Tuesday, 24 October 1995
Dáil Éireann Debate
The first six-monthly progress report on the implementation of the recommendations of the review group on the Office of the Attorney General was considered at today's Government meeting. Arrangements are under way to publish the report and I have now placed copies in the Oireachtas Library, with copies of a Government press release.
The report is testimony to the significant progress made to date in implementing the recommendations of the review group. I do not intend to take up the time of the House in reciting from the report. Deputies can see for  themselves the degree of progress which has been achieved in a relatively short time in relation to the provision of resources and the introduction of the most modern office systems in the office of the Attorney General.
In relation to computerised tracking of extradition proceedings the office of the Attorney General now has an operational work management system which allows for the tracking of all cases, including extradition cases, from the time of their receipt in the office.
The Taoiseach: Yes, I am satisfied. I wish to express my appreciation of the work of the review group and also of the Attorney General and his staff in acting so promptly on the recommendations of the review group. This is the first six-monthly report; other matters will be dealt with expeditiously in the next six months.
Mr. O'Dea: The review group recommended that processing of personal injury actions be delegated to the office of the Chief State Solicitor and that a claims manager be appointed by the Chief State Solicitor to value claims. The group also recommended that posts in the advisory section and the parliamentary draftsman section be open to solicitors as well as barristers. Has the Government decided not to follow those recommendations or what is the position in that regard?
The Taoiseach: The post of parliamentary draftsman is open to solicitors. On the processing of claims by the Chief State Solicitor's office in personal injury cases, that is a specific question of which I would need notice, but I will get that information for the Deputy.
Mr. O'Dea: The Taoiseach said the  post of parliamentary draftsman is open to solicitors, but the review group recommended that all posts, from parliamentary draftsman to legal assistant, be open to solicitors. Has that recommendation been accepted by the Government?
The Taoiseach: The report has been accepted by the Government in general terms. The procedure has been established by the Attorney General to furnish six-monthly reports and implement their recommendations. The Government will not make decisions on every individual recommendation but will allow the Attorney General the freedom that should be allowed to a professional of his standing to look at the report in the light of experience elsewhere and decide on the best course of action to take.
In addition to drawing on the review group report, the Attorney General will bring in the advice of professional international law office management consultants to assist him in assessing these decisions. It is best that the Government accept in principle the report but allows the Attorney General a degree of freedom in consultation with the best international expert advice to make decisions on individual recommendations. In cases where I am unable to give the Deputy an answer to a question about a particular recommendation, I will endeavour to provide that information quickly by personal communication or by way of further Dáil question.
The Taoiseach: That matter will be dealt with in the legislation on compellability of witnesses. The decision is that the Attorney General should be  accountable to the Dáil for the administration of his office through the Committee of Public Accounts. As regards the legal advice he tenders to the Government, that is governed by the lawyer-client relationship and the Attorney General should not be accountable for that to anyone other than the Government. The distinction between where he is accountable in regard to administrative and budgetary matters and the matters for which he is accountable only to the Government will be dealt with in some detail and discussed in the House when the relevant legislation comes before it.
Mr. O'Donoghue: In the context of reform of the Attorney General's office, does the Taoiseach believe that transparent guidelines are required in that office to specify when the State should indemnify a Government Minister when sued in his personal capacity?
The Taoiseach: The matter to which the Deputy referred is not covered in the subject matter of Deputy Ahern's question relating to computerisation or Deputy O'Dea's question relating to the recommendations of the review group. It is not covered in the questions tabled by the Deputy's party and I respectfully suggest that it does not arise under this question.
Mr. O'Donoghue: Will the Taoiseach answer the question in view of his stated public commitment to transparency and openness? It was raised in the context of the reform of the Attorney General's office and is a matter of public interest as there is taxpayers' money at stake and the public is entitled to a reply.
The Taoiseach: I most certainly will answer any question tabled to me adjudged to be in order under the rules  of the House by the Ceann Comhairle. However, it is prudent that those questions should be tabled in the normal way and dealt with in accordance with the rules of order as to admissibility of questions by the Ceann Comhairle. I will provide full answers to any questions adjudged to be in order and tabled to me.
Mr. J. Mitchell: At present the Attorney General is not accountable to anybody in this House. The Office of the Attorney General is one of those offices like that of the office of the DPP which is independent either under the Constitution or under law. Will the Taoiseach agree it is timely to make a distinction between “independence” and “accountability” so that such independent offices are appropriately accountable directly to the House or to one of its committees?
The Taoiseach: As of now the Attorney General is accountable to the Government under the Constitution, it being the body that appoints him. That has been the position regarding Attorneys General since the Constitution was enacted in 1937. In response to a question by Deputy Harney I said that the Government has been considering this matter and its current view is that some provision should be made for the Attorney General or his head of administration to report to the Committee of Public Accounts in regard to the  expenditure of moneys, matters of financial and administrative accountability, the normal functions that come within the remit of that committee and the Comptroller and Auditor General but not in regard to policy or legal advice matters. That is not now the case, but it may become the position if the Government proceeds on the lines of its current thinking.
The wider question the Deputy raised of the balance to be struck between “accountability” and “independence” is one that arises in respect of a number of offices. It is not an easy one to address. There is not a simple formula that can be adopted to deal with that question. Regarding certain functions, independence is often of great importance to preserve civil liberties and to avoid political pressure but those are not matters that can be dealt with on a black or white basis. There are degrees of importance that would be attached to independence in regard to different offices. In some offices the requirement for independence is of a very high order and, therefore, the consequent level of accountability is correspondingly less. In others there is a requirement for a greater degree of accountability and, by extension, a somewhat lesser degree of independence is justifiable in light of the functions being performed. It is not possible to enunciate a general principle on this matter, one must consider each office on a case by case basis and make decisions accordingly.
Mr. D. Ahern: The Programme for Government espoused openness and transparency. Regarding the proposal that the Attorney General or a member of his staff should report to the Committee of Public Accounts, will the Taoiseach give an undertaking that the Attorney General or a member of his staff will be in a position to inform that committee regarding settlements or cases that have been decided? Last Christmas evidence before that committee indicated that approximately 3,000 cases per annum are taken against the State at any one time and that many of  them are dealt with in the courts or settled privately. Will the Taoiseach give some undertaking to examine the matter and give a commitment that perhaps the Attorney General and his office will be able to give such information to the committee? I also wish to ask the Taoiseach——
Mr. D. Ahern: There is a sparse legislative programme this week. A commitment was given in A Government of Renewal to increase efficiency in terms of processing matters that pass through the Attorney General's office. Is the Taoiseach satisfied with the present position?
The Taoiseach: I will deal with the last part of the Deputy's question first. The Deputy is aware that the Government is in the process of recruiting additional parliamentary draftsmen. As parliamentary drafting is a delaying factor in the production of legislation that should alleviate the problem. We are recruiting a number of parliamentary draftsmen but at a minimum it takes a newly recruited parliamentary draftsman two years of work on the job to reach the point that he or she is fully fledged and able to work independently of the normal level of supervision that would apply to an apprentice in any area of work. In view of that as the House is aware, the Attorney General is seeking to bring in outside parliamentary drafting expertise on a contract basis. Parliamentary drafting is a precise science. It is not sufficient to have a good general knowledge of the law and to have practised it. A certain element of architecture in the drafting of a Bill is required independent of a good knowledge of the law. We are looking for specific drafting skills.
The Taoiseach: The other question the Deputy raised concerned the issue of settlements. It is generally in the State's interest to act as any other person or organisation in receipt of legal proceedings, to have the capacity to settle cases out of court from the point of view of legal costs. Sometimes it can be a requirement of those settlements that the terms are not published and both sides agree to that. If the State does so it must respect that decision even before the Committee of Public Accounts. I will consider the matter of other settlements. I cannot go further than that in response to the Deputy's question.
Mr. J. Mitchell: Will the Taoiseach agree that the present line of accountability in the Attorney General's office is unsatisfactory? The Estimates for the office are presented by the Minister for Finance, political questions relating to it are put to the Taoiseach and the accounting officer, who is not the head of the office, must come before the Committee of Public Accounts. Will he agree that it is time to rationalise that line of accountability to a committee of the House?
The Taoiseach: The accounting officer of all Government Departments is the person who comes before the committee in respect of all Votes and he or she is not the Minister in the case of any office, therefore there is no concern about that point. I share the Deputy's puzzlement regarding the historical reasons the Minister for Finance is responsible for the Vote and I am responsible for answering here. The offices are so structured that in some  cases I am not able to answer because of the independence or constitutional or legal requirements that apply to the office in question. There is an anomaly there. I hope that at some stage in the next five or ten years I will be able to deal with it.
Mr. Dempsey: The programme, A Government of Renewal, referred to accountability of officers such as the Attorney General. We have accountability on financial matters as outlined by the Deputy. Is the Taoiseach now saying that the commitment in the programme, A Government of Renewal, to have the Attorney General come before a committee of the House has been abandoned by the Government?
The Taoiseach: The Government is proposing to make provisions in regard to the Attorney General reporting to the House in a way which is consistent with his consitutional obligations. Obviously, the Government or any programme for Government, cannot go beyond what the Constitution allows. It is important to bear in mind that the Attorney General is an independent constitutional officer, not an officer of this House. He is not subject to this House in the same way as is for example, a Minister. On the other hand there is a legitimate interest in the work of the office and the Government will do everything it can to account for that office. Both I and my predecessor have had to account and do account for the Attorney General's office.
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