Tuesday, 27 May 2008
Adjournment Debate (Resumed).
I welcome my constituency colleague, Deputy John Moloney, to the Dáil Chamber in his ministerial capacity and I wish him well in health and happiness in that role.
I wish to address the current situation regarding outstanding warrants and court orders, committal applications and other applications, be they bench warrants or otherwise, that have gone unenforced. I do not have the exact figures to hand but I ask the Minister of State to provide the House with the up to date and exact figures. It seems to me there could be up to tens of thousands of bench warrants actively recorded which remain unexecuted. Many of these are committal applications on foot of court orders lawfully given and granted. I venture to suggest that among these tens of thousands could be many serious criminal cases which gives rise to questions of public safety where there may be suspects at large. These may be persons responsible for serious criminal offences who have been ordered to turn up in courts but have failed to do so. Whether any efforts are being made to track them down to bring them to court, to ensure compliance with the court order, is in doubt. A couple of years ago, the matter attracted the attention of the Comptroller and Auditor General who pointed to gross inefficiencies in the system. In expressing his concern, he recommended that certain action be taken. I would like to know what has happened since those remarks were made.
Earlier this year, a judge in a case in Donegal struck out an application for a bench warrant when it was discovered that it was over four years old. The judge felt that justice would not have been done by validating, implementing or executing a warrant which had been outstanding and unenforced for a period of four years. That is indicative of the type of problem which is bringing the justice system into disrepute. Is it a question of Garda resources? Is the Garda properly resourced to deal with these matters? Is priority being given in Garda districts to deal with such matters? Are specific officers designated in Garda areas with the responsibility of dealing with these matters? If it is not a question of Garda manpower or willpower, is there a problem with the computer system or other communications? Is there a difficulty in executing these warrants because Garda computer equipment is faulty, outdated or in need of review?
What reforms are in the offing? Earlier this year, the Fines Bill was listed on the schedule of legislative reform. That legislation would have the effect of allowing fines to be paid by instalments, as well as improving the means of assessing a person's ability to pay. If both these measures were introduced it might obviate the need for outstanding bench warrants or unenforced committal orders. Yet the Fines Bill has been withdrawn by the Government for reasons that have not been properly explained to the House.
In January this year, there were 35,000 outstanding bench warrants. How many of those have been executed since? What improvements have been made to reduce that figure? If we do not have targeted action to reduce these tens of thousands of outstanding warrants — many of them concerning bail and others concerning serious criminal charges — we are undermining the integrity of the criminal justice system. By not dealing with these issues, we will also be putting down a direct challenge to the authority of the courts.
I thank the Ceann Comhairle for giving me the opportunity to raise this matter and I thank the Minister of State for replying to it. I hope we can achieve a targeted reduction by way of adopting a strategic approach to this issue. In that way, by the end of this year, we can perhaps show that we have tackled the problem, thus averting a serious issue which is bringing the law into disrepute.
John Moloney (Minister of State, Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment; Minister of State, Department of Education and Science; Minister of State, Department of Health and Children; Laois-Offaly, Fianna Fail)
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I thank Deputy Charles Flanagan for his good wishes and for displaying his usual decency. The Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform regrets that owing to other business he is unable to be here for the debate this evening.
In any criminal justice system it is inevitable that, at any given time, there will be a significant number of warrants awaiting execution. It should be borne in mind, too, that the vast majority of the outstanding warrants concern financial penalties, not violent crime. The Garda Síochána continues to give priority to the enforcement of warrants arising in serious cases. Apart from the large volume of warrants being issued, there can also be unavoidable reasons why warrants take time to execute or, indeed, prove ultimately unenforceable. Many individuals are subject to multiple warrants and try to evade Garda attention through moving to different addresses.
Of its nature, it is difficult to be precise as to what level of outstanding warrants at any point in time represents the optimal situation. The number of warrants outstanding has to be seen partly from the perspective that the strength of the Garda Síochána is now over 13,800.
The Minister has been informed that the Garda authorities are committed to strengthening the warrants enforcement process. The Garda Commissioner has raised the issue of the execution of warrants with each regional assistant commissioner. A range of measures aimed at reducing the number of warrants on hand has been identified and these are being implemented. The measures include the reassignment of additional gardaí to this function. The position is being closely monitored by senior Garda management and consideration is also being given, at an organisational level, to further measures to address the situation.
The Minister is also taking a number of steps to deal with this issue. A particular difficulty is that cases concerning the non-payment of fines clog up the courts system, since gardaí must seek warrants to enforce their payment. A pilot project was introduced by this Department under which outstanding fines were pursued in terms of debt collection by an outside agency rather than moving directly to the stage where gardaí seek a warrant. The pilot project suggests that this proved successful as an alternative method of fine collection. The Department, in consultation with the Garda and the Courts Service, is considering how best to take this forward.
There is also a Fines Bill currently before the House. Among other things, it provides for the payment of fines by instalment and an improved means of assessing the capacity of a person to pay a fine. These proposals, if implemented, will result in a smaller number of warrants being issued and thus reduce pressure on the warrant system. The Minister is also examining other legislative measures which might help to improve the efficiency of the fines collection system, particularly by reducing the amount of Garda time dedicated to the warrants process.
The third programme of law reform of the Law Reform Commission has been approved by Government and is now under way. It includes an examination of the enforcement of court orders and the service of proceedings in both civil and criminal cases, in particular the procedure for the execution of bench warrants and search warrants. This topic was included because it is recognised that there are significant difficulties in this area at present and that the procedural problems in this area have resulted in an inefficient use of resources. Based on experience with the Law Reform Commission, which invariably produces reports and recommendations of the highest standard, the work of the commission should prove of immense value in this area.
The Minister and the Garda Commissioner are aware of the importance of administering an efficient warrants process and will continue to monitor the operation of the system with a view to making whatever changes may be necessary to improve its operation.