Thursday, 30 July 2020
Civil Law and Criminal Law (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill 2020: Second Stage
I am sharing time with Deputy Pringle. We will take five minutes each. I am up here in the balcony. This Bill deals with how to handle civil and criminal hearings during the Covid crisis. It broadens the types of hearings that can be heard electronically and allows for evidence to be presented electronically. It provides that the rules of court may provide for a statement of truth to be transmitted with the document in place of the affidavit or statutory declaration instead of an oath.
It also provides for the appointment of additional coroners where necessary.
These proposals seem reasonable when taken at face value. We have all had to change our work patterns and our work practices. I have listened carefully to the arguments put forward by Deputy Martin Kenny on the business section of the Bill concerning the admissibility of documentation as evidence of the truth. This arises from a specific case concerning a vulture fund. A number of Deputies have alluded to it. I do not have a legal background and, to be honest, there has not been sufficient time to go through the Bill properly. However, I have concerns, not least because we have not had time to fully consider this section. I have listened to the contributions here this evening and I am in favour of the suggestion of Deputy Howlin and others that we take out this section and that we debate and discuss it fully in the autumn so that we do not have unintended consequences. In any legislation, we need to be rigorous and prudent and in this case we are being rushed and unsure, mainly because of this specific section.
It is generally recognised by all of us that the main purpose of this Bill is to facilitate the operation of the courts and to minimise travel and disruption. I draw the Minister's attention to a situation where instead of minimising travel and disruption, we are in fact creating it by a proposal to move jury courts from Sligo to Letterkenny. I accept the Bill is prompted by Covid and concerns capacity, yet courtroom No. 1 in Sligo has sufficient capacity to conduct a jury trial. A letter from the Courts Service issued yesterday states that Sligo Courthouse has the required capacity when the gallery is included. However, it goes on to state that the gallery contains six timber benches which are not suitable for jurors. As it is a listed building, it is stated that planning permission may be needed to make the benches comfortable for jurors. It does seem somewhat excessive, but if it is necessary I say it should be done, in the context of major disruption, major dislocation, major costs and the real possibility of creating a further backlog of cases. In that context, planning is a small issue. There are sufficient courtrooms in Sligo to allow for other work to proceed when courtroom No. 1 is in use for a jury trial.
I want the Minister to consider the significant logistical difficulties in moving to Letterkenny. The distance from Sligo to Letterkenny is 113 km and one-way travel takes one hour and 31 minutes. Many of the gardaí will travel from Ballymote, which takes one hour and 46 minutes. We should also think of the chaos because of the possible backup of trials that cannot be arranged in the event of pleas or trials not proceeding for whatever reason. Jury panels could be brought in, only to be sent home again. Witnesses, gardaí and court staff must be also taken into consideration. In the context of a Bill that is supposed to increase efficiency in how we conduct our business, a proposal to move the jury trials from Sligo to Letterkenny goes in the very opposite direction, when we can facilitate those trials in the courthouse in Sligo.
I hope Deputy Pringle will allow me to have another ten seconds.