Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees
Wednesday, 19 June 2013
Select Committee on Justice, Defence and Equality
Estimates for Public Services 2013
Vote 20 - Garda S&amp;amp;iacute;och&amp;amp;aacute;na (Revised)
Vote 21 - Prisons (Revised)
Vote 22 - Courts Service (Revised)
Vote 23 - Property Registration Authority (Revised)
Vote 24 - Justice and Equality (Revised)
This meeting has been convened to allow the select committee consider the Revised Estimates for Votes 20 to 24, inclusive. I welcome the Minister for Justice and Equality, Deputy Alan Shatter, and his officials to the meeting. I propose we begin with a brief opening statement from the Minister, followed by any comments and questions from members.
I apologise for being a few minutes late. I am delighted members have taken their jackets off as this gives me the excuse to do the same.
I welcome the opportunity to meet with the committee to consider the 2013 Estimates for my Department's group of Votes. While I am obviously pleased that in gross terms the Estimate available for the justice Vote group in 2013 is more than €2.2 billion, the unavoidable fact is that, as Minister for Justice and Equality, I have €190 million less available to me in current expenditure for 2013 than for the corresponding Estimate in 2011. The only consolation is that under plans published by our predecessors in Government and agreed with the troika in 2010, I would have had considerably less available to me for the justice Vote group for 2012 and 2013 had I not succeeded in having some of the proposed reductions restored.
We are now working with reduced numbers and budgets at a time when demand for services across the justice sector and others is increasing. Thus, despite reducing our borrowing, we are still dependent on €12 billion of bailout funding this year. It is critical for our future sustainability that we show that we are moving in the right direction, further reducing our borrowing each year. Any other approach would lead to a very difficult situation in relation to borrowing which, in turn, would lead inevitably to a very sharp-shock cut in public spending. This would have severe consequences for the Irish people in general. This means savings must be secured in every area of public expenditure, including the justice sector. It is important that we do not allow ourselves or the public we serve to be overtaken by doom and gloom. Much has been achieved in the past two years and this will continue under this Government.
By far the largest part of the justice budget, almost €1.4 billion in gross terms in 2013, goes to An Garda Síochána. The pay and superannuation component amounts to 87% of the total allocation and reflects the central role that staffing resources, more than 13,000 full-time sworn members, more than 1,000 Garda Reserve members and more than 2,000 civilian staff, play in the work of An Garda Síochána. The key outputs in the Garda Estimate are based on the four strategic goals in the current policing plan of An Garda Síochána, namely, securing our nation, proactive policing operations, ensuring safe communities and delivering a professional service. At its heart is An Garda Síochána's primary objective of preventing, detecting and disrupting crime and criminal activity and ensuring that people feel safe in their homes, on our roads and in our community.
The effective work of An Garda Síochána is illustrated by the targeted programmes put in place to respond to particular types of crime. Faced with an increase in burglary towards the end of 2011 and into 2012, the Commissioner put in place Operation Fiacla to confront this problem head-on. Operation Fiacla is intelligence-led and relies on detailed analysis carried out by the Garda Síochána analysis service, of crime trends and other relevant data to ensure that the best use is being made of Garda resources. Specific burglary related initiatives are being implemented in each Garda region in support of Operation Fiacla. Their success and the success of the overall operation is clear. According to most recent figures, 5,233 persons have been arrested and 2,903 charged as at the end of May. Furthermore, I have been informed by the Garda authorities that Operation Acer, which forms part of Operation Fiacla in the Dublin region, is having a positive impact on burglary rates in the Dublin area, with a reduction of burglaries by more than 10% since the operation's introduction. These policing operations illustrate the point that freeing up gardaí from desk jobs does in fact deliver more effective policing services for the public. What really matters is results, not maintaining the status quojust for the sake of it, and under the Commissioner's management, those results are being delivered.
There are pressures in the Garda Vote in 2013. It is also clear, given that the bulk of expenditure in the Vote is in the area of payroll and superannuation, that these pressures are mainly centred in those areas. As with every other Vote, the budgetary figures also reflect the financial impact of the proposed measures under the Public Service Stability Agreement 2013-2016, namely, the Haddington Road agreement. Members will be all too aware that for the Government to meet its targets under the troika arrangement and regain our economic sovereignty reductions of €300 million are required in the public sector pay bill in 2013 and overall savings of €1 billion by 2015. Unfortunately, no area of the public sector can be protected from this requirement. Clearly, the numbers of serving Garda personnel and civilian staff impact on the payroll bill and any resumption of Garda recruitment would have financial implications that must be managed within the overall resources available to Government. I believe that it is important for an organisation such as the Garda Síochána to have some regular intakes of new recruits, even if on a modest scale. I am currently engaged in discussions with my colleague, the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, to see how this aim can best be progressed.
I can assure the committee that, despite the very significant financial constraints that the Government is working under, I will leave no stone unturned to provide the necessary resources for the Commissioner to carry out the work of the force. In particular, I will continue to ensure that there is additional funding available for the Garda fleet - €5 million in 2013 on top of €3 million in additional funding in 2012. Some €4 million in total was made available in 2012. While we are challenged by the number of Garda vehicles being decommissioned, the Government is well aware of the importance of gardaí being able to respond effectively to criminal activity. I will continue to press for additional funding for the fleet but this will be contingent on expenditure in other areas across and outside the justice sector between now and the end of the year.
Turning now to prisons,a gross expenditure budget of €328.5 million is being provided for the prisons Vote in 2013. As can be seen from an examination of the key outputs in 2012, significant progress is being made in achieving the overarching objective of expenditure in the prisons Vote, namely, to provide safe and secure custody, dignity of care, and rehabilitation to prisoners for safer communities. Despite less than satisfactory prison conditions in Cork and Limerick prisons, it was possible to reduce overcrowding in 2012, with reductions in average daily occupancy rates of 12% and 13% respectively. This is only a temporary measure. In all, a capital budget of €23.1 million has been provided for prisons building projects in 2013. In the current financial environment, securing that essential funding has been a major achievement.
A major capital project to provide an accommodation block providing 300 prisons spaces at the midlands prison was completed and opened in December 2012. Construction of a new Cork prison, which will house 275 prisoners, is due to commence in October this year. Members will be aware that a motion in relation to this was passed yesterday in the Dáil. I expect the necessary two-section Bill to formally authorise the construction of that prison to come before both Houses soon. The construction of a new wing at Limerick prison, to replace the outdated A and B wings, also forms part of the Prisons Service 40-month capital plan. The tender process for this project is expected to commence shortly. In addition, the refurbishment project, including the installation of in-cell sanitation, in Mountjoy Prison is continuing. The C and B wings were completed in 2012 and work on the A wing is due for completion in September. I am pleased to say that slopping out in Mountjoy Prison will end later this year, when work on the final wing, the D wing, takes place.
A number of initiatives have been introduced by the Prison Service to ensure better outcomes for offenders. These measures include increased participation in structured activities and the integrated sentence management system which involves some 1,100 prisoners. A further effective development has been the introduction of an incentivised regimes policy in all prisons. This policy provides for a differentiation of privileges between prisoners according to their level of engagement with services and quality of behaviour. The objective is to provide tangible incentives to prisoners to participate in structured activities and to reinforce incentives for good behaviour, leading to a safer and more secure environment for both prisoners and staff. A further measure, the community return project, operated in conjunction with the Probation Service, provides for earned and structured temporary release to be offered to offenders who pose no threat to society in return for supervised community service. During 2012, 299 prisoners participated in this scheme. Also, communities benefited from the work undertaken pursuant to that scheme.
It is clear that the reform agenda is being well progressed in the Prison Service.
Joint task reviews are under way or already complete in a number of prisons and the prison service college and the implementation of the recommendations made in these reports has begun. In addition, recruitment of prison administrative support officers is continuing. These officers, who are being redeployed from elsewhere in the Civil Service, will carry out administrative tasks previously undertaken by prison officers. This will allow us to release these fully trained prison clerks from administration tasks to essential front-line duties. The introduction of this new grade will ultimately deliver €3.5 million per annum in payroll savings.
The gross budget allocated to the courts Vote in 2013 is €104.959 million. There is also an appropriations-in-aid allocation of €46.635 million, of which €42.493 million relates to fees for various categories of courts transactions. All expenditure in the courts Vote is directed towards one key programme entitled Managing the Courts and Supporting the Judiciary.
Like other Votes in the justice sector, the Courts Service is not immune from budgetary reductions. Also in common with other areas in the sector, the Courts Service has embarked on a significant transformation programme in recent years. While little used and, in some cases, inadequate court venues are being closed, I am pleased that seven court building projects are being progressed under the Government's infrastructure stimulus package. These building projects will be progressed as public private partnerships, PPPs. I remind members that in this context, the Courts Service led the way in an earlier round of PPPs, with the Criminal Courts of Justice building put in place under this arrangement.
Infrastructural projects of this nature yield benefits and reduce the costs of the administration of justice. Newer buildings can be equipped and fitted out with the latest technology and this enables more court business to be undertaken by video link with prisons. This reduces costs, not alone for the Courts Service, but also for the prison service, with fewer officers away from their places of work while accompanying prisoners to court. A number of changes are also under way in the operation of the Criminal Courts of Justice which will result in considerable efficiencies for the prison service.
A pilot project has also commenced for the centralisation of custodial cases at one court location in each of four District Court regions. This is generating further savings for the prison service. These cross-sectoral initiatives have not occurred by accident and great credit is due to the leadership and initiative shown by the board, management and staff of the Courts Service and other justice sector areas involved in these reforms.
It is also appropriate at this point to make reference to the referendum planned for later this year on the establishment of a court of appeal. The need for a court of appeal arises mainly from the ongoing significant backlog of cases before the Supreme Court and the consequent long delays in cases being dealt with by that court. The new court of appeal will deal with most cases currently dealt with by the Supreme Court, thus reducing its workload and allowing it to focus on the development of the law. The Supreme Court in Ireland, unlike in other common law jurisdictions, is the court of final appeal in all cases. This means that, whereas in other countries the Supreme Court mainly deals with cases involving substantial points of law or issues of major public importance, in Ireland it is taken up with issues ranging from routine interlocutory orders to the major constitutional issues and everything in between.
As I have indicated previously, I intend to publish the proposed constitutional amendments as early as possible in order to give people time to reflect on what is proposed and allow for a rational and considered debate. As was the case in previous referenda, my Department will make a budget available to the Referendum Commission for the necessary public information campaign associated with the referendum and the expenditure will ultimately be reflected in the justice Vote under the commissions and special inquiries subhead.
The Property Registration Authority, PRA, has a net budgetary provision of €31.232 million in the current year. The authority has driven many changes in recent years in the services it provides and the way it does its work. For example, the digitisation of all its mapping records, together with other investment in its technology, has led to full roll-out of an on-line access facility to the land register for all citizens. In addition, the authority continues to work with other public service organisations in order that they can also derive full value from the data held within the PRA database. This is a further example of a joined-up public sector in action, involving with the PRA, the local authorities, the OPW, the Revenue Commissioners and other State agencies involved in developing property interest registers.
The final Vote in the justice group is the Department of Justice and Equality Vote which contains in the region of 60 subheads broken into six programmes. This Vote, in essence, sums up the main functions of my Department which are to maintain a secure Ireland; work for safe communities; facilitate the provision and administration of justice; promote equality and integration; represent Ireland's interests abroad; and contribute to economic recovery. I do not intend in these opening remarks to cover in detail all the individual programmes and in most cases the subheads in each programme are self-explanatory. However, I wish to comment briefly on the programme dealing with economic recovery. There is a budgetary provision of almost €7.4 million and a sanctioned head count complement of 91 staff in the 2013 Estimates for the new Personal Insolvency Service. As members will be aware, the Personal Insolvency Service is a completely new and vital service. While it is never easy to get a new organisation off the ground, in this case I am very happy with the progress being made. The service was officially established on 1 March, but a considerable amount of background work had already been taking place prior to that date. The committee will be aware that the information campaign is well under way and, in accordance with the Personal Insolvency Act 2012, the service has already prepared and issued guidelines as to what constitutes reasonable standard of living expenses. Further intensive work continues in a number of areas with a view to having a full service implemented at the earliest possible date. I expect this week to sign the statutory instrument for the regulation of personal insolvency practitioners.
Members will note that a subhead has been introduced under programme seven with respect to the Magdalen fund. This is to reflect the Government's decision that a fund should be established for those women who were in the Magadalen laundries and women who were is a similar position in the Stanhope Street laundry. The financial allocation and a decision on the detailed operation of the fund will be made after careful consideration of the findings in Mr. Justice Quirke's report on how the Government might best provide supports for the women involved. The report will be considered by the Government shortly and it is expected that both it and the Government's response to the recommendations will then be published.
There is a very broad spectrum of activity within the justice Vote area and despite the many competing priorities, it is very important, in so far as possible, that funding be maintained to front-line services. This is particularly the case in relation to those areas which support An Garda Síochána in the ongoing fight against serious crime. The Criminal Assets Bureau, the forensic science and State laboratories will have a combined budget of €19 million in 2013. In addition, I will ensure, through my Department's legislative programme, that the powers of the Criminal Assets Bureau are further strengthened, where necessary. This is entirely appropriate as the work of the bureau continues to highlight the effectiveness of a co-ordinated, multi-agency approach to targeting the proceeds of criminal conduct.
The total Estimate for the justice sector in 2013 is over €2.2 billion in gross terms and almost €2 billion in net terms. As I have set out, it covers five Votes and a broad range of areas within the justice and equality sector. The work of the sector is expanding and resources are contracting. This constitutes a very significant challenge across all areas; hence, the crucial importance of the various reform programmes in place. It is simply not an option to continue blindly with old models and ways of doing things. Reform and more efficient ways of delivering services are crucial to the operation of the sector. We will continue to work in this vein and while respecting the individual Vote structure, we will continue to monitor our budgets at Vote group level to ensure we get maximum value from the €2 billion available to the sector in 2013.
I am happy to address questions about the Estimates which members of the committee may have.
I refer to the Courts Service and the forthcoming referendum on the establishment of a court of civil appeal and the family law court. Will the referendum be held on the same date as the referendum on the abolition of the Seanad?
In that context, has the Department assessed the impact that this measure, presuming the referendum is passed, and the passing of the Courts Bill 2013, which proposes to amend the monetary limits that apply to the High Court and the Circuit Court, would have on the workload of the Circuit Court when cases are considered by it rather than the High Court? Will these changes have an impact on the overall budget of the Courts Service? In other words, will the Circuit Court be adequately resourced? Will it have enough capacity to deal with the increased caseload that will inevitably fall to it?
I would like to ask about the 91 staff of the Insolvency Service of Ireland. Were they transferred to the service from different parts of the civil and public service? What is the estimated date on which the insolvency service will go live? The Minister mentioned that he is signing the personal insolvency practitioners regulation later this week.
My final question also relates to the Courts Service. The fines collection rate is hovering between 70% and 80%. Does the Minister have any proposals in that regard? Has he considered the deduction of fines at source?
I expect the Bill to provide for a referendum on the court of appeal, covering both the criminal and the civil court, to be published soon. It is intended that the referendum will coincide with the referendum on the Seanad. I expect both referendums to take place in the early autumn. It was originally anticipated that the referendums would take place somewhat later - in early November, rather than in early October as is now anticipated.
In advance of the court of appeal referendum, my Department organised a very useful consultative seminar in the Law Society building some months ago. Various branches of the legal profession and members of the Judiciary were invited to the seminar. We also launched a request for submissions at that time. The submissions we received have been of great help in deciding on the wording for the referendum and the composition of the back-up legislation that will be required in establishing the court. Other groups and organisations were also represented at the seminar.
A seminar on the proposed new family court structure will take place on the first Friday or Saturday of July. I think it will happen on the Saturday. I am anxious to provide for a similar lead-in period and consultative phase in this instance. We want to draw up the heads of the Bill that will set up the new structure, as opposed to merely providing for the necessary constitutional amendment, in advance of the referendum on the family court. As we are concerned that the timeframe to do so is too short, it is now envisaged that the family court referendum will take place in 2014 rather than in 2013. The referendum on the court of appeal will take place in the early autumn, as I have said.
I mentioned during the Seanad debate that the change in the jurisdiction of the High Court and the Circuit Court under the Courts Bill 2013 will have a number of impacts. I appreciate that the Bill has not yet come before the Dáil. I understand it will be introduced there in early July, after it has been dealt with in the Seanad. It is hoped that the Bill will complete its passage through both Houses before we go on vacation at the end of July. There has been no change in court jurisdictions since 1991. The low level of jurisdiction in the District Court means it deals with cases capped at a much lower value, in real terms, than would have been the case in 1991. The Circuit Court is in a similar position. Far too many cases are now in the High Court. It has been estimated that at least 30% of the civil law work that currently goes into the Circuit Court will be dealt with in the District Court as a result of the extension of the jurisdiction of the District Court to €15,000. That will free up work in the Circuit Court and allow work to be taken out of the High Court and into the Circuit Court.
One cannot predict the exact number of cases with absolute certainty because there will be an interregnum period when cases that were commenced before the jurisdictional change work their way through the courts system. I have assured the Presidents of both courts, the Courts Service and the Chief Justice that we will keep a match on how things are going to ensure there are no difficulties in dealing with jurisdictional change. Clearly, this measure will result in an increase in the number of cases being dealt with at District Court level. The question of whether it will result in the Circuit Court having to deal with an increased number of cases in real terms, or will simply involve a change in the jurisdictional levels, is an open one. We know it will reduce the number of cases going into the High Court for initial hearings.
As the courts work their way through the backlog following the formation of the court of appeal, ultimately far fewer appeals will be made to the Supreme Court, which will be holding its sittings in a divisional manner with two groups of Supreme Court judges and will be able to work through its own backlog. There will be a significant adjustment period as the court of appeal is put in place. The manner in which that will work will become clear when the wording of the constitutional amendment is agreed by the Cabinet. We hope there will be a more rational spread of the financial jurisdictions before the courts to reflect the change in inflation since 1991 and the additional area of appreciation.
One cannot change the jurisdictions of the courts every couple of years. A degree of stability is needed. It is quite likely that ten years will pass after this Courts Bill is enacted before the financial jurisdictions are changed again. That seems to be the pattern. On this occasion, there was a gap of more than 20 years. We will keep a watching brief on whether the additional pressures on any one of the courts arising from the change of jurisdiction require to be addressed. I know the Courts Service, the Chief Justice and the Presidents of the other courts will rapidly inform us if difficulties arise.
A number of those working for the Insolvency Service of Ireland were transferred from other parts of the public service. As I said earlier, the Department of Public Expenditure sanctioned an overall staff complement of 91. The insolvency service has been working with the Public Appointments Service to take staff from the civil and public service redeployment panel. A circular seeking expressions of interest was circulated by the Public Appointments Service to all relevant Departments and agencies across the civil and public service in January. Eighty of the 91 positions have been filled through this process. New staff are being assigned on a phased basis with a view to the insolvency service being fully staffed by the end of this month. I know from my own contacts that a small number of people with specialist knowledge may have to be acquired other than though the normal transfer process. In these cases, advertisements seeking job applications will be published.
We have gone a huge way. Eighty of the 91 staff have been transferred in. As I have said on a number of occasions, everything went online in March and I expect to bring the legislation into operation in early July. The service will then be operating. Information technology systems are being put in place to facilitate all of the necessary work, such as the processing of debt resolution proposals, being done online. I understand an enormous amount of work has been done to ensure the dealings between the insolvency service and the courts will not involve a paper trail and will take place online, in so far as is possible.
I understand all of this should be up and running by the end of the third week in July, but I envisage that the service will formally start earlier than that date because, clearly, there will be no applications to go through on day one. The objective is that it will primarily be an online service. Obviously, forms have to be filled in and signed in the normal way, but they will be processed in as modern a way as is possible to avoid unnecessary paperwork, expense and duplication.
On the fines collection rate, as Deputies know, I have said on a number of occasions that I hope the fines (amendment) Bill will be published shortly. I had originally hoped we might have had it a little earlier this year. I am advised that work between my Department and the Attorney General's office is being completed and that it will be a matter of weeks, as opposed to months, before the Bill is published. The Bill will provide for improved mechanisms for the collection of fines, including attachment of earnings. There were difficulties with the legislation enacted during the time of my predecessor which envisaged a new form of collection service, although a number of amendments were needed for that work to proceed. The primary approach will be by way of attachment of earnings. Where people do not pay their fines, there will be provision for periodical voluntary payment of fines by individuals who want to pay their fines over a period of months rather than in one fell swoop, where that is appropriate. There will be provision to ensure prison for non-payment of fines will be very much a last resort. We are introducing the possibility for those who fail to pay their fines of undertaking community service as an alternative where there is fine default.
That is one of the areas that is still being dealt with in the development of the Bill. It is an issue of some difficulty and I cannot give the Deputy a definitive answer as I do not want to mislead him. With attachment of earnings, if people are employees, it works, but if someone is self-employed, the attachment mechanism is of no use because it is that individual who should be making the payments in the first place. When one is dealing with social welfare payments, one of the issues one is addressing is how well this arrangement will work in practice. If we take it that most social welfare payments are to provide for a minimum level of money for an individual or a family, when dealing with an attachment of earnings order - as some Deputies will know, this system has been in place since 1976 in family law terms - the portion of someone's earnings that can be attached is that portion that is not regarded as essential in meeting his or her basic needs; therefore, one can never attach the total amount. Many social welfare payments are about meeting basic needs and there is not a huge differential between what people need and what can be attached. However, I do consider it important, where people on social welfare are fined, that this issue be considered and addressed in the drafting of the Bill.
One of the issues of which I was very conscious was that the previous legislation enacted by my predecessor, first, did not provide for attachment of earnings and, second, meant that if a fine could not be collected, the only penalty was imprisonment. Introducing community service as an alternative saves taxpayer's money and means prison places are not occupied by individuals for what inevitably are very short periods. It also saves the huge expense and resources involved in members of the Garda having to pick up people to bring them to the Prison Service and in having prison officers check them in for what are often very short stays in prison. Instead, an individual will be supervised by the Probation Service while undertaking community service to the benefit of local communities, which I consider much more preferable to jail for non-payment of fines. Clearly, jail has to be the ultimate sanction for individuals who do not co-operate in undertaking community service.
When committee members visited New York recently, they came across the community courts service, which puts huge emphasis on community service and which seems to be extraordinarily effective. It is something we had discussed at the committee previously and I was highly impressed by it.
The reduction in expenditure is due to a reduction in numbers who require direct provision accommodation. As I have said on other occasions, the direct provision system provides a roof over the heads of those seeking asylum or those who have been refused asylum and make other applications for leave to remain in the country. As my predecessors discovered, in the context of the expenditure involved, it is the most economical way of providing for those who are effectively in the country illegally but who are seeking permission to stay for a variety of reasons. I personally do not regard it as the most ideal system and wish there was a better one. In the current economic climate I do not see the current direct provision arrangements changing, but I am anxious to ensure the best possible standards are maintained for individuals in direct provision accommodation and also for their children. For the time being, however, I see the system continuing.
I hope that when we are finally able to both publish and enact the immigration and asylum legislation that has now been under preparation for a substantial period of time, it will provide us with a system that will facilitate, in all but very exceptional cases, applications from those who seek asylum in this country, leave to remain or other permission to remain, all being dealt with in one application, and that will result in appeals being dealt with appropriately and promptly. Ultimately, my objective is to put in place a system under which an individual who comes to our borders to claim asylum can, except in exceptionally difficult circumstances, have that application determined within six months of making it. That will reduce the need for direct provision accommodation and create a situation where, on the one hand, individuals who are here unlawfully and have no entitlement to remain will either leave voluntarily or be deported within six months of making the application and, on the other, where people who are properly seeking asylum are granted it, are not kept in direct provision accommodation for lengthy periods of time and can get on with their lives in the wider community. However, I cannot move to that system until the new legislation is enacted.
I have a number of themes to cover. I want to deal, first, with the issue of prisons. The committee has submitted to the Minister and his Department its report on penal reform which contains five key recommendations. We had a chance to discuss it briefly yesterday during the debate on the Cork Prison motion. I believe and know the members of the committee believe that not only would our five proposals, if implemented, lead to a better prison and criminal justice system, in that we would have genuine rehabilitation or certainly improved rehabilitation programmes across the board which obviously would be better for society, but they would also cost less. We are calling for a decarceration strategy, a reduction in prison numbers of one third in the next ten years, the use of community service, the use of restorative justice as an option in dealing with minor criminal offences and improvements in regard to remission rates which the Minister mentioned. A prisoner receives a 25% remission rate, essentially for keeping his or her head down. We are arguing that it be genuinely incentivised through being linked with rehabilitation and training programmes and increased to 33%.
I want to get the Minister's thoughts on our report as a contribution to cost saving measures and introducing a more effective system in the next few years.
I thank members of the committee for the report and the work that was done on it. That report is feeding into a process in my Department, as part of which I set up a committee involving not just officials but a number of other individuals such as Liam Herrick from the Irish Penal Reform Trust and which I expect to report to me in October. We are looking at what additional reforms can be implemented and how we go about it. I have a number of different strands I must ensure I deal with correctly as Minister for Justice. Where individuals are sentenced by our courts, it is important that the sentence is appropriate to the crime committed. That is obviously a matter for the Judiciary. All I can do as Minister is provide the Judiciary with a range of sentencing options. The Judiciary must then choose from that range. As a result of my concerns that the community service option was not being used to the extent it could be, we enacted the Criminal Justice (Community Service) (Amendment) Act 2011. I remarked that in the context of information available for 2012, I was disappointed that it did not appear that the courts were utilising community service as much as they could. As Minister for Justice, I am very conscious that I must ensure that the sentence fits the crime and that all the appropriate options are used. Of course, there are circumstances where to protect the community and to express the wider community's revulsion at the nature of a crime, it is appropriate that individuals serve sentences of imprisonment. Ultimately, where the Judiciary is given options, it is for its members to determine whether or not prison is appropriate. It is very important that while the Minister for Justice of the day provides for the options and while I urge the use of community service where it is appropriate - and it is right that I do so - ultimately, it is a matter of independent judicial discretion as to what is appropriate in the context of sentencing.
As we know, some work has been done with regard to consistency in sentencing. A recent publication indicated again that sentences do not always appear to be consistent. As a lawyer who practised in the courts, I am also very conscious that on occasions, what may appear inconsistent from a media report may be quite rational, logical, correct and consistent when one knows the total detail of a case that has been before our courts. There are often particular details, issues or background information that influence a judge's decision and some of that information does not get reported or if it is reported, is not reported in a manner in which it is clear what occurred in court was understood. I know the Courts Service and Judiciary are addressing these areas.
We are currently working on the judicial council legislation. I very much welcome the fact that the Judiciary last year effectively put in place its own judicial council which is a non-statutory body. It is very much in the public interest that the judicial council, independent of Government, addresses the issue of consistency of sentencing and that the Judiciary assists its members in being consistent.
To return to the particular issue, the area in which the Minister for Justice has a role is what happens once people are sent to prison. As I already mentioned, we have the incentivised regime that is in place to encourage good conduct and participation in programmes that may assist an individual with difficulties or education programmes. That is important. The suggestion made by the committee that provision be made for a one-third remission as opposed to a one-quarter remission for those who, firstly, do not pose a risk to the community and, secondly, who have behaved well in prison is a very useful proposal, if I can put it that way. It is something to which I have already given some consideration. It would require changes, not in our statutory provisions but in our statutory instruments. It is one of the issues we will address later in the year when the internal committee has finished its deliberations.
Can we reduce the prison population to the numbers the committee mentioned? Again, to an extent, that is not the decision of myself as Minister for Justice nor will it be the decision of any of my successors because, ultimately, it is a matter for the Judiciary. We tend to lose sight of this. The Judiciary has a range of options from simply dismissing a case under the Probation Act to imposing a fine to imposing a sentence or suspended, partially suspended or partial direct sentence to using a mixture of fines and sentencing. One issue that arises that I know is being publicly discussed is the question of whether when a life sentence is imposed, it should be left to the discretion of the Executive, as now occurs, to ultimately determine the length of that life sentence or whether we should introduce, as has occurred in Great Britain, a provision where the Judiciary lays down the minimum period that must be served pursuant to a life sentence. That is an interesting issue because there are differing arguments.
These are all really important issues. I genuinely thank the committee for the work it has done. I anticipate that I will publish the report that will come to me arising out of my own group's work, into which this committee has fed. The report will come to this committee towards the end of the year and will substantially impact on where we go with policy issues. Do I believe we could have fewer individuals in prison with a different approach to sentencing? It remains my view that some individuals may be better served through community service. However, with minor offences where an individual has committed a series of crimes, all of which have brought them on a repetitive basis before the District Court, one crime may on the face of it look to be a minor crime but there is a history of repetitive criminality. In these circumstances, it would be quite reasonable for any judge to reach a conclusion that this individual should serve a sentence for the protection of the community and for them to understand the consequences of their actions if they have not done so by now, particularly in circumstances where they have in the past, to use a non-legal term, "got off under the Probation Act" and been fined or made to do community service. I am sure members of the Judiciary take account of this. Some states in the US have the "three strikes" rule where it does not matter how minor the crime is. If people have been convicted on a third occasion, even if that occasion involved stealing dolly mixtures from a sweetshop, they may find themselves facing life imprisonment. I do not want to see that system in this country but it is all based on getting across the message that individuals must recognise that they have a responsibility to the community in which they live and that there is no excuse for repetitive offending.
We would not disagree regarding repeat offenders and someone who is a repeated threat to their community. If we could bring in legislation on a sentencing council and sentencing guidelines that is similar to what is in Great Britain, that would help. We can give a framework to the Judiciary. I appreciate the point that we are not in sole control of incarceration but I will throw it out there. I am not looking for a detailed exchange. The Irish Penal Reform Trust invited the Honourable Mr. Justice Colman Treacy over from Great Britain last year and he met the committee. The system in Great Britain is very impressive.
I looked at it again recently but I will leave that aside.
We do not want to go below the 13,000 threshold and there is a period needed to train gardaí. I see that the travel budget has increased and I presume that reflects the closure of Garda stations and the need to have more mobile patrols moving around. The Minister's and Commissioner's argument about going back to the days of the RIC and police officers on bicycles is a strong one but they need to replace the garda in the 750 stations, and the 140 that have been closed, with more mobile patrols and vehicles. The feedback I get says that is not necessarily happening. What are the Minister's views on that?
The Minister says he is considering an attachment of earnings or social welfare for the payment of fines. I understand that the property tax legislation allows for a deduction from social welfare. One of the things that angers the public is that when some people receive a fine they are happy to go to jail for a few days rather than pay the fine which makes a mockery of the legal system. There is a saying "pay no fine, do the time". Regardless of who the citizen is there has to be some mechanism of making him or her pay instead of going to jail unless that is absolutely necessary.
I welcome the court of appeal referendum later this year but the courts system is very clogged up, not just at the higher level in the Supreme Court. There is a considerable backlog at the European Court of Justice too. What are the Minister's thoughts on separating family law from civil law as he intends to do? How do we ensure that we have separate court systems that run efficiently? People face huge costs. One can talk about the legal services regulation Bill but if the system makes people wait a long time, stress and resentment will build up, as will legal costs. What is the Minister's vision for reforming the system from the Circuit Court and District Court right up to the top?
The Deputy mentioned prisons. We have to remember, and I see this on a weekly basis, that unfortunately we have in this State, as every state has, individuals who engage in appalling violence and commit barbaric crimes, whether homicides or vicious and appalling assaults, which effectively destroy the lives of individuals who survive those assaults. Women are raped, children are sexually assaulted. There are individuals who are prepared both to threaten and to take life for financial gain. When talking about the prison systems and reforms and changes needed we should never forget that there are groups of individuals for whom the only appropriate sentence is a very long prison sentence, both to reflect the revulsion of the community at what the person has done, to punish the person and to protect the community so that the person does not, soon after a conviction, re-offend and commit a similar offence to destroy the life of another innocent member of the wider community. We must always remember that. There is a very serious balance to be achieved in these areas. The judiciary is confronted with dealing with this type of issue daily and must approach them in a very considered and careful way and they do so.
I welcome the Chief Justice's announcement that the Supreme Court will sit in September to deal with some of the outstanding appeal cases. That is a very welcome and important development. I welcome the announcement of the President of the High Court that some additional members of the High Court will sit in September to deal with some outstanding cases. It is important that our courts sit in a manner that is appropriate to a modern twenty-first century Ireland. The court vacation periods reflect the way the courts operated 100 years ago. These initiatives are very welcome. I would very much like to see it become the norm that our Judiciary, who work very hard and who contribute and must have their appropriate holiday periods, resume in full in September as opposed to the position until now when the higher courts were, at least in theory, on vacation until 1 October. I should say, and it is only fair because when this is written about it is often not reported, that even though in theory the vacation period for the higher courts has been August and September, although the District Court comes back in September, the reality has always been across all the courts that there are judges available who sit and hold court hearings in August and September to deal with emergency cases and applications. There have always been court sittings in August and September but it would be a very good development if the courts fully returned in September and I very much welcome the fact that we will have these additional sittings of the High and Supreme Courts in September. That will contribute to reducing some of the backlog that exists.
All Deputies know, and I do not want to bore them with this, that I have a particular interest in family law. That is why I want us to hold the referendum to provide a separate integrated family court system. I want to see the family court operating in Ireland in a manner similar to the way it operates in Australia where it sits separately. There would be dedicated family court judges and we would not have family law and child care matters, which should fall within the family court, in a sort of fragmented jurisdictional basis where there are overlapping and partial jurisdictions vested in different courts. We will have an opportunity to talk about how we will implement this as we head in to the discussion following the seminar that we will hold. Any members of this committee who are free are very welcome to attend the seminar on family courts. I will clarify whether it is to be a Friday or Saturday because I do not remember. I know it is in the first week in July. I will make sure that my private secretary sends a note to members about that. It is a half-day seminar. The president of the Australian family court is one of the speakers and that will be a particularly interesting speech.
Resources are, of course, an issue. If we were to have the most ideal family court system we would have family courts across the country with a back-up welfare assessment service attached to the court as they have in Australia. We would have mediation facilities within each of the major buildings dealing with family matters. That may mean that we would have to centralise family matters to a greater extent than we have done in particular appropriate court buildings. Some of what I would like to see happen requires resources that we may not have and we may not be able to implement all of it in one fell swoop. If we could deal with the creation of the structure and any referendum that may be necessary, then produce and enact the legislation, and if some of the legislation has provisions to give rise to new services that will require a commencement order at a later time when we have the funding, we will at least put in place the basic important foundations to provide an improved system. That is very much my objective.
I of course agree that if fines are imposed people should pay them.
However, being sent to jail for non-payment of a fine is not something that people appreciate, but what has occurred is that the person does not serve any meaningful jail time. That is why a meaningful community service order, which requires one to do community service, will be a greater incentive for people who can afford to pay to do so. If some people would prefer to do community service, so be it, the community will benefit. I want to move away from any possible public perception that if a fine is imposed and one does not pay it, not a whole heap will happen. I want to ensure that the courts are respected and that where orders are made that are not complied with, there is a meaningful system in place to address that. Community service has a particular role in that context.
I particularly welcome the information given by the Minister on the family law courts and on the seminar, which I will attend and I look forward to receiving details of it. It is an area in which I am very interested. We all hear anecdotal evidence from time to time about how families find it difficult to appear in court. The mediation services are not great - one could be sitting on a stool next to the person one would be up against. In that context, Wicklow Deputies received a notification from the Courts Service last week advising that the Circuit Court in Wicklow town will continue to be closed. It has been closed temporarily and the court service has been moved to Bray. The Courthouse in Baltinglass is to close also and all services will be concentrated in Bray. As Deputy Mac Lochlainn mentioned, family law cases are often delayed because a criminal case is taken or for some such reason and there is a fear that family law cases will be further delayed. I welcome the Minister's announcement of his intentions to hold a referendum on the family law area. I know it cannot all be done on the same day, as it were, and that it will take time and resources but such a referendum will be very welcome. I know of the Minister's interest in this area but it is one that has been ignored to some extent.
Regarding the Votes, there has been a decrease in the provision for consultancy services in a number of areas, for example, for the Garda Síochána and the Courts Service and under the administration heading, but there has been a large increase in the Estimate provision for the consultancy services for the prisons and for the Property Registration Authority. I want to ask the Minister to clarify why there has been such an increase.
Yes. While there have been decreases in all the other areas in the justice Votes, under the Vote for the Property Registration Authority, there has been an increase of 61% in the Estimate provision for office equipment and external IT services and an increase of 34% in the Estimate provision for postal and telecommunications services. There is a reduction in the provision for office premises expenses and an increase in the provision for consultancy services. Where the provision for other areas has decreased, the Estimate provision for the Property Registration Authority has increased. Is there a particular reason for such increased provision? Is more happening under this Vote heading than anywhere else?
The Deputy may be measuring that against last year's expenditure. The Estimates are actually down for this year - there is not an increase. There may be some confusion about the figures. I will give the Deputy an opportunity to check that and I will be happy to clarify it further but I believe that is where the confusion lies.
On the family law issue, it is of huge importance that people who have family problems can feel their problems can be resolved where they require court hearings with reasonable speed. It remains the position that all our courts are not ideal for dealing with family law. They do not all have the necessary consultation facilities. We still only have mediation facilities within the court structures in a very small number of courts. Essentially, the main pilot mediation process - it was called a pilot process but we have continued it - was in Dolphin House in Dublin. The ideal would be that we would have a mediation structure, for example, within each of the Circuit Court areas, but we do not have that. We have the mediation service, which is available and operates under the aegis of the Legal Aid Board.
One of the issues with family law is that far too many family difficulties are still dealt with through court hearings. It was my experience during my years as a family law solicitor that when one is dealing with disputes between parents over the parenting of children - where one parent, to use the technical phrase, has custody and the other has access - all sorts of difficulties and issues can arise which can be better resolved through mediation, if both parents would be reasonable with each other, even when there is a dispute as to who should be the primary caring parent. There are many court orders where both parents are effectively given joint custody but there is always a parent with whom a child or children primarily reside. Unfortunately and tragically, all too frequently, the dispute between estranged parents or estranged spouses turns into a war over children and children are used as the weapons in the war without one or both parents - frequently it is only one parent - understanding the damage they are doing to their children, both in the short- and in the long-term, by the manner in which they deal with these issues. It is of huge importance that spouses estranged from each other - former partners living with each other outside marriage who have children - realise that no matter what the enmity is between them that they should do everything possible to protect their children from it and to encourage their children to maintain good relationships with both of them. Mediation can play a very substantial role in that. Many judges in our courts, from the District Court up to the High Court, who when confronted with disputes between parents in this area encourage them to co-operate with each other and to resolve their disputes by agreement rather than by court order. However, unfortunately, there is a group of individuals whose relationships break up who see their children as a means of taking revenge on their partner and they do terrible damage. They create difficulties for the children in coming to terms not merely with the break up but in their later lives in forming relationships. I have seen that in my 30 years as a family lawyer. Having represented an estranged spouse in my younger days, I have ended up representing one of their adult children who has had all sorts of difficulties which I could trace back to the war that took place between the parents at an early stage in that person's life.
There is a good deal in this area that could be dealt with differently but a portion of it is dependent on individuals whose marriages break down realising that, regardless of the stress of the breakdown or who they regard as responsible for it, their children should not become the casualties and that they have a responsibility to behave well as parents with regard to their children and maintain relationships. Of course there are exceptions to that. There are parents who are violent towards their children and parents who abuse their children. Obviously children must be protected from that but also, all too frequently, those allegations are untruthfully made as a weapon in the marital breakdown war and that is a matter of difficulty. I would like to see a situation develop in cases of disputes between parents over children that it was automatically understood that the dispute would be resolved through mediation and that only in exceptional cases should the courts have to be engaged.
What does not work is making people compulsorily attend mediation. People must understand its benefits and volunteer to engage. Compulsory attendance would result in engagement by individuals who have no intention of resolving matters and seeking to delay others genuine in their approach. That is a particular issue.
In the context of the Legal Aid Board, strong emphasis has been placed on reducing the family mediation service waiting lists nationally to ensure that the service complements the board's law centre. It is important people wishing to resolve matters through mediation do not have to wait longer than two to three months for an appointment at mediation. The objective was generally maintained in 2012. Where necessary a panel of private mediators has been used to supplement the work of the mediation service, the objective being to reduce the numbers going through the courts system unnecessarily. This is, of course, only in the context of those who require legal aid as they are unable to afford lawyers in private practice. Our legislation provides that lawyers must always advise people of mediation as an alternative to litigation. Unfortunately, not everybody listens to the advice of their lawyers.
I agree with the Minister. Some solicitors in my home town of Bray engage in the collaborative mediation process for family law cases. It is very good. On consultancy services, from my understanding of the figures there is a 245% increase in respect of consultancy services for prisons and a 127% increase in this regard for the Property Registration Authority.
The Estimate for prison consultancy services for 2012 was €140,000. Actual expenditure in 2012 was only €29,000. An Estimate of €100,000 is provided for 2013, which is €40,000 less than that provided in 2012. However, that does not mean €100,000 will be spent in 2013. The full estimate for 2012 was not spent as it was not necessary to do so.
In regard to consultancy services for the Property Registration Authority, an Estimate of €25,000 was provided in 2012. However, expenditure was only €11,000. The Estimate for 2013 is €25,000. At the start of the year, one must provide for possible expenditures. In October 2012, because matters across the broad range of the justice family had been dealt with in a cost-effective manner, a €3 million saving by year end was identified. This is from where the €3 million came for the purchase of additional Garda vehicles, over and above the €1 million allocation made at the start of the year. It is necessary to reflect possible expenditures in the Estimates. However, as the Deputy will note, expenditure last year by the Property Registration Authority was less than half the amount provided.
Vote 20, subhead A.11 - other services - lists €1.198 million for the witness security programme. Is this additional funding given there was no provision in this regard in the 2012 Estimates? Is this programme additional to the witness protection programme?
It is an ongoing provision. I am advised there was no need to draw down any funding from this provision in 2012. It is an ongoing provision given life in this area is particularly uncertain. It could well be the case that nothing will be drawn down this year or that all of the provision will be drawn down. We could also be required to provide additional funding in this area by way of readjustment from another allocation.
Vote 21.A.2(iii) provides increased funding for training. Who will benefit from this training? Also on Vote 21.A.8, the provision for social disadvantage measures has been increased, which I welcome. Where will that funding, which includes a substantial increase by way of the Dormant Account Fund, be directed?
With regard to the dormant account issue, we are currently seeking proposals in regard to where that funding can be effectively used. Work on that is ongoing within the Department. I can arrange for a better briefing on the matter to be provided to the committee, members of which may have some suggestions that would be of assistance.
We would welcome that.
The Minister mentioned that seven court building projects will go ahead. Perhaps he would elaborate on where they are. If the Minister does not have the information with him now he can forward it at a later date to the committee secretariat.
I have previously asked about prisons' energy usage, combined heat and power, etc. Have any advances been made in that regard? I am told massive savings could be made in this area. On community courts, I am aware the Minister is doing some work in this regard. We were highly impressed when we saw them in action during our visit to New York. The committee, in co-operation with the Minister and his Department, would like to do some work on this matter later in the year.
On the payment of fines, I would encourage the Minister to go ahead with his plans in this area. On the Property Registration Authority, anecdotal evidence suggests there are huge delays in this area, with people being told it will take two years or longer for their queries to be addressed, which is not acceptable.
The Minister might inform the committee when the emigration Bill will be published.
I will answer the Chairman's questions in reverse order. It is hoped the emigration Bill will be published in the autumn. It has taken a long time to get it out of the system primarily because of the enormous obligations on the Attorney General's Office in the context of legislation which the troika required be given priority. The same drafters are dealing with particular measures on behalf of my Department. The first measure that had to be completed was the insolvency measure. The legal services Bill was delayed because of the focus and priority of the personal insolvency legislation. The Attorney General and staff at that office do extraordinary work in meeting the demands of all Departments. I am very conscious of that. Unfortunately, because of all of that and the need to meet the troika's timeframes, the emigration Bill was delayed. A substantial amount of work has been done on it by my Department and the Attorney General's office but we have not yet reached the point of having a full draft of the final Bill. We have moved away from publishing amendments to the third Bill in this area, published by the previous Government, and are publishing a new Bill incorporating all of the necessary changes required to be made because of reservations expressed by a number of Members, including myself, on Committee Stage of the previous Government's Bill. I hope the Bill will be published in the autumn, although I cannot guarantee that. I am conscious that my officials are dependent on the availability of those working on the Bill in the Attorney General's Office.
On the Property Registration Authority, I note the Chairman's remarks. I will try to find out the reason for the delays and communicate on the matter with him.
I do not think we should, in any service the State provides, take two years to address an issue. I will have my officials communicate with the PRA and I will look for a full detailed response as to where the delays occur, the reason for the delays and what might be done to address them.
The Courts Service capital building programme for the seven court projects covers Wexford, Mullingar, Waterford, Limerick, Cork, Letterkenny and Drogheda. These projects are proposed as public private partnership projects with finance being arranged through the National Development Finance Agency with the payments to be made over 20 to 25 years by the Courts Service. Since last July the Courts Service has been in discussions with the Department of Justice and Equality, the Office of Public Works and the National Development Finance Agency in order to progress the proposals. It is hoped that progress will be made. I can give the committee detailed information about each of the locations or I can write a note explaining the status of the projects.
For example, a detailed design has been completed for the Wexford project and tender documents are at an advanced stage. I have the details on each of the projects.
On the question about energy issues, energy saving has been a particular matter for the new buildings in the midlands and the proposed buildings in Limerick and Cork. I know the Chairman has a very particular interest as to how substantial energy savings might be effected in the context of the Cork project so that the new prison as well as Collins Barracks could be serviced. I have brought this issue to the attention of my officials and I await a response.
That is one of the issues. Some of the prisons are very old and their energy systems are also very old. We are looking at what can be done to effect cost-effective energy savings. I must be conscious that measures which are cost-effective can result in substantial current capital expenditure that is not always available and that is one of the issues. I am very conscious of that issue and hopefully we will make progress in that area.
Reference was made to the community courts. Arising from discussions an official in my Department is working on a paper on this subject. It is relevant to the Dublin drug treatment court. We are factoring the way that court works into the planning for the community court. I would hope this work will be completed in July when the Chairman and I will have further conversations on this matter. The finished document will be made available to this committee and we can decide how to move the matter forward.