Although the leading and better resourced sports organisation in the (Republic of) Ireland already have detailed polices in place regarding child safety and protection, the proposed requirements detailed this week in the heads of the Children First Bill, which can be accessed here, are likely to prove onerous for smaller sports organisations.
What follows is a summary of the main proposals.
First, the overarching policy objectives of the proposed Children First Bill is the raising of awareness of child abuse, the recognition and reporting of child abuse, and the management of child safety concerns.
The vast majority of organisations providing services to children will come under the proposed legislation, ranging from large statutory agencies to small local services such as a local Hip Hop dance club. Some of these agencies are in receipt of State funding and have a formal relationship with the State; many others operate independently. There is currently no requirement for agencies/organisations providing services to children to notify the State of their services. (All such agencies in ROI should, however, be operating in accordance with the good practice principles set down in Children First: National Guidance for the Protection and Welfare of Children
It follows that the majority of organisations whose employees or volunteers have access to children, or work directly with children, and where a child can attend without a parent or guardian will come under the proposed Children First legislation. Again, these are organisations ranging from professional well-established organisations such as educational institutions and national sporting organisations to the more ad hoc community groups that arrange local sporting or leisure activities for children.
The latter include schools, pre-schools, health and social care facilities delivering services to children and An Garda Síochána, to faith based organisations, sports and youth clubs and arts and leisure organisations. Such organisations will include those with a residential element for children and transport services provided specifically for children e.g. the school bus service.
It must be noted that the definition of “volunteer” is not intended to include a person’s involvement in a school run, or collecting children from sports events, or parents supervising their own children’s activities with friends or any such like activities.
To reiterate, the underlying purpose of the legislation is to ensure that children are protected while present at, or availing of the services of, an organisation falling within its scope.
Centrally, under the proposed legislation sports organisation will now have a statutory duty to develop and implement a child protection and reporting protocol in accordance with the guidelines provided by the legislation and relevant government agencies.
For instance, sports organisations will be asked to appoint a “Designated Officer” to ensure that there is a single and clearly identifiable point of authority and responsibility relating to child safeguarding within the organisation; and to ensure the proper implementation of the proposed legislation and including the maintenance of records and responsibility for staff vetting and training in recognising the signs of abuse and/or neglect.
The proposed legislation is to provide that an employee or volunteer of an organisation is to report to the Designated Officer any concerns or allegations of child abuse which come to their attention in the course of their employment, i.e. the obligation to report arises if the concern or allegation comes to the employee’s knowledge while they are engaged in the activities of the organisation
Where an employee fails to report any concern or allegation which should have been reported under the legislation that employee must be treated in accordance with labour legislation and where a volunteer fails to report any concern or allegation, he or she may be prohibited from working as a volunteer in that organisation, at the discretion of the Designated Officer following an enquiry and having regard to fair procedures.
The controlling regulatory body under the Bill will be the Irish Health Service Executive (HSE). Where the HSE is of the opinion that there is occurring or likely to occur an activity which involves or is likely to involve a risk to a child in the organisation, the HSE may give written directions to the Designated Officer, requiring him/her to provide an Improvement Plan e.g., an outline of remedial action to be taken by the club or organisation.
Where the HSE is of the opinion that there is occurring or is likely to occur a failure to implement child protection policies which involve, or is likely to involve, a risk to the safety or welfare of a child the HSE may serve a Prohibition Notice on the Designated Officer of that organisation.
A Prohibition Notice is to inform the organisation that the HSE is of the opinion that there is occurring or is likely to occur a failure to implement child protection policies which involves, or is likely to involve, a risk to the safety or welfare of a child and the reasons for that opinion. The Notice is also to specify the activity in respect of which that opinion is held, where in its opinion the activity involves a contravention, or likely contravention, of any of the relevant statutory provisions, and specify the relevant statutory provision(s).
A Prohibition Notice may prohibit the carrying on of the activity concerned until the matters which give rise, or are likely to give rise to the risk, are remedied. The Prohibition Notice may include directions as to the measures to be taken to remedy any contravention or matter to which the notice relates or to otherwise comply with the Notice e.g., withdrawal of state funding or even, it seems, ultimately, the shutting down of the club.
A Designated Officer, on receipt of a Prohibition Notice may appeal against the Notice to the District Court. In determining the appeal the Judge may confirm, vary or cancel the Notice.
Where an Improvement Notice or a Prohibition Notice is served, the notice is to be brought to the attention of any persons affected by the notice and displayed in a prominent place in the organisation.
This week also saw the release in Dublin of details on the so-called Criminal Justice (Withholding of Information on Offences against Children and Vulnerable Persons) Bill 2012.
This Bill establishes in Irish law an offence of withholding information in relation to specified offences committed against a child or vulnerable person. The offence arises where a person knows or believes that a specified offence has been committed against a child or vulnerable person and he or she has information which would be of material assistance in securing the apprehension, prosecution or conviction of another person for that offence and fails without reasonable excuse to disclose that information as soon as it is practicable to do so to a member of the Garda Síochána.
A “vulnerable person” is defined as a person who is suffering from either a mental, intellectual or physical disability which is of such a nature as to severely restrict the capacity of that person to guard against serious exploitation or abuse or, in the case of physical disability, to report such to the Garda Síochána.
The maximum penalty under the proposed legislation is five years’ imprisonment. It must be noted that the Bill provides for various defences e.g., if a child or vulnerable person against whom the offence was committed makes it known that they do not want the offence to be reported to the Garda Síochána, though the person accused of an offence under this Bill must show that they knew and relied on that view. In addition, the Bill acknowledges that certain victims may not have the capacity to make their views as to disclosure or otherwise known.
Therefore, a rebuttable presumption that a child under 14 does not have capacity to form a view as to whether the offence or information relating to it should be disclosed to the Garda Síochána is included. Similarly, a rebuttable presumption as to the lack of capacity of a vulnerable person is included.
Finally, the obligations that might be imposed by the above are no doubt onerous on sports organisation, especially those of a smaller scale; nevertheless, The frequency, source, denials and trauma associated with child abuse in Ireland in recent times has been a national shame. This proposed legislation is a small start in ensuring that it never happens again. Sport is not immune and the debate on both Bills in the Oireachtas should be monitored closely by all of Irish sport.
Dr. Jack Anderson lectures in law at Queen’s University Belfast. He had published widely on the topice of sports law, most recently, a book entitled The Legality of Boxing (Routledge, 2007). He is a qualified arbitrator, being a Fellow of the Chartered Institute of Arbitrators, and is a member of both the UK Sports Dispute Resolution Panel and the GAA’s Dispute Resolution Authority. Originally from Limerick, his interest in sport is principally, but not exclusively, in hurling and rugby. You can read Dr Anderson’s blog here: http://blogs.qub.ac.uk/sportslaw/