Private Members' Business. - An Bille um an gCúigiú Leasú Déag ar an mBunreacht, 1995: An Dara Céim (Atógáil). Fifteenth Amendment of the Constitution Bill, 1995: Second Stage (Resumed).

Tuesday, 3 October 1995

Dáil Éireann Debate
Vol. 456 No. 3

First Page Previous Page Page of 140 Next Page Last Page

Atairgeadh an Cheist: “Go léifear an Bille an Dara hUair.”

Question again proposed: “That the Bill be now read a Second Time.”

Mr. Ring: Information on Michael Ring  Zoom on Michael Ring  I commend the Minister for Justice, Deputy Owen, for raising at a very early stage in her ministry the necessity to alter the bail laws. During her time in office she has shown a strong commitment to reform of the criminal justice system and, in particular, the bail laws. She deserves the support of the House in this regard.

Before the Government came into office the Department of Justice was in the hands of the Fianna Fáil Party, yet nothing was done to reform the bail laws. Now that the Minister has raised the issue, shown her determination to deal with it and won the support of her colleagues in Government, the Fianna Fáil Party has come into the House with a Private Members' Bill. Yet it did nothing when it was in power.

The public are concerned about law and order issues. Last night at a meeting of Westport Urban District Council the [832] Minister for Justice was called upon to set up a part time police force. This indicates the concern among the general public about the level of crime. Last week having left this House at 5.10 p.m. I parked my car in Lower Mount Street. As I was paying the parking charge I saw the traffic warden walking up and down the street. However, during the three minutes it took me to leave a message into an office in Lower Mount Street my car was broken into, the windscreen and one of the side windows were broken and my car phone was stolen. This cannot be allowed to continue.

Mr. D. Wallace: Information on Dan Wallace  Zoom on Dan Wallace  I wish to share my time with Deputy Tom Kitt.

An Ceann Comhairle: Information on Seán Treacy  Zoom on Seán Treacy  I am sure that is agreed.

Mr. D. Wallace: Information on Dan Wallace  Zoom on Dan Wallace  It is fair to say there will be much coverage of the verdict in the OJ Simpson trial in tomorrow's newspapers and this debate will not be a priority. However, once this seven day wonder is over the concern of the community about crime and lawlessness will bring us back to reality very quickly. I warmly welcome this Bill. Before referring in detail to the urgent need for change in our bail laws I commend Deputy O'Donoghue on his highly effective and responsible pursuit of law reform at a time when there is an unprecedented level of serious crime in society. The problem has been greatly aggravated by the perception that the Minister for Justice is encountering severe difficulties in making any meaningful response to the crime explosion. It is felt that the Minister finds it almost impossible to obtain the unequivocal support of her Cabinet colleagues even for the measures she considers most important. For example, we can all recall the poor response to her publicly stated plan to deal urgently with the deficiencies in the bail laws. Her lack of political skill in the matter proved an impediment to acceptance of her proposals.

[833] It must be freely admitted that there are genuine but potentially fatal policy differences between the three Government parties on law and order and on civil liberties. These differences have, of necessity, been glossed over as the Government has striven to project a unified front on a large number of issues in the interests of openness, transparency and accountability. I fervently urge the Government to come clean on its plans to tackle the crime wave and ensure that further crime is not committed by an accused person out on bail. If a stalemate has been reached in the Government parties, it is not only desirable but absolutely vital that the crisis is openly admitted. If the matter cannot be speedily resolved by them, then the only responsible step open to them is to give up office without further delay. Failure to deal speedily and comprehensively with the current stand-off will be paid for directly by the numerous unfortunate victims of crime.

I do not underestimate the profound difficulties facing the Government parties. However, as the members of the previous Government are only too well aware, even the perception of a major error of judgment in modern political life can result in swift and devastating retribution. The recent debacle about the number of prison places strongly suggests that the current Administration has reached the end of its honeymoon. It must now accept the two stark options open to it. It must either come to an acceptable accommodation on the inter-party differences and rapidly bring forward the necessary legislative and operational changes to allow the ordinary citizens live without fear for their personal safety and property or if the Government establishes that its internal difficulties are too extensive and pronounced to offer a realistic hope of future cohesion in the formulation, processing and implementation of criminal law, it should do the honourable thing and face the consequences.

The response of the Opposition parties to the crisis in the justice area has largely been controlled and responsible. [834] The Fianna Fáil spokesperson on Justice, Deputy O'Donoghue, has been particularly admirable in his approach. Rather than indulge in the many opportunities for cheap political point scoring offered by a Government in crisis, he has focused his considerable energies on developing positive and potentially effective initiatives. His offer of practical assistance to the Minister in her hour of need — may be hours of need — has, unfortunately, been met with a dismissive and extremely insecure response. One can only hope that in the interests of the public the Minister adopts a more receptive attitude in the immediate future.

The proposed changes in the bail law offer an early opportunity to the Minister in this regard. If we accept for one moment that a penalty is imposed by the lack of cohesion in the current Administration on our overall response to the rocketing crime level, it is time to briefly consider the scale and nature of the crime problem in society. Only the most blind observer will deny that the extent and nature of criminal activity in society has been on the increase for years. While the illegal acquisition of money or property continues to be the focus of most crime, the diversity and extent of violent crimes against the person has shown a nasty upward turn in recent decades. While brutal crimes such as murder, rape, sexual abuse and grievous assault were a rare occurrence in the relatively recent past, today we can rarely read the daily newspapers without seeing reports of such crimes.

Numerous explanations have been offered for this extremely unwelcome trend. Many people strongly believe that the perceived breakdown in traditional values in a variety of areas is largely responsible for increasing crime rates. Increased permissiveness, a reduced sense of responsibility and a general sense of a loss of morality have been identified as contributing to recent patterns of crime. Dramatically increased levels of unemployment are also widely blamed. However, the single most important factor in the immediate [835] past must be the seemingly major explosion of our drugs problem.

Figures released in recent times are extremely frightening. There may be as many as 5,000 heroin addicts in Dublin city alone. Feeding their habit may require in the region of £150 per day or approximately £50,000 per year. We should consider the trail of disaster drug addiction leaves. Young lives are totally destroyed, physically and mentally. Personal aspirations and plans are consigned to the rubbish bin. The addict's family is plunged into a frightening situation. Their loved one has utterly changed into a haunted person with an ever decreasing sense of responsibility to other members of the family unit. In many instances the family is the first target of the criminal behaviour which almost inevitably follows drug addiction. Ultimately, the family may even come to fear the addict in his or her descending spiral of behaviour. The family unit becomes unrecognisable from its original state. The cost of maintaining a drug habit is alarming. If one victim was required each week for each addict to steal the necessary funds to feed his or her habit, 5,000 addicts would generate a massive quarter of a million crime incidents and victims in one year, a frightening but, unfortunately, true statistic.

The increasing link between criminal activity and drug abuse has effectively resulted in a snowballing effect on our legal system. In the initial stages our Garda force is increasingly being forced to divert scarce resources towards dealing with the primary and secondary effects of drug abuse. This immediately takes a certain degree of pressure off non-drug related crimes. Our courts are the next link in the chain of justice to be damaged. A clear consequence is obviously the increased workload which is being forced through an inadequately staffed courts system. While this immediately generates totally unacceptable delays in the processing of individual cases, the lack of any transparent audit system on the quality of [836] justice administration prevents one from assessing whether the rushed processing of cases reduces the quality of the system's performance. The inevitable outcome of the overall explosion in drug related crime is that extra prison spaces are required. The overall pattern points in one direction, one either deals rapidly, comprehensively and effectively with the overall problem in a systematic and planned manner or one effectively endangers the overall legal system. I sincerely urge the Minister to turn over a new leaf and inject the necessary elements into her operation of the justice portfolio. If she rectifies the omissions, she could be assured of support and tolerance from this side of the House as she goes about her vital tasks. However, a continuation of the current state of stagnation will leave the Opposition benches with no alternative but to pursue the overall situation to its logical conclusion.

The limitations of our current laws regarding the granting of bail are undoubtedly aggravating an already dire crime situation. The Minister correctly identified this problem at a very early stage subsequent to assuming office. The recent report of the Law Reform Commission on an examination of the law on bail provides shocking new information on the extent of abuse of our bail laws. The contents of table B on page 36 of that report are particularly alarming. The table shows that only 36 per cent of the 98,772 reported offences in 1993 resulted in detection. Therefore, two thirds of reported crime goes without redress. Another relevant finding from the table is that 9 per cent of all detected crimes were carried out by people on bail at the time of arrest. That involved a total of 3,201 detected crimes during 1993. Taking into account the 3:2 ratio of reported and detected crimes, it is reasonable to estimate that a staggering 10,000 crimes are committed annually by those on bail. That is equivalent to approximately 30 crimes and 30 victims daily. Those are shocking figures and clearly indicate the urgency of reform in the granting of bail. It also [837] means that every day reform is delayed a further 30 victims are potentially unnecessarily added to the list of those violated by criminal acts. That is the equivalent of 210 cases a week and almost 1,000 incidents monthly.

As well as generating many avoidable victims of crime, the laxity of our bail laws has two further appalling consequences. It is extremely difficult for our various law enforcement agencies to continue to perform at their current excellent level when they see the extent of repeated offences committed by those released on bail. Those involved in crime are only encouraged by the status quo.

The Minister has strung out her honeymoon period to heroic levels. To fully discharge her difficult portfolio, she must rapidly prepare an unprecedented range of measures to turn the overall tide decisively in favour of the vast majority of law abiding citizens in our society. She could do no better than learn from the application and effectiveness of Deputy O'Donoghue, who has been a good friend to her in this House by being constructive, forthcoming and assisting her. A major problem faced by the Minister is that her Government colleagues are not on her side. They have not taken the crime problem seriously and we are all suffering as a result. Fianna Fáil has approached the problem in a constructive and positive manner and I strongly urge the Minister and parties not to vote down this Bill tomorrow night. It is an important Bill and close to the Minister's heart, but it may not be close to the hearts of some of her colleagues. The Bill has been introduced as expected and demanded by the public. The decision to enact this legislation is not mine, it lies with the Minister and the Government. They have a responsibility to enact this legislation as quickly as possible to give people the assurance, confidence and protection to which they are entitled.

Mr. T. Kitt: Information on Tom Kitt  Zoom on Tom Kitt  I strongly support the Fifteenth Amendment of the Constitution Bill, 1995, known as the bail Bill, [838] introduced by our spokesman on justice, Deputy O'Donoghue. I align myself with the comments of my colleague, Deputy Dan Wallace. Last week the Minister for Justice, Deputy Owen, made all sorts of excuses for doing nothing on the issue of bail. She used the recently published report of the Law Reform Commission as a smokescreen for her inaction. I found the Minister's response to the initiative of my colleague, Deputy O'Donoghue, most disappointing. The reality is that the report of the Law Reform Commission had been available to the Government since 17 August and the Minister cannot hide behind that report. Rather than put this burning issue on the long finger, the Minister should immediately honour the commitment she made publicly earlier this year and support our Bill to amend the Constitution in relation to the bail laws. The Minister would have our full support if she were to take that honourable course and ensure that the balance is tilted in favour of the victim as against the perpetrator of the crime. She would no doubt have widespread support from the public who demand that legislators tackle the issue of crime head on. As a Deputy representing a Dublin constituency, it would be unwise of any of us to ignore the demands being made by our constituents.

I am amazed that the Minister did not avail of the opportunity during this debate to reverse her disastrous decision in relation to the construction of Castlerea Prison.

The serious crisis in relation to prison space is central to this debate. My colleague, Deputy O'Donoghue, and others have re-emphasised that point not just in this debate but in other debates over the past months. The Government must consider every possible means to proceed with the construction of Castlerea prison and any other prison required to accommodate the growing numbers of criminals in our midst.

I am conscious of the many demands on our public finances and support the Minister for Finance in his efforts to [839] control public spending. Fianna Fáil has put on the record its views on public spending and what this Government should be doing in that regard. For that reason I ask the Government to examine new ways of getting private sector investment for the construction of prisons. I know the Government is aware of proposals presented by Mr. Liam Lenihan at the “Property 2001” conference last month on tax incentives for investment in public buildings, capital and infrastructural projects. The lesson to be learned from the urban renewal scheme is that substantial private sector funds are available for investment if attractive tax breaks are provided.

Designation, as every Deputy in this House is aware, has been a major driving force for urban renewal development. Private sector capital, with the incentive of a tax break, could be attracted to fund what would normally be public and centrally funded buildings such as prisons. Projects could be undertaken on a sale and lease back structure, for example. Investors would get tax breaks for 13 years and the Government would rent the accommodation at a low rate. The Government would retain control in having the option to purchase at the end of term.

Because this matter is so serious I ask the Minister immediately to rescind her decision in relation to Castlerea and examine as a matter of urgency the possibility of private sector involvement in prison building. We cannot afford to delay any longer on this issue. Six hundred prison spaces are required immediately. Prisons could be built under a tax incentive scheme and when, hopefully, the present crisis in prison space is behind us, the prisons could be converted into community, sports or leisure centres. Account should be taken of that at planning and construction stages to allow for modification when appropriate in the future. Innovative and radical thinking is required to deal with the prison crisis and I urge the Minister and the Government to consider the option [840] of private sector involvement. I put this forward as a serious proposal and hope it is taken in that manner.

The Minister must also deal as a matter of urgency with the problem of the delay between the arrest and charging of a suspect and the subsequent trial. The shortage of judges is obviously a major problem and the Minister must address this matter. As my colleague, Deputy O'Donoghue, pointed out in his contribution to this debate, only three Circuit Court judges are permanently available in Dublin to deal with indictable crime. Fianna Fáil's Criminal Procedure Bill, 1995, published by Deputy O'Donoghue, will provide for a fast track approach to specific crimes and allow for a real reduction in the delay in cases coming for trial. It is totally unacceptable that in our capital city it takes an average of at least one year to process a case from arrest to trial. That is a central issue in this debate and it has been pointed out by my colleagues on this side of the House.

The serious drugs crisis has been referred to by almost everyone who has contributed to this debate. An all out assault must be made on those involved in the drugs industry. The drug barons, the pushers and those making a living from destroying our young people must be rooted out of society and every legal weapon used to do so. I encourage the Minister to explore every possible avenue in this area. She will have my full support.

The growth in the use of the ecstasy drug has been frightening. Last year 10,000 ecstasy tablets were confiscated by the gardaí. This year so far, that figure has risen to a staggering 180,000. Many awareness campaigns are under way to highlight the dangers of this drug. We must get the message across that ecstasy can kill. Unfortunately, many young people, through peer pressure, are not aware of the danger of taking even half a tablet. For that reason, I regret that the UCD students union has [841] advised students in its awareness literature that if they are using ecstasy for the first time, they should take only half a tablet.

I have spoken to representatives of the students union and I am aware it has an excellent poster campaign highlighting the fact that ecstasy can kill. I would argue, however, that any representative group campaigning on the dangers of ecstasy should spell out unequivocally that this drug can kill. The tragic death of Stephen McMillan at the Point Depot rave event some months ago brought this harsh reality home to all of us. While the motivation and intent behind the students union campaign is genuine — and I encourage it to continue with its work — it should think again in relation to this aspect of it. Young people must be made aware of the dangers of this drug and the fact that it can kill them.

The central issue we are debating tonight is bail. The reality is that the law as it currently stands does not permit our courts to remand a person charged with a criminal offence in custody even if the court is satisfied that the accused person is likely to commit serious criminal offences if released. The Minister is on public record as saying she wants changes in our bail laws and we support her in that. She is also on public record as saying that she wants to have a referendum to amend the Constitution in this regard.

Fianna Fáil has been accused of being mischievous on this issue. That is not the case and the record speaks for itself. It is clear that when the Minister made her views known publicly, there were objections from Labour backbench TDs. What is the policy position of the Labour Party and Democratic Left on this crucial issue? As I understand it, clear divisions have arisen between the Minister for Justice and the Tánaiste in this regard and I would like to hear from our fellow parliamentarians in the Labour Party and Democratic Left about their policy position on this issue. They have managed to paper over many [842] cracks but there is a fundamental principle involved here. We support the Minister for Justice in her endeavours. Those people who hold personal positions and whisper from the back benches but who go through the lobbies at the end of the day should get off the fence. They should make their positions known.

This debate provides an opportunity for the Minister for Justice to show her strength and leadership and to indicate that she wants to stand by her own public commitment. I suggest she should do that by supporting our Bill. It has been the practice in the past that if the Opposition puts forward a Bill worthy of support, the Government accepts it on the basis of some amendments being made. I hope that will be the case tomorrow. I ask the Minister for Justice to support the Bill put forward by my colleague, Deputy O'Donoghue.

Mr. E. Walsh: Information on Eamon Walsh  Zoom on Eamon Walsh  I wish to share my time with Deputies Connaughton and Flanagan.

An Ceann Comhairle: Information on Seán Treacy  Zoom on Seán Treacy  I am sure that is satisfactory and agreed.

Mr. E. Walsh: Information on Eamon Walsh  Zoom on Eamon Walsh  This debate is taking place against a background of increasing crime in the Dublin area. In the circumstances, it is essential to seek extra powers to deal with the problem. The demand for changes in the bail laws is just one of the suggestions to tackle the problem of increasing crime. Any changes in our bail laws should be carefully considered before being introduced. I say that with a great deal of background information and much practical experience of the difficulties being experienced by people in the Dublin area.

The law on bail can be traced to a Supreme Court judgment in the O'Callaghan case in 1966 which decided that bail might be refused only on two grounds: first, where there is evidence that an accused person would interfere with witnesses or other evidence in a [843] case and, second, where there is evidence that an accused person would not stand trial. An attempt by the Director of Public Prosecutions in 1989 to change the position failed when he argued that a balance did exist of equal constitutional rights: the right of the accused to their liberty and the right of the public to bodily integrity and the protection of their property. At that time it was decided that the right to liberty was superior to the other stated right. Today that would probably be argued as being slightly out of date. Any changes in curtailing liberty could be considered as a form of punishment in respect of a person who has not been convicted of any crime. It could be described as a form of preventive justice, which does not exist in our legal system.

The Law Reform Commission report enables us to consider this matter carefully rather than as a reaction to the increasing crime level being experienced. Any laws introduced in this House should be carefully considered rather than passing them as a reaction to events forcing us to take immediate action. The report of the commission is divided into six chapters. It deals with the areas of law relating to bail in Ireland, offending on bail, the extent of the bail problem, prediction studies, the laws relating to bail in other jurisdictions, preventive detention and the arguments and alternative methods of dealing with bail offending.

One of the arguments being put forward for changes in our bail laws is the circumstance where a person on bail commits a crime on the understanding that the punishment will only equal the amount apportioned for the first crime and that they can offend with virtual impunity. Section 11 of the Criminal Justice Act, 1984, requires the imposition of consecutive sentences for offences committed while on bail and is referred to in the Law Reform Commission's report which states that a number of judicial decisions involving this section would suggest that it might not be working as the Oireachtas had [844] intended. In the case of grave offences, and to avoid unjust punishment on the accused, the sentence should be adjusted downwards. This practice has developed and must be considered. We must examine this section with a view to considering what changes are required.

The traditional remedy for breach of bail is the forfeiture of bail money but it is rarely enforced. We must ask ourselves why this remedy is not enforced by the courts. Often the reasons given are that the spouse may have been the bails person and would be left destitute if bail were forfeited. We will have to examine this and ask ourselves why the bail system is not working. The provisions of the Criminal Justice Act, 1994 regarding the confiscation of the proceeds of crime may partly address the career criminal using their time while on bail to improve their finances.

If we change our bail laws how will we deal with persons detained without bail prior to their trial and who are then acquitted? It is difficult to decide what would satisfy a person who was deprived of their liberty. In some continental jurisdictions there is a move to provide a system of compensation in such cases. Do we wish to consider this course of action and the cost it might entail for the taxpayer? The best course of action would be the proposal regarding the new offence of breaching of bail conditions.

The conditions of bail should be that the accused refrain from offending while on bail or create an actual offence of offending on bail. This would mean, in relation to an offence committed while on bail, that two offences would be committed, the actual offence of, say, robbery and a further crime — which is a separate offence — of breaking of bail conditions. The commission notes that this approach would not result in the detention of the accused person prior to their trial in respect of the original offence. A combination of this new measure with a reactivation of the consecutive sentencing would be the best approach to our difficulties.

Crime is committed often by persons [845] on drugs and — this is a new phenomenon and the most difficult one we have to face — the addiction causes the offender to relentlessly feed the habit from which they are suffering; therefore, it clouds their opinion as to the correct way to respond to measures we introduce. The problem of dealing with crime associated with drugs is a difficult one. If all those people are taken into custody prior to their trials we may have a large number of people flooding the prison service which would require us to introduce a medical counselling service in the prisons to deal with the situation while awaiting trial. This should be examined. It is not necessarily the only reason a change should be considered in the bail laws. I outlined my attitude to change in the bail laws. If all measures contained in the commission's report are considered by the House to be inadequate then we will have to deal with the problem.

I wish to refer to the work being done by the Garda in the constituency of Dublin South West in Tallaght, Clondalkin, Crumlin and Terenure. They do an excellent job with limited resources. The information I get from them is that they need extra gardaí to deal with crime at ground level. The provision of extra gardaí is the first step towards dealing with crime in my constituency. If this request is acceded to it will go a long way towards solving the problems being experienced.

If we make our bail laws stricter there is no guarantee that crime committed by persons released on bail will be reduced significantly. In Britain where the bail regime is stricter, a higher proportion of crime is committed by persons on bail than is the case here. The Garda estimate that 9 per cent of all detected crime in Ireland is carried out by persons while on bail. Concern has also been expressed about the early release of prisoners serving long sentences and the crimes committed by them. Regulating bail is not the only solution to the problem. Nothing less than a radical overhaul of the prison service and [846] measures to speed up the criminal court process will be the long term solution.

I welcome the Minister's commitment to bring the Courts and Court Officers Bill before the House and the provision for the appointment of 17 extra judges. This will begin the process of reform that is urgently needed. We should consider all aspects of the Law Reform Commission's report and deal with it seriously. If we concentrate only on one aspect, that is, changing the bail laws, the problem may continue to escalate out of control and we may well have to come back to this House and again address the matter. Why not examine all aspects of our laws relating to crime and bring forward a comprehensive package of reforms required to deal with the problem?

Mr. Connaughton: Information on Paul Connaughton  Zoom on Paul Connaughton  Some criminals commit serious crimes against the person when out on bail. The Oireachtas should reflect on the general public's growing anxiety and frustration with this issue. The ordinary citizen may not understand the subtleties of the legal views expressed by the various civil liberty groups but they know that when the forces of law and order have gathered sufficient evidence in serious cases and the Director of Public Prosecutions believes that the alleged criminals should stand trial it is upsetting to see some of those criminals roaming the streets and committing crime while out on bail. However, reform of the bail laws is not the only answer to the crime wave. I have seen figures indicating that at least one in ten alleged criminals commit serious offences while out on bail. Other reports show a higher percentage but there are no hard and fast statistics. Many speakers referred to the time lapse between the arrest of the alleged wrongdoer and the consequent court hearing, which seems inordinately long. We obviously need more judges to adjudicate on serious crimes.

The view of the Law Reform Commission seems to be that by international standards, we have fewer persons in custody pending trial and that [847] Ireland is unusual among the common law jurisdictions in having failed to introduce much more comprehensive bail legislation during the past few years. Nobody in the civil liberties movement can ask why fix it if it is not broken. Our crime rates are spiralling and have been for many years — which is one of the problems I have with tonight's motion. Even if we were to hold serious crime rates at today's level it would be totally unacceptable by our standards. There is not much point in saying it is only a fraction of the crime in New York as by our standards it is particularly bad.

The report of the Law Reform Commission should be studied and the people given the opportunity to vote on stricter bail conditions. This would give a much clearer indication to judges of the persons who would be allowed out on bail. Gardaí feel they are fighting crime with one hand tied when they see alleged criminals on bail who seem to have the blessing of the establishment. In Dublin, in particular, there seems to be scant regard for the so called restrictions placed on alleged criminals. Basically this is tantamount to giving the finger sign to the Garda which is the same as insulting the general public. There must be very definite checks and balances when alleged criminals are held in custody and cases should be held quickly. For instance, the question of very poor defendants will have to be looked at and one may wonder if O. J. Simpson had been poor what the decision would have been. It is very important that poor people have access to the best legal representation.

I would like to see criminals who rob and plunder and cause serious bodily harm held in custody. I do not want to see this type of wrongdoer out on bail and the general public share that view. The fight against crime is multifaceted and no single measure will ever come to grips with the crime wave. It is incumbent on everyone to ensure that the many pieces of the jigsaw are put together. The question of bail is but one [848] part of the jigsaw, although it is an important one.

I hope the Government will give serious consideration to the report of the Law Reform Commission and would like to see the general public having an opportunity to vote in a referendum to reduce the possibilities of criminals reoffending while on bail. It is important to put the issues in context and as well as reform of the bail laws we want more prison places. I heard Deputy Michael Kitt wax eloquently about the prison in Castlerea. I have always been a supporter of that project and hope it will come to fruition. I find it hard to take Fianna Fáil's efforts to drive a wedge between the Fine Gael Party and its partners.

Mr. Cowen: Information on Brian Cowen  Zoom on Brian Cowen  Impossible.

Mr. Connaughton: Information on Paul Connaughton  Zoom on Paul Connaughton  The Deputy's party were not able to hang in. According to Deputy McCreevy, after the burst up the party would have accepted anything if it had a chance.

Fianna Fáil had been in Government since 1987 and why did the number of Garda Síochána drop?

Mr. Cowen: Information on Brian Cowen  Zoom on Brian Cowen  Crime dropped.

Mr. Connaughton: Information on Paul Connaughton  Zoom on Paul Connaughton  The Deputy, more than anybody, should know better — the problem has been escalating every year and long before 1987. I accept that Deputy O'Donoghue is genuine but this Bill provides an opportunity for a showdown. Why did Fianna Fáil not initiate a referendum on bail prior to this instead of waiting until the first six months of this Government's life? We were told we had the best Ministers for Justice ever when Fianna Fáil was in Government but it did not do it. This is opportunism of the highest order.

Mr. O'Donoghue: Information on John O'Donoghue  Zoom on John O'Donoghue  The 1994 statistics showed a decrease in crime.

Mr. Connaughton: Information on Paul Connaughton  Zoom on Paul Connaughton  I did not interrupt the Deputy, but why did not Fianna Fáil [849] do it in the previous seven or eight years?

Mr. O'Donoghue: Information on John O'Donoghue  Zoom on John O'Donoghue  The Deputy says I interrupted, but he asked me a question.

Mr. Connaughton: Information on Paul Connaughton  Zoom on Paul Connaughton  When Fianna Fáil had power it decided not to use it. Now, all of a sudden this is the thing to do. Every Tuesday night we will be treated to a diet of this but, as things are going, Fianna Fáil will be on that side of the House for a long time and will run out of topics.

Mr. Durkan: Information on Bernard Durkan  Zoom on Bernard Durkan  They will have plenty of time to think of more.

Mr. Connaughton: Information on Paul Connaughton  Zoom on Paul Connaughton  I hope when the Government has studied the commission's report in depth the people of Ireland will be given a chance to vote on the bail laws. We are due a change.

Mr. O'Dea: Information on Willie O'Dea  Zoom on Willie O'Dea  If that is so, the Government should support the Bill.

Mr. Flanagan: Information on Charles Flanagan  Zoom on Charles Flanagan  I agree with most of what the previous speaker, Deputy Connaughton, said. In the context of criminal law, it is extraordinary that for the fifth time in 12 months we are discussing a motion or a Bill on the question of bail. One would think that solving the bail difficulties would be the solution to the problem of serious crime. The issue of bail is a serious one, but it is a very small component of the criminal law. I am becoming weary of speaking on bail in Private Members' time. It is extraordinary that on the very day of the publication of the Law Reform Commission report, Deputy O'Donoghue should move a Bill that he believes will solve our problems. Why did the previous Minister for Justice, Deputy Geoghegan-Quinn, bother to commission a report if Fianna Fáil were going to pre-empt its findings by introducing a two-page Bill? I do not believe Deputy O'Donoghue or his colleagues are so naive as to think a change in the bail laws will solve the problem of crime. If we accept that Deputy [850] O'Donoghue and his colleagues are not so naive, we must examine the political motivation behind their Private Members' Bill. Listening to the Members opposite, one would think there had been no crime before Fianna Fáil left office last November.

If we are going to tamper with our bail laws and put a constitutional referendum before the people, we must first provide a specific remand centre and deal with delays. A radical overhaul of our court system will be called for if we are to provide an efficient and consumer-friendly criminal justice system. Government and legislators must accept much of the responsibility for the delays in bringing accused persons to trial, but the Bar and the Judiciary are not without fault. I was amazed by what a member of the Dublin Bar Association said on radio today, and by the comments of an eminent senior counsel, Mr. James Nugent, in today's newspapers. One would think that 100 per cent of the blame for the delays lay at the door of the politicians.

I welcome the Minister's proposal to appoint 17 new judges, but I challenge her and the Government to best employ these judges by changing the work practices and conditions of judges and barristers. These must be subjected to a review. It is extraordinary that, as we discuss a bail Bill for the umpteenth time, the long vacation in the Law Library has come to an end and the courts are resuming normal work. The long vacation whereby the courts in this State close down for most of the summer and much of the autumn is outmoded and unjustified and contributes in no small way to the delays in the administration of justice. It is the practice for some members of the Judiciary in this State to work a six-hour day and a four-day week. This cannot be allowed to continue. Although some judges operate efficiently and adopt consumeroriented practices, others refuse to leave their ivory towers.

There has been an enormous increase in the amount of business being channelled through the courts in the past few [851] years. If we are to have a streamlined system of criminal justice administration we will have to separate the civil list, the criminal list and the family list, with particular reference to our Circuit Courts. There has been a huge increase in the family law area but, unfortunately, we still do not have a system of family courts.

There is a fundamental message for our friends in the Law Library and on the Bench in the way we in this House have changed our work practices over the past five or ten years. We have streamlined our working hours and increased our workload considerably. We have done so because not to do so would have met with considerable opposition from the public. As practising politicians we are a most unpopular group of people, but if we had held on to old work practices which operated since the foundation of the State and continued until approximately ten years ago, we would not have been able to withstand the level of hostility from the public at large.

Nothing has changed in the Law Library or in our courts however. Why can the Circuit Court not sit on Mondays? Why does it not commence its deliberations until after 11 a.m.? Why does the Circuit Court rise, more often than not, between 4 p.m. and 4.30 p.m.? Until the courts adopt a working programme similar to here, there will be no confidence in our justice system. We must examine the role and function of the county registrars who are people with expert legal backgrounds and much to offer in terms of dealing with the court lists. Reform of that function is overdue.

Although changing our bail laws is important, it represents but a small component in the overall programme to tackle increasing rates of crime. There is no simple solution. If there were we could have drawn from the best in the Fine Gael, Fianna Fáil and PD Bills. We have not done that because the solution is not as simple as these Bills would have us believe. We should take time to [852] consider the content of the Law Reform Commission report. The bail laws should be reformed because we have the most lax system of bail in Western Europe. This is further underlined in the Law Reform Commission report which finds that, among Council of Europe states, we have the fewest prisoners on remand. The only reason for this is that our bail laws are too liberal.

We must deal with the problem of prison places. If we changed our bail laws in the morning to coincide with Deputy O'Donoghue's proposals, where would we get the places and the money to deal with the hundreds of people who would be taken off the streets in advance of the findings of any court? It would be fundamentally unfair to treat innocent people in exactly the same way as those who are guilty.

The difficulty with prison places can be tackled by examining the overall number of places in the context of the peace process. Portlaoise Prison, a fine institution in my constituency, could be expanded to accommodate prisoners in a much more effective manner than that proposed by the Department of Justice. I ask Deputy O'Donoghue to hold off, to consider and digest the bulk of the Law Reform Commission's report and let us together, between now and the next occasion a bail Bill is introduced, deal with the problem and if the answer is to put it to the people, then so be it.

Mr. Flood: Information on Chris Flood  Zoom on Chris Flood  I wish to share my time with Deputies Noel Ahern and O'Dea. I congratulate my colleague, Deputy O'Donoghue, for introducing this Bill. Many important issues have been raised during the debate. I would point out to Deputy Flanagan that the treatment of this Bill by the Government is in stark contrast to the treatment meted out by Fianna Fáil administrations and Fianna Fáil-led administrations when his colleague, Deputy Shatter, successfully piloted through — if my memory serves me correctly — three Bills from the Opposition side of the House. That will [853] not be forgotten. Article 40.4.1º states: “No citizen shall be deprived of his personal liberty save in accordance with the law.” That is an important Article and having regard to the turbulent background against which our forefathers drew up the Constitution, I am sure they were well aware what it meant. At that time there were many difficulties in respect of civil rights and personal liberties. We must, therefore, be careful when altering that Article by way of legislation. This Bill is very specific in regard to how it would operate relative to that Article.

Many individuals reoffend while on bail. Up to 25 per cent of muggings and robberies are committed by people on bail. This has a detrimental effect on many sections of our law enforcement agencies. It brings the Judiciary and the work of the Garda, particularly at local level, into disrepute. Many individuals brought before the courts are allowed back into the community on bail and commit similar crimes again. The community feels very aggrieved and is frightened about what is happening under the current interpretation of our bail laws.

In certain circumstances the law on bail appears to be tilted towards the alleged criminal. The public are prepared to accept a considerable tightening up of the law to deal with this. There is nothing worse than attending a public meeting at which the majority in attendance declare a lack of faith in the judicial system, in the ability of the gardaí to protect them and the prison system to house and detain criminals. When 500 or 600 people unanimously express such a view at public meetings it is time for society to be concerned about why they have reached such a conclusion. Part of the reason for this arises from the way our bail laws operate. Our communities are under siege from the law breakers, whether in the area of drug abuse, robbery with violence, joyriding or whatever. Our communities are experiencing extremely difficult times and it is about time we [854] recognised that the ordinary decent person going about his or her business is entitled to receive protection from the State through the efficient operation of the courts and the Garda. Many Members referred to the delay in bringing cases to trial, something which obviously impinges on the operation of bail laws. If it takes a year or more to bring a case to trial, the effect will be obvious.

We must deal with our bail laws in tandem with a range of other law enforcement issues that need to be tackled. Over the years we have all contributed to the failure to provide adequate detention centres, whether for ordinary prisoners or under-age offenders. We have a great deal of catching up to do in that regard, but we can delay no longer on this issue. We may have to provide special facilities to implement the provisions of this Bill, but if that is the case we must be prepared. Otherwise, people will lose confidence in the ability of this country to protect its citizens properly and will turn to unorthodox methods which, as we know, can have serious repercussions. This happened in one part of our island, causing great dissension in communities and is no way for a modern democracy to operate.

Deputy O'Donoghue's Bill may have clashed with the Law Reform Commission's report, but it provides an opportunity to seriously debate the issue. While Members were sincere in making their views known, we must now make progress. It is pointless for the Government to ask what we did when in office. We must face up to the facts. It is up to the Government to grasp the nettle and introduce appropriate legislation. If it is not in a position to do so it should do what Fianna Fáil-led administrations did when in Government, that is occasionally accept Bills introduced by the Opposition. That would be an indication of democracy and it would be good for this House. I fail to understand why this Government, which comprises Members who stated exactly what I am saying about Private [855] Members' Bills when in Opposition, cannot on this occasion allow this legislation to pass. It would not mean the end of the world, rather it would contribute to dealing with the serious issue of the breakdown of law and order.

Mr. N. Ahern: Information on Noel Ahern  Zoom on Noel Ahern  This Bill proposes to change the Constitution, a matter that is never taken lightly by any party in this House. It has happened on only 13 or 14 occasions since the Constitution was written in 1937, but if there is a major anomaly in the system then that must be done.

Many people see this Bill as an attempt to restore to the Constitution a meaning which most sensible people believe it should have. I do not possess any legal qualifications, but it seems extraordinary that, as a result of the decision handed down in the 1966 case, a person cannot be detained, even where the judge feels they will commit further crimes while on bail. This is crazy.

The position has changed dramatically during the past 30 years. There was a time when criminals were happy to commit a robbery once a month or once a year, but now they commit crimes on a daily basis to feed their drug habit. We have to introduce laws to tackle this problem.

This Bill could not be described as radical. If a referendum were passed by the people, Irish law would only be brought into line with the law in the United Kingdom and other countries. Our bail laws are far too lax and liberal.

The drugs problem is the source of untold trauma. The big £2 million robbery does not affect people, rather it is remote from them and something about which they read in the newspapers and hear about on television. What hits home more are reports of old age pensioners being mugged and robbed of £20 while on their way to the shops. Up to one dozen of these attacks occur each day. This instils fear and terrifies people.

Although there are 10,000 gardaí it [856] seems that one can never find one when needed. About one week ago my namesake was attacked outside a Garda station in the constituency of the Minister for Justice and there was not a garda in sight. There was one bangharda present within the station, but when the going gets rough ban-ghardaí are not always able to cope.

For 25 years the resources of the State have had to be deployed along the Border. Thankfully, we are now on the way to resolving this major problem. There is an expectation that some of these resources will be redeployed, but 13 months on no one has been moved. The Minister has said this is a matter for the Garda Commissioner and the only commitment she has given is that new recruits coming out of Templemore will not be sent to the Border. That is ludicrous. There is an expectation that some of these resources will be directed to where they are most needed in order to tackle the drugs problem.

A number of months ago the Minister said in this House that she would introduce a Bill to amend the Constitution, but she has had to back down because of pressure from what I describe as the “soft on crime” wing of the Labour Party. I have had to deal with them for many years on Dublin City Council. They keep coming up with the same old nonsense and refuse to face up to reality. One of their loose cannons, Niall Stokes, who slagged us on a different issue last week, recently called for the legalisation of drugs. These gurus are dictating the pace and policy of the Labour Party.

Deputy Connaughton mentioned that the parties in Government had bonded well together. It is my wish that members of the Fine Gael Party who have a sound record on law and order issues, whatever else we may say about them, will get the message across to some of these dreamers who are not living in the real world and keep coming up with the same old intellectual nonsense. I hope that members of the Fine Gael Party will find their soul, put the boot in and do what is necessary.

[857] As Deputy Flanagan said, there is no simplistic solution to the crime problem. This Bill represents only part of the solution. If an opportunity presents itself to resolve a particular problem, one should take it. It is lunacy to reject a Bill because it will not solve all our problems.

The standard answer given by Ministers was that we should await the publication of the report of the Law Reform Commission. Deputy O'Donoghue has been accused of opportunism in presenting this Bill — that is lunacy. It is precisely because he introduced this Bill that the report was published.

According to the official figures produced by the Garda Commissioner — this is not Fianna Fáil propaganda — the crime problem continues to worsen. The resources of the State which were tied up for many years along the Border should now be redeployed. The gardaí should be more visible while the problems in the courts should be resolved. As Deputy Flanagan mentioned, most judges work from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. each day. That is ridiculous. I do not wish to refer to the O. J. Simpson trial which took one year to complete, but recently I saw a film in which a judge in the Philippines heard 14 murder cases in the one day. I am not recommending that the courts here should move at that speed, but they could be more efficient.

That this Bill will not solve all our problems is no reason it should not be accepted. If the Minister is not in a position to give a commitment to do this she should give a definite commitment to stand up to her colleagues in Government and do what she stated she would do a few months ago.

Mr. O'Dea: Information on Willie O'Dea  Zoom on Willie O'Dea  I welcome this Bill. Deputy Connaughton asked why Fianna Fáil did not hold a referendum sometime during the past seven years. The reason is as follows: in 1990, the statistics showed that approximately 2,000 offences were committed by people while on bail. This figure rose alarmingly to approximately 3,400 in 1993 and by a further 1,000 to 4,404 in 1994. It [858] is obvious, therefore, that there was a startling rise in the number of detected crimes committed by people while on bail from 1992 onwards. The problem had become so serious it was obvious there was an urgent necessity to do something about it.

The then Minister for Justice, Deputy Geoghegan-Quinn, responded by referring this complex matter to the Law Reform Commission, the expert body charged with the responsibility of advising the Government on whether the law should be changed. That was the right and natural thing to do. It has been obvious for some time that the O'Callaghan decision of 1966 is out of date. The interpretation of the Constitution by the Supreme Court may not have been out of joint with the times in 1966 but it certainly is now. It becomes more irrelevant and wreaks more injustice on the population at large as each day passes. It is not an exaggeration to say that the interpretation of the Constitution by the Supreme Court means that our bail laws are gravely unjust.

The law in this area is complex and the question as to whether a referendum is necessary to change the bail laws, in light of the fact that this was the interpretation of the Constitution by the Supreme Court, exercised many minds, academic and otherwise. The Minister for Justice at the time, Deputy Geoghegan-Quinn, asked the Law Reform Commission to study the matter. However, the present Minister, Deputy Owen, did not agree with that approach and decided unilaterally to pre-empt the commission's decision. She announced that she would do the decent thing and initiate legislation to ask the people whether they wanted to amend the Constitution to enable us to change the bail laws. The Bill proposes to do precisely what the Minister for Justice said it was right and proper to do in advance of the report of the Law Reform Commission. Consequently I am at a total loss to understand the Government's opposition to it.

[859]Mr. Browne: Information on John Browne  Zoom on John Browne  (Carlow-Kilkenny): Why did the previous Government not do so?

Mr. O'Dea: Information on Willie O'Dea  Zoom on Willie O'Dea  The Minister for Justice was overruled by her colleagues who, unlike her, were happy to use the commission as an excuse for inaction and prevarication. However, the commission has now reported and all the excuses have evaporated. I do not have sufficient time to deal in detail with its report but, unlike some, I do not find it particularly enlightening. However, that is neither here nor there — it has reported and there is no further excuse for inaction.

There is an old adage which states that the law is an ass. The donkey-like qualities of our bail laws are best illustrated by reflecting soberly and calmly on how they operate in practice. As our bail laws stand, a house breaker who is thought unlikely to turn up for trial can be denied bail. However, a mass murderer or a serial killer must be granted bail if there is no reason to believe he will fail to turn up for his trial or will interfere with witnesses despite it being abundantly clear that he will continue to kill people in the period leading up to his trial.

Two cases of recent vintage in my own area come to mind. In one case a gentleman was charged with robbery. No violence was involved but he had a number of previous convictions for robbery. On some of those occasions he failed to turn up for trial. That was mentioned at the remand hearing and he was denied bail. The second case was where a person was charged with a particularly gruesome gangland style murder. There was no evidence to suggest that he would interfere with witnesses or that he would not turn up for trial but there was plenty of evidence to show that he had every intention of increasing the body count in the interval leading up to his trial. The court was compelled to give him bail and only the vigilance of the gardaí in Limerick, whom I commend, prevented him from increasing the body count.

There have been a number of trials in [860] the past decade in the United Kingdom and two in particular come to mind. In both cases the people were charged and convicted. The person on trial was charged with serious psychotic type serial killings. Under the more sensible and sane bail laws in the UK they were detained pending trial. They were not released back into the community even though there was no evidence that they would not turn up for trial or interfere with witnesses. They were detained pending trial because of the certainty that they would not be able to stop killing if left on the streets. If those cases had occurred here the courts would have been compelled to release them back into the community. Can anyone seriously argue or advance the proposition that that is logical, right, just or sane? To take an example from literature, the artful dodger would probably be denied bail because the indications would be he would not turn up for trial whereas Jack the Ripper or the Boston Strangler would have to be given bail unless there was something to indicate that they would not turn up for trial or interfere with witnesses. That is the inadequacy and lunacy of our bail laws.

The likelihood of a person reoffending is a criterion for refusing bail in most civilised countries and I am talking about countries where the criminal law regime is more liberal than in Ireland. The reason the law is so framed is to protect the citizens of those countries. Why should our citizens be asked to settle for less? Are we saying our citizens are less entitled to protection than those of other countries? That is what the Bill before the House seeks to address.

I ask the Minister to reflect calmly and honestly on the Bill and do as she promised last March, namely, accept the legislation before the House or introduce legislation which will achieve substantially the same result. Despite the fact that I am asking the Minister to be reasonable and that it is on public record that she stated last March she would do the decent thing, I am somewhat pessimistic.

[861]Mr. Browne: Information on John Browne  Zoom on John Browne  (Carlow-Kilkenny): Oh ye of little faith.

Mr. O'Dea: Information on Willie O'Dea  Zoom on Willie O'Dea  I have little faith and anyone who expects the Minister to do as she promised last March should not hold their breath. The Government will not say, although Deputy Flanagan acknowledged it, that changing the bail laws along the lines suggested will create the need for more prison spaces and that will cost money. It will plead fiscal rectitude. That was its defence when it decided to cancel the prison building programme we put in train.

Mr. Browne: Information on John Browne  Zoom on John Browne  (Carlow-Kilkenny): Is the Deputy's leader not looking for that?

Mr. O'Dea: Information on Willie O'Dea  Zoom on Willie O'Dea  Fiscal rectitude is all very well in its place and an essential component in the management of the economy but we should remember what Thomas Paine said — the fundamental purpose of economics is not wealth, it is not budgets, it is man. We are legislating for the people.

Mr. Currie: Information on Austin Currie  Zoom on Austin Currie  Does the Deputy not have a more recent case to cite than Thomas Paine?

Mr. O'Dea: Information on Willie O'Dea  Zoom on Willie O'Dea  The figures are not an end in themselves. A Government's first and highest duty is to ensure the peace of mind, safety and security of its people. Is it not a sad day for our country when fiscal rectitude is allowed to take precedence over the peace, safety, security and tragically in some cases, the lives of the people? I ask the Minister for Justice to reflect calmly, do the decent thing as she promised last March and accept this Bill.

Mr. Browne: Information on John Browne  Zoom on John Browne  (Carlow-Kilkenny): I compliment Deputy O'Donoghue on bringing in this Bill. He put a lot of effort into it and no matter what advice one receives it is difficult to bring in a Bill. I have said from the Opposition benches that Governments should [862] accept Bills brought in by the Opposition. It was very hard luck that on the day we were discussing this the report was issued. Despite the efforts of Deputy O'Dea——

Mr. O'Donoghue: Information on John O'Donoghue  Zoom on John O'Donoghue  Hard luck? I do not believe in such coincidences.

Mr. Browne: Information on John Browne  Zoom on John Browne  (Carlow-Kilkenny): It may have been bad luck that the Fianna Fáil Minister set up the commission. Deputy O'Dea was advising the Minister but between them they could not come up with an idea so they asked the commission to report on it and lo and behold they were hoist with their own petard.

Mr. D. Ahern: Information on Dermot Ahern  Zoom on Dermot Ahern  Deputy Flanagan castigated him for bringing the Bill forward.

Mr. Browne: Information on John Browne  Zoom on John Browne  (Carlow-Kilkenny): I admire the Deputy's ability and regret that he was caught in this way. However, the Minister could not ignore the report which is a complex one. There is no point in me debating this further now. I was about to inform Fianna Fáil that it must be related to Rip Van Winkle in that, after seven years, it has discovered the answers to our bail laws.

Debate adjourned.


Last Updated: 21/05/2011 16:54:55 First Page Previous Page Page of 140 Next Page Last Page