Thursday, 30 July 2020
Civil Law and Criminal Law (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill 2020: Second Stage
I wish the Minister well in her new post. I believe this is the first time I have addressed her in this role. I know she has a hard job to sort out. I have previously raised many issues about what is going on in the Prison Officers Association, which is totally unsavoury and needs to be sorted out. There is the issue of justice for the families of victims of the Omagh bomb. They were abandoned and never got the justice they were promised by her predecessors and the previous Taoiseach. There is the Fr. Niall Molloy case and countless others where people need justice.
I am shocked that the Minister would slip into this legislation the provision affecting the vulture funds. The Bill is entitled the Civil Law and Criminal Law (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill 2020 and it is intended primarily to deal with issues relating to Covid, which we all support. However, hidden in Chapter 3 is a section dealing with business records. It is very murky that it is being introduced in the final hours of this Dáil session.
Chapter 3 is designed for vulture funds by their well-paid legal advisers to remove any protections for people from vulture funds. In this Bill, Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael and the Green Party are making a very devious attempt to get around the hearsay evidence rule. That 150-year old law has stopped vulture funds in their tracks, one of the only ones that has done so. The vulture funds have demanded that the Government enact legislation that allows them to get around the rule by introducing admissible business documents from third parties.
These currently have no legal standing before the courts. They may include photocopies of original documents which have been lost or destroyed or which are not available for other reasons. The Bill will also allow photocopies of photocopies to be admitted as evidence. This will allow families to be evicted on the flimsiest of evidence. It is truly shocking. The Bill attempts to undermine the independence of the courts to look at a case fairly and impartiality and seeks to tie the hands of the Judiciary in order that vulture funds can continue with their evictions, as they have throughout the Covid pandemic despite the promises we received that they would not.
This Bill proposed in the Lower House will be signed by President Michael D. Higgins within a matter of days. Over the years there have been several pushes to have the hearsay evidence rule removed from law by the Law Reform Commission and other parties with vested interests in its removal. It is understood that there has been heavy lobbying of the Department of Justice and Equality by vulture funds and legal representatives following recent judgments. The concern is that the Government has jumped to the job and done these people's bidding. That is shocking.
We are all the time railing against what these vultures are doing. The former Minister, Michael Noonan, said they were welcome to our shores. Vultures are not welcome anywhere because we know what they do. They take the eyes out of sheep and lambs out in the field. That is what they are like. They are craven people.
As I have said, it is understood that this is the result of heavy lobbying. If the Bill passes all Stages and is signed into law, the balance of power will be with the vulture funds and no protections will be afforded to families, farms, homes or businesses. Deputies of all parties and Independent Deputies need to step up to the plate and oppose this Bill. I am glad amendments have been tabled. I will support the Sinn Féin amendments.
If the vulture funds are allowed to dictate how the country is run, a grievous injustice will be allowed to prevail and those who have been fighting both a daily battle and battles in the courts over many years will be punished. It is a shocking indictment of the present Government and its direction.
I will also mention another issue in the important area of justice, a development which will be of deep importance to all citizens and to Members. On 9 July, the European Court of Justice issued a damning judgment against the State in respect of its handling of maritime tragedy investigations. It found clear and obvious fault in the fact that departmental officials were on the Marine Casualty Investigation Board, MCIB, which is supposed to be independent. Of the five people on the board, two are the chief surveyor and the Secretary General of the Department or his appointee. An additional requirement for compliant officials is clearly set out in the European directive, which reflects international law. This is a damning indictment of our Marine Casualty Investigation Board. I have raised cases in the Chamber, including cases regarding Whiddy Island and many other places nationwide. Some of these incidents occurred off the south-east coast at Tramore.
The European Court of Justice judgment also explains that independence is critical if we are to learn from the tragedies and save other lives. Ireland has failed to put in place suitable arrangements. There is a clear conflict in officials investigating their own regulatory framework and supposedly making recommendations to themselves. Following the judgment, I wrote to the Minister of State, Deputy Naughton, in respect of failed reports regarding the deaths of my constituents John O'Brien and Pat Esmonde off Helvick Head in 2010 and regarding the deaths of all others in respect of whom investigations were carried out while this conflict of interest prevailed. These amount to approximately 300 reports.
With regard to the tragedy of John O'Brien and Pat Esmonde, may they rest in peace, I have been reliably told that, due to these fundamental failings, full information was not included in the MCIB report, which had the effect of compromising the Garda investigation. This needs to be investigated. I am happy that the Garda Commissioner has now directed the Garda National Bureau of Criminal Investigation to reopen this case and look at it again. I thank Mr. Michael Kingston, the maritime lawyer, and Ms Anne Marie O'Brien for the sterling work they have done in an effort to get justice for Ms O'Brien's late brother and his colleague, Pat Esmonde, who died on that beautiful but fateful day ten years ago. Their families, and many others, need justice.
Coroners are also referred to in the Bill. We in south Tipperary are losing our coroner, Mr. Paul Morris. He is an excellent legal person who has given sterling service. The north Tipperary coroner will now be taking over. Tipperary is more than 120 miles long. The distance alone is challenging. Coroner's courts are very important. People need them when they experience tragedies and sudden deaths. The coroner in south Tipperary has always been much busier than the coroner in north Tipperary. This is a retrograde step and another downgrading of our courts services. It is another loss to the town of Clonmel. I wish Mr. Morris a very happy retirement. He did a great job and I wish him well but we need a coroner in south Tipperary, as we have always had.
There are cuts everywhere but we are supporting vulture funds and passing legislation in the dead of night before our break for the holidays to ensure they are allowed to carry on their murky, unseemly, disdained practices. They have been carrying these on throughout the period of Covid and they are continuing to do so. I am not supporting this Bill for that reason. I will vote against it.