Thursday, 30 July 2020
Civil Law and Criminal Law (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill 2020: Second Stage
Sinn Féin will be proposing two amendments to the Bill. There was a sense of agreement around all of these measures about Covid-19, making life easier for people who work in our courts system and prison service and mitigating against the difficulties that exist. In that context, we all agreed there would be a suspension of the normal process we go through when passing legislation such as this. Normally, a Bill will pass through Committee Stage during which we tease out and work out all of the various issues that might arise or become contentious. We took the suspension of that legislative scrutiny seriously. We asked the Department to supply a brief in respect of the Bill, which we received. We discovered a small section in that brief which dealt with certain business documents being made admissible in civil cases. We wondered where this came from because, from our point of view and that of anyone in the legal profession with whom we spoke, there did not seem to be anything Covid related around that issue. It did not seem to be an emergency and yet it was included in this legislation which was not going to get legislative scrutiny. We were alarmed, and are still, in respect of that.
Our proposal is to ensure that some sense of regularity is brought to this situation. We suggest a time limit on this legislation. The previous health legislation which was introduced to deal with situations related to Covid will expire on a particular date and can be extended with the agreement of both Houses of the Oireachtas. That date is 9 November and we propose that the same date applies to the expiry of the Bill we are now discussing to ensure there is a sense of continuity. We all live in the real world and expect that, on 9 November, all of this legislation will need to be extended. We therefore commend the Sinn Féin amendment so that this legislation expires on that date and we can move forward from there.
The other amendment deals with almost the entirety of chapter 3 and covers sections 12 to 19, inclusive. We feel it is totally inappropriate to have those sections included in this legislation. I spoke at length to the Minister about it. We have exercised our concerns at all levels and spoken to many people in the legal profession. Many people have suggested that this part of the Bill is to benefit the vulture funds and certain aspects of the banking sector. The nub of the issue is around contracts that people sign and enter into with a lending organisation. It is possible for that debt then to be sold, usually for two reasons. The first is that repayments may be in arrears to some extent or there may be a difficulty around them. The second is that the legal documentation may not be as secure as one would like. That debt is then taken by vulture funds who exercise their right to recover it through service agencies. These service agencies are another step away from the original contract that was agreed.
When a case is litigated, as it stands, those contracts are considered hearsay evidence. That is the issue and this legislation will change that. That evidence which is hearsay under current legislation might become admissible and taken as live evidence, particularly in a summary case. It could be then used to have a repossession order placed against a homeowner or business.
We feel that is totally inappropriate.
The Minister mentioned that the Law Reform Commission published a report on this, and it has made certain suggestions. However, in most cases where a report like that had been published, it would go through normal legislative scrutiny. We would bring in various people from different sides of the argument to hear their worries or concerns and why they feel there could be unintended consequences that may have to be worked out. We would then proceed.
This Bill is, in our view, very precarious for borrowers in particular. The measure is being pushed through and is buried in a Bill which is supposed to be about Covid. When I met the Minister earlier today, I told her that I feel this has been done in a very inappropriate sleight-of-hand manner and is not in keeping with what all of us in the House have agreed to do in the context of Covid, that is, work together in a spirit of co-operation. It is wrong. I implore the Minister to withdraw that section of the Bill and ensure that we can deal with it later on.
It may be quite appropriate, but if it is it should be introduced through a proper legislative framework where there is full scrutiny of it and we weigh up all of the pros and cons, something we do not have the opportunity to do here at the 11th hour of the 11th day, that is, the evening when we are about to shut down for the summer. It is totally inappropriate that that particular provision is in the Bill at this time.
I understand the Department may produce proposals, but sometimes the Minister has to be strong, stand up to the Department and say that a proposal is not appropriate and should be withdrawn. I implore the Minister to withdraw the measure and ensure we can get as much support as possible for the Bill and all other legislation connected to Covid-19 because it is in the interests of everyone that we work together and co-operate in respect of these matters.
This is a political issue. Buried within a Bill which is supposed to be about Covid is something which has nothing to do with it. It is wrong and inappropriate and I again implore the Minister to withdraw the proposal and ensure we can have some level of conscience in regard to what we are doing and ensure that people who are facing a David and Goliath struggle between bankers and the ordinary borrower-----