Exploring the socio-spatial side of justice

This blog post relates to postdoctoral research currently being conducted by Gill Harold within the Centre for Criminal Justice and Human Rights at the Faculty of Law, University College Cork, Ireland. The research is being funded by the Irish Research Council and is entitled ‘Exploring the Experiences of Deaf Victims in the Spaces and Processes of the Irish Criminal Justice System’.

As a social geographer, my interest in this area was awakened in 2011 when I worked as project researcher on a study funded by the National Disability Authority entitled Access to Justice for People with Disabilities as Victims of Crime (Edwards, Kilcommins and Harold, 2012). In the context of that research, I was introduced to the principle of orality as a central tenet of the adversarial process in common law jurisdictions such as Ireland; the implication of this principle sees emphasis placed on the spoken word and oral testimony. Within adversarial proceedings, the ability to articulate one’s case well is highly significant. Proficiency in spoken (and written) communication is important for providing statements to the police about incidents, for the preparation of victim impact statements, and for liaising with professionals in criminal justice agencies. This system clearly benefits the witness who is capable of articulating their case well.

Concurrent with my involvement on that research project, I was in the process of preparing my doctoral thesis which was centrally-concerned with the manner in which notions of a homogenous hearing public are imagined and reproduced in the social construction of urban space. In that work, and later in this Environment and Planning D: Society and Space paper, I engaged closely with the concept of phonocentrism, a philosophical argument often associated with the work of Derrida, which sustains the view that the spoken word is the ultimate form of communication, and in so doing I considered the ways in which we see this replicated across urban spaces and the implications for culturally Deaf citizens whose first language is Sign Language. For me, the implications of phonocentrism clearly resonated with the underpinnings of adversarialism with its implicit orality. It also became apparent that relatively little attention has been granted to the experiences of Deaf victims in a manner that fully reflects the cultural and linguistic tenets of Deaf identities. I began to wonder whether or not, and indeed how, the spaces of the criminal justice process are a microcosm of public space and as such, socially constructed in ways which assume and prioritise hearing-ness, but in a way that is exacerbated by the tenets of adversarialism and the sets of behaviours instilled in the expectations of criminal justice professionals, the judiciary and other actors such as jurors and witnesses themselves. I was also prompted to consider articulateness, and the question of who do we deem to be articulate in contemporary society? What forms of expression, and indeed what ontological positions, have come to be culturally sanctioned? In what ways are those whose first language is sign language compromised by the critically unstable, yet largely unchallenged, conflation of language and speech.

While the issue of orality has been recognised as posing a challenge to a broader category of the victim constituency, including victims with disabilities, this research is focusing specifically on access for Deaf victims. Significantly, Irish Sigh Language is not recognised in the Republic of Ireland, either officially or constitutionally. For most members of the Deaf community in Ireland, which numbers approximately 5,000 people, Irish Sign Language is their first language. This research explores whether or not the emphasis on the spoken word in adversarialism has implications which compromise the levels of access afforded to Deaf victims as they seek justice. The research critically evaluates the spaces and processes of the Irish criminal justice system from Deaf-centric perspectives. It explores policy innovations and regulatory frameworks in other common law jurisdictions to contextualise direct engagement with members of the Irish Deaf community, regarded as a linguistic and cultural minority, to uncover the perspectives that are rooted in community perceptions of the Irish legal system from victims’ viewpoints. The research is also concerned with the views of key stakeholders, including criminal justice professionals and victim support advocates, as well as looking towards the Victims Charter of 2010 to determine the extent to which those organisations that stated commitments are aware of the specific communicative requirements of Deaf victims and whether or not this is reflected in their existing policy/provision.

Essentially, this research is concerned with the socio-spatial context in which the Irish criminal justice system operates. It is interested in the spaces of justice such as Garda (police) stations and courtrooms, and the manner in which expectations and assumptions about “normal” communication are embedded in the social fabric, and how they inform encounters between Deaf victims and other criminal justice actors.

For more information about this research, all contact welcome to g.harold@ucc.ie