfering with their enjoyment of their property.

Since the legislation was introduced up to the end of April this year a total of 3,309 behaviour warnings have been issued to adults.

The order is issued by a member of the Gardaí either verbally or in writing and lasts for three months from the date of issue. If a person fails to comply with a behaviour order or has been issued with three or more warnings in less than six consecutive months, then a Garda Superintendent can apply to the District Court for a civil order or an ASBO to be imposed.

If one is imposed by a District Court, you are restricted from doing anything specified in the order and it lasts for two years unless a shorter period is stated in the order. If the order is not complied with, then it is a criminal offence with a fine of up to €3,000 or imprisonment for up to six months.

For children the measures taken to address anti-social behaviour differ. A Garda can issue an anti-social behaviour warning to a child but it must also be served to his or her parent or guardian in writing detailing the type of behaviour and when and where it took place.

Since the legislation was introduced up to the end of April this year a total of 2,121 behaviour warnings have been issued to children.

Similar to a behaviour warning for adults, it lasts for three months from the date of issue. If it is not complied with then a garda officer can ask their superintendent to convene a meeting with the child, his parents or guardians, the garda involved, and a juvenile liaison officer to discuss the matter.

At the meeting a child will be asked to acknowledge his behaviour and undertake to stop it. In this instance a good behaviour contract is drawn up.

There have been just 15 good behaviour contracts drawn up in the last five years according to figures up to the end of April.

These contracts set down promises by the child and their parents or guardians  to change their behaviour. It remains in place for six months but can be extended for a further three months.

If this contract is broken, another meeting can be convened by the superintendent but if he or she does not feel this would be useful in preventing such behaviour they can recommend theat the child go into a juvnile diversion programme or apply to the Children’s Court for an ASBO, also known as a behaviour order.

The order can apply to a child of 12 years or above but only in instances where the court is satisfied that all measures have been exhausted in respect of the good behaviour contract and that the order is is necessary to prevent the child from continuing to behave in they way they have been behaving.

An ASBO issued to a child stays in place for two years and if broken can lead to up to three months in a children’s detentuion school or a fine of up to €800.

So why have there been so few ASBOs issued in Ireland?

There’s no single answer to that question. That just three orders have been handed to juveniles is not necessarily an indication of their lack of success. If anything it could indicate that the fact so few have had to have been issued is an indication of the kind of success the incremental approach has been having.

By contrast our nearest neighbours in the UK had significant and well documented problems with ASBOs to the extent that those who were issued with them in some cases considered them a badge of honour. In one striking example of their ineffectiveness across the water, teenager James Moore was said to have broken court orders nearly 50 times in total which allowed him to stab to death the 16-year-old army cadet Joseph Lappin in Liverpool in October 2008.

When it was revealed in late 2010 that just three ASBOs had been issued to children in Ireland since they came into existence, then Justice Minister Dermot Ahern rejected any suggestion that this was an indication of their lack of success. Rather it showed that they were working.

“I beg to differ with anyone who suggests that because only three orders were granted, this is in some way an indication of a lack of success,” he told the Dáil. ”The principle behind ASBOs is that of an incremental process in order to ensure as much as possible that children are not brought to court. The was to prevent them going to court under a criminal sanction and the graduated approach to ASBOs is to ensure they do not end up in court under another procedure.”

For those who were against the idea opposition remains to their very existence but there is encouragement that so few have been issued, indicating that there has been no heavy-handed approach by authorities. For children’s rights groups the view is similar. Michael McLoughlin from Youth Work Ireland: “They’re withering on the vine, that would be our view on them at the moment.

“There was actually more safeguards brought in here. Initially the proposals were similar to UK but we sought changes to those proposals and changes were given. The watering down meant they were used less.”

The Irish Penal Reform Trust (IPRT) still believes that ASBOs have little impact in changing the behaviour of people engaged in anti-social behaviour as ASBOs label behaviour rather than looking at the causes of it.

When ASBOs first came into law a website was set up called ASBOwatch.ie involving the Children’s Rights Alliance and the IPRT but it hasn’t been updated in three years, showing you the kind of concern interest grpups have with ASBOs right. Very litttle.

McLoughlin cited another reason for such low use: “I think the Gardaí believe they’re not a useful instrument for their work…. they aren’t into them.”

Do the Gardaí not think that ASBOs are very useful then?

What better way to find out then to ask them. Here’s what they told us:

Senior Garda Management is satisfied that a comprehensive policing service continues to be delivered and that current structures in place meet the requirement to deliver an effective and efficient policing service to the community.

Over 5,500 behaviour warnings, adult and child,  have been issued since the introduction of the legislation by An Garda Siochána and it is seen as an effective method of dealing with anti social behaviour

In other words, they’re happy that it is a tool at their disposal even if they’re not employing it all that much. The view is similar at the Department of Justice where there are no plans to review the legislation but like everything the matter is being kept “under review”.

In a statement, the Department said:

These provisions are part of an overall incremental and balanced range of options available to Gardaí, including a very significant range of Youth Justice diversion measures, in formulating appropriate responses to instances of anti-social behaviour.

So ASBOs are here to stay?

Undoubtedly so and with idealogical but little in the way of vocal protest from those who were initially against them it is unlikely that the legislation which provides for ASBOs in Ireland will be looked at in the coming years.

Read: New measures to replace anti-social behaviour orders in England and Wales


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About the author:

Hugh O'Connell

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