Tuesday, 17 May 2022
Garda Síochána (Compensation) Bill 2021 [Seanad]: Second Stage
I move: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."
I am delighted to introduce the Garda Síochána (Compensation) Bill 2021 to the House following its passage through Seanad Éireann last week, and I look forward to hearing the contributions from Deputies today. Before I discuss the Bill, I would like to mention an issue that was raised on the Second Stage debate in the Seanad in March. Some Senators in their contributions questioned why civilian staff of An Garda Síochána are not covered by the provisions of the Bill, given the increased civilianisation of the force. I would like to inform Deputies that this issue is currently under consideration in my Department and consultations are ongoing. If there is no impediment to the inclusion of civilian staff following these consultations, I intend to seek Government approval in the coming weeks to introduce an amendment to extend the scheme to civilian staff. This will be in addition to some minor technical amendments that I intend to introduce in sections 11 and 16 of the Bill in relation to the form of applications.
Turning to the Bill before us, I believe we can all agree that members of An Garda Síochána do their utmost to tackle crime and to keep the public safe and I commend them on this. Unfortunately, the nature of this work means that members of the Garda can suffer injuries, or in the most tragic cases, injuries causing death, and they, or their family members in the case of death, deserve to be compensated in recognition of this.
As Deputies will be aware, this Bill provides for an overhaul of the Garda compensation scheme currently in operation by creating a new statutory scheme that will reduce the waiting times and costs associated with claims by gardaí or their family members and dependants. The current scheme set out in legislation and in operation since the 1940s has not been updated since and is in need of reform. It relies on an adversarial approach to Garda compensation claims and lengthy delays in the High Court can mean that members of An Garda Síochána or their family members can be waiting many years before they receive a compensation award. This is unsatisfactory and I want to ensure that gardaí have timely access to compensation under this Bill.
The main objectives of this Bill are to reduce the length of time it takes for Garda compensation claims to be dealt with from the initial application right through to the award of compensation and to offer opportunities for settlement and resolution of claims much earlier in the process. The Bill achieves this by setting out clear time limits in relation to each stage of the process and providing what will happen where those timelines are not met. It also aims to reduce the number of applications ultimately proceeding to court, which will in turn reduce the significant legal and administrative costs associated with the scheme currently.
A review committee identified a number of weaknesses in the current scheme under the Garda Síochána (Compensation) Acts 1941 to 1945, and a commitment was made to change the existing procedures. In 2016 the Personal Injuries Assessment Board, PIAB, was approached with the assistance of the then Department of Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation, and its involvement in the new compensation arrangements was agreed and ultimately approved by the Government. As an independent body already dealing with personal injury claims, they are well positioned to provide an independent assessment of quantum in Garda compensation cases.
Before I move to the provisions of the Bill, I would like to outline broadly how the new scheme is proposed to operate in practice. The member, or specified dependent in the case of a fatal injury, will apply to the Garda Commissioner for initial assessment of his or her case within six months of the injury. This has been increased from three months under the old scheme to allow additional time for applications to be made. The Garda Commissioner will arrange for a reporting officer to determine if the person is an eligible applicant and if so, to prepare a written report within a specified time to conclude whether the injury or death appears to have been caused as a result of a malicious incident as defined in the Bill. If the report concludes the injury or death appears to have been caused as a result of a malicious incident, then the member or his or her specified dependant or dependants is entitled to an assessment of compensation. If the report concludes the injury or death was not caused as a result of a malicious incident then the member can seek an independent review of that finding. An independent review officer will determine whether the finding of a reporting officer should be confirmed or overturned. If overturned, the member is entitled to an assessment of compensation. Where a member is entitled to an assessment of compensation the Garda Commissioner will arrange for an application to be made to the Personal Injuries Assessment Board on his or her behalf. This is to reduce the administrative burden on the applicant and to enable the Garda Commissioner to pay the fees associated with PIAB. PIAB will process the application in accordance with the Personal Injuries Assessment Board Act 2003, as amended, and will make an assessment by reference to the personal injury guidelines. Both the applicant and the State Claims Agency, which will be acting on behalf of the Garda Commissioner in the management of claims, will be notified of an assessment made by the Personal Injuries Assessment Board and can accept or reject it. If either party rejects it, the applicant will receive authorisation from the Personal Injuries Assessment Board to proceed to court. The State Claims Agency will manage the court proceedings on behalf of the Commissioner.
I will turn now to the detail of the Bill. The Bill is divided into seven Parts and I will outline its key provisions. Part 1 sets out the title of the Bill, other legislation that the Bill interacts with, such as the Personal Injuries Assessment Board Acts 2003 to 2019, and provides for commencement orders for the coming into force of the Bill, once enacted. It sets out the relevant definitions for the Bill, including the key definitions of “malicious incident” and “member”. In general terms, a "malicious incident" means an incident in which personal injuries, or death as the case may be, were inflicted on a member deliberately or recklessly in the course of the performance of their duties, while acting in a general capacity as a member of An Garda Síochána, because of anything done by the member, or because they are a member.
The current Acts make a distinction between injuries of a minor and non-minor nature. This Bill ensures that all injuries inflicted as a result of a malicious intent are covered by this scheme. It is also worth noting that the definition of "member" is extended to include trainee gardaí.
The transitional arrangements that will apply to deal with applications received prior to the commencement of the scheme are set out in section 5. For those applications where a determination has not yet been made in my Department, these applications will fall under the new process as outlined in this Bill, which is very similar to the process we put in place with the personal injuries guidelines. In these cases, the documentation will be returned to the applicant, the applicant will be informed of the new process and he or she will have to submit an application within six months of the notice being issued to him or her. Persons in this category will be given ample notice of this change. In cases where authorisation has been given already for an application for compensation to proceed to the High Court, those claims will be processed as if the Acts of 1941 to 1945 have not been repealed and applications already initiated in the High Court will remain there. In other words, there will be no change for these proceedings. Again, this is very similar to the process for the personal injuries guidelines.
Part 2 of the Bill deals with the application for initial assessment. It sets out who may make an application for compensation under the scheme, the form which the application should take, to whom an application should be made and the time limits associated with making an application. It captures all persons previously permitted to make claims under the Acts of 1941 to 1945. The applicant is defined in section 8 and may make an application to the Garda Commissioner specified in section 9. Section 9 also provides for cases where the Garda Commissioner is the applicant. Section 10 states the time limit for making an application, which is six months from the date of the injury, or knowledge of the injury, with provision made for late applications in certain circumstances.
Part 3 sets out the appointment of a reporting officer to assess an application. A reporting officer will not be below the rank of superintendent or, where a member of civilian staff, of equivalent grade. Further provisions are made for where a reporting officer is unable to perform his or her duties. The criteria for preliminary examination and the determination of an application is detailed in this Part of the Bill as well. It allows for the interaction of the reporting officer with the applicant. It gives clear timeframes for the completion of a determination, which is four months, with the possibility of an extension for a further two months. If this time limit is not met, the applicant will be entitled to move to the next stage of the process and will proceed to an assessment by the PIAB. Where a determination is made that the application can proceed to the Personal Injuries Assessment Board, it sets a timeframe of 30 days for the Garda Commissioner to make an application on behalf of the applicant.
Part 4 provides for the procedures for the review process, the creation of a review panel for independent assessment, the criteria for the preparation of a report and clear timelines for the process. There are three scenarios set out under which a person may submit an application for independent review. These are a refusal by the Garda Commissioner to extend the time limit for making an application for initial assessment, a determination that the person making the claim is not eligible to apply under the Bill or where it is concluded that the injuries were not inflicted as a result of a malicious incident as defined in the Bill. The time limit for making an application is 30 days from the date of notice issued to the applicant. This is set out in section 16. The criteria for appointing a review officer is set out in section 15 and the criteria for preparation of a report in section 18. A review officer will have three months within which to make a determination to either confirm or set aside the original decision issued. Again, if this time limit is not met, the applicant will be entitled to move to the next stage of the process and will proceed to an assessment by the PIAB.
Moving on to Part 5, this sets out the application and amendment of the Personal Injuries Assessment Board Act 2003. The current Act precludes applications for Garda compensation. This Part of the Bill removes the restrictions in place by allowing interaction with the Personal Injuries Assessment Board Act 2003. It permits the assessment of quantum by the Personal Injuries Assessment Board in Garda compensation cases and provides for the application of the cost provision in that Act. It allows for certain modifications to the Personal Injuries Assessment Board Act 2003 for Garda claims, for example, providing for the definition of “respondent” to mean the Garda Commissioner and allowing the Garda Commissioner to submit an application on behalf of the applicant to the Personal Injuries Assessment Board. Such an application would be deemed to be an application made under section 11 of the Act of 2003. The process for acceptance or rejection of an assessment by the Personal Injuries Assessment Board will apply in the same way it does for other personal injuries actions. This means that where either the applicant or the Garda Commissioner reject an assessment, an authorisation will issue to the applicant to lodge a claim in the relevant court.
Part 6 sets out the particulars where proceedings are being brought on foot of an authorisation by the PIAB under the Personal Injuries Assessment Board Act 2003. It provides a clear timeframe for lodging proceedings of six months from the date of the issuing of the authorisation. As I mentioned earlier, this is an increase in the time available currently, which is only two months. The court will assess whether the injury or death, as the case may be, was the result of a malicious incident. It will also assess the level of compensation. The court will also deal with the issue of costs at the conclusion of the proceedings. Where determining the level of compensation, it provides the criteria that should be considered. The Bill mirrors the criteria set out in the Garda Síochána (Compensation) Acts 1941 to 1945, while including the requirement to have regard to the personal injuries guidelines, which will streamline cases with ordinary personal injury claims. This Part of the Bill does not mention which court the proceedings should be lodged to. This is to allow for the bringing of proceedings to a court that has monetary jurisdiction for the claim thereby removing the need for all Garda compensation claims to be brought before the High Court. If, for example, a Garda member wishes to claim €10,000 in compensation, he or she may now make his or her application to the District Court instead of the High Court where it can take much longer to get a hearing date and, obviously, the costs are increased too.
Finally, Part 7 sets out miscellaneous provisions in the Bill, including providing for certain amendments to legislation to update reference to the Garda Síochána (Compensation) Acts 1941 to 1945. This Part of the Bill also sets out that any award made under the Bill will not be liable for the purposes of calculating income tax and notes the exclusion of awards from assessment of certain pensions. This is in line with what was provided for under the old legislation.
In conclusion, this Bill fulfils the commitment made to change procedures for Garda compensation claims by modernising the process and by using mechanisms already in place for personal injuries claims more generally to ensure it is most efficient. It overhauls the process while retaining the parameters of the current Acts to ensure those eligible to apply and the criteria for assessing compensation remain.
The use of the Personal Injuries Assessment Board for assessing awards of compensation will ensure an independent assessment for members. It will also lead to greater consistency in awards. As well as this, the PIAB will be guided by the personal injuries guidelines in its assessments. The State Claims Agency will be in a position to make offers of settlement both during and after the PIAB process. It is hoped, therefore, that the majority of cases will be resolved without the need to go to court, which will reduce the delays and expense associated with such claims over time. With recourse to lower courts rather than the necessity to bring each claim before the High Court, it will mean a lower level of costs associated with some of the claims as they proceed.
I hope we can all agree that this Bill will modernise the way in which compensation claims by members of An Garda Síochána are dealt and reduce the administrative costs and legal fees associated with the current system. Most importantly, however, it will ensure that gardaí and their families can get access to the compensation they deserve in a simpler and more timely manner. I look forward to hearing colleagues' contributions on this matter. I have met many of the Garda representatives on a number of occasions over the past number of years and I know this is an important issue to them. I look forward to colleagues' support as we progress through the House as quickly as possible.
I thank the Minister for her contribution. There may be a number of queries or questions regarding what she said in relation to it. Have there been representations in respect of what she said about the timeframe of 30 days for An Garda Síochána to make an application on behalf of the applicant? It seems like a very tight space of time.
The Minister mentioned the PIAB. We have seen over the past 15 years of its operation that the PIAB does not necessarily speed up claims. In fact, it can contribute to claims taking much longer. With regard to what the Bill says about applying to the District Court, I am not so sure that many members of the Garda will want to take cases into the local District Court but we will see how those cases proceed.
Sinn Féin will be supporting the Bill through to Committee Stage. As I said, we have some concerns that we will seek to raise in the form of some amendments at a later stage. Overall, however, it seems to be a positive Bill. This is provided that the provisions prove to be effective. It is worth outlining some of what the Bill does in order to set this in the correct context. The primary innovation is in reforming the current system relating to compensation for death or injury suffered by gardaí in the course of their duties. Currently, an injured member of An Garda Síochána, or his or her dependents in the case of death, may petition the Minister for Justice in order that he or she can apply in turn to the High Court for compensation. This is an archaic practice and reflects the need for reform to the system and the police as a whole in the State.
The arm's length operation of An Garda Síochána, which is still ultimately responsible to the Minister for Justice, is a delicate process.
The Bill will do the right thing in simplifying this process. That the Commissioner will replace the Minister for Justice in adjudicating whether the injury is eligible is, in the round, the correct step to take. Perhaps after the reform of policing is complete - a number of pre-legislative scrutiny reports were before the Joint Committee on Justice earlier - this could be re-examined, given that it seems to be a good function for the proposed Garda board or the Policing Authority to examine. Either way, there is currently a long delay within the status quoprocess and the Commissioner will be a more expedient judge of these cases. The right to a review on the part of applicants is also an important part of the Bill and, as with any process administered by the State, natural justice must be done and be seen to be done.
If an applicant is found to be eligible, whereby his or her injury has been deemed to have occurred in a malicious incident, an application can be made to PIAB which will then assess quantum in line with the usual process. PIAB has seen much reform over the years, mostly at the behest of the insurance industry, and payouts have decreased, albeit not with any great reduction in insurance premiums. Over the past 30 or 40 years, whenever the industry has promised lower premiums in exchange for reforms, the reductions do not seem to have been delivered. The industry asked for juries to be removed from personal injury cases and that was done, and that two fewer senior counsel would be required in cases and that was done. In addition, it asked for the PIAB system to be introduced, which was done, and for extensive dual-pricing reforms to be implemented, but we have not yet seen any results in terms of a reduction in premiums.
In any event, as was reported by The Irish Times recently, 49% of awards in 2021 were under €10,000, compared with just 12% of awards in 2020, while the overall average general damages award for motor, employer and public liability claims amounted to €11,583, a drop of 47% on the €21,850 average in 2020. Meanwhile, there has not been a decrease in premiums, despite the Irish insurance industry enjoying a year of record profitability due to decreased numbers of claims overall and decreases in the sums awarded. Decreases in the number of claims and in awards have not necessarily meant a decrease in premiums. I am on record in the House as predicting insurers would not act in good faith once these changes had been made and my party colleague, Deputy Doherty, has moved legislation in this area that would compel insurers to pass on the savings to the consumer.
I am somewhat concerned the Bill will fit in with the wider trend of shifting the costs and risks away from insurance companies or whoever pays for them and their ability to generate profits through ordinary citizens more generally. Sworn members of An Garda Síochána have bills to pay and are suffering from the cost of living crisis, as are many others. The fact that they face on-the-job risks must also be borne in mind, and wider Government failings on insurance and personal injuries should not ensnare them. The Minister might comment on this in her response.
To return to the Bill, the PIAB process will proceed in the usual manner, subject to one or two changes, and it will be only when a claimant or respondent is dissatisfied with the outcome that he or she will be given leave to apply to the court. While I understand that the aim here is to speed up claims, I wonder whether this will mean delays will continue while the process is lengthened. The respondent in subsequent proceedings will be the Commissioner, reflected in the change whereby the Commissioner will be responsible for HR affairs in the Garda, a change to be introduced by the policing, security and community safety Bill, the report on which was, as I said, before the justice committee earlier. Perhaps there is something of a conflict of interest in respect of the Commissioner having to assess eligibility for individuals who will later become plaintiffs in proceedings against him or her. The synergies and issues between the Bill and the changes brought about in the policing, security and community safety Bill, are something the Minister might address.
The inclusion of trainees in the Bill is important. The training of gardaí is changing rapidly and more and more on-the-job training seems to be coming to the fore. This brings risks with it, however, and it is right and proper that if a trainee were seriously injured or killed, he or she should also be eligible for compensation, which I welcome. There remains something of a backlog in Garda numbers due to Covid, which compromised class sizes. Accordingly, getting in more trainees in order that numbers will keep pace with population growth will be important. At the same time, proper resources and policing plans need to be implemented, which will keep people safe as much as increase Garda numbers. That the Bill takes in a wider definition of eligibility, including if the member is off duty or is formerly a member and has been injured as a result of that, is also welcome.
Finally, legal costs can, of course, increase the cost to claimants where they retain a lawyer from the beginning of the process. The Bill should reduce the need to retain lawyers for hearings, although it remains likely that even in engaging with the process, legal advice will be required, as should be the case. The system will need to retain the confidence of the Garda in order that it will not be totally redundant. Currently, the fact a judge may not rule in respect of an injury suffered in pursuit of a suspect or in a road traffic accident caused some anxiety for members of An Garda Síochána. If this new system will provide more certainty and justice along with it, it should be embraced. In that regard, the six-month timeline for claims to be lodged, as set out in the legislation, may have to be re-examined on Committee Stage along with a few other matters. In regular personal injury cases, of course, the period lasts two years. We will be supporting the Bill passing Second Stage.
I welcome the opportunity to speak to this important legislation. The Bill contains many provisions that are very important from a workers' rights perspective. We should never forget that members of the Garda are workers. They do a very tough job, made more difficult by the fact they work in an environment that has been under-resourced for a long time. When we are thinking about Garda members as workers, I do not want to let this opportunity go without saying the representative organisations for An Garda Síochána at all levels should be allowed to affiliate to the Irish Congress of Trade Unions, and all members should have full representation rights for their representative organisations.
Returning to the Bill, it is timely to see the inclusion of trainee gardaí as part of this compensation scheme. As was pointed out by an Teachta Daly, their work involves more and more on-the-job training. Regardless of whether a person is a trainee or an apprentice, he or she should be compensated if injured during the course of his or her work, and especially so in the case of members injured through a malicious incident. While the use of PIAB might slightly delay the issuing of awards, it has the benefit of ensuring the claimant will not be required to incur the cost of engaging a solicitor from the very beginning.
The definition of "malicious incident" is welcome. For a long time, this was a grey area left to be interpreted by the Garda Commissioner, and later by the Judiciary during a case that went all the way to the courts. This caused considerable anxiety to members who had been injured while on duty or in the commission of their duties, given some judges would find a member had been pursuing a suspect or had been injured by a driver under the influence. I am sure we all know, or have heard of, members injured in road collisions or while coming to the aid of members of the public, or others who have been targeted because of their work. These workers should not be left in limbo. They should have recourse to compensation for injuries they sustain. Moreover, circumstances in which members are injured through malicious intent can arise due to staffing deficiencies. As can be seen in our accident and emergency departments, the single greatest cause is understaffing, and under-resourcing and understaffing have serious implications for workers. Overworked and under-resourced Garda members are pulled from pillar to post responding to and investigating suspected criminality. They need more resources, both human and financial, to help them during the course of their work.
A lack of resources to deliver effective community policing has also caused significant problems. In recent months, I have spoken to many people who have cited the lack of community policing as a factor in drug issues, public order disturbances and violence and intimidation within communities. It should not be forgotten that poverty and inequality play as great a role in any such matters. In what has become an all-too-often occurrence in my constituency, there were significant public order issues last weekend. Such shocking behaviour is unacceptable and the safety and security of these areas has to be improved. It is shocking that our lovely public spaces can become so inhospitable and can be dominated by those who just seek to cause trouble. I urge the Minister to examine this issue, not just in the towns and villages but throughout north County Dublin, in the run-up to the busy summer period. We need a policing plan and additional gardaí to ensure everyone can enjoy what the north of the county has to offer in order that those who are intent on causing trouble will not get their way.
I cannot let this opportunity pass without mentioning the case of an extremely brave woman who contacted my office. She was the victim of severe abuse by her former spouse. Most of the incidents of abuse were reported to the Garda but were never followed up on or investigated. She made a complaint to the Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission, GSOC, and some sanctions were imposed.
Unfortunately, the victim felt that the process was flawed and incomplete because the final report did not mention the assault, harassment and breach of barring order perpetrated against her. She has voiced her frustration that there is no external appeals process and that the report she has received is, therefore, final. That is it. It is done and dusted. She does not feel that she has got justice but she cannot go any further with the matter. She feels very let down. In addition to liaising with me, she has also reached out to the Minister's office regarding these matters. I am aware of the upcoming policing, security and community safety Bill 2021, which is currently undergoing pre-legislative scrutiny. In replies to parliamentary questions, the Minister has stated that GSOC will have increased investigative powers and an extended mandate. In the course of that Bill's progress through the Dáil, I hope the Minister will consider the calls for many avenues for victims to question, query and appeal.
In the few moments remaining, I will raise with the Minister a case that has been brought to my attention. It relates to a member of An Garda Síochána who is due to become homeless in the coming months. This person has a job. This is the housing crisis in action. All he can be offered is accommodation in a hostel. This person cannot live in a hostel because he goes into hostels for work reasons. I am not suggesting that any person should, by virtue of his or her job, be able to skip the queue but I do want to raise this issue with the Minister and make her aware of this very stark and real thing that is happening to members of An Garda Síochána. They are out there doing their best and now, through no fault of their own, they find themselves renting privately because they cannot afford a mortgage. This individual has been served with a notice to quit. Of course, he has to abide by the law and be out when the landlord says he must but, for this person, the only option may be to go to a hostel, which creates particular difficulties for members of An Garda Síochána.
We welcome this legislation. Obviously, it is an absolute necessity that we have a streamlined process to ensure compensation for gardaí suffering injury or death rather than the antiquated one we have had and that the scheme makes sense and is swift and just to those who are out there working on our behalf and trying to introduce an element of justice. It is a very difficult job. None of us have a job wherein we could end up in incredibly dangerous circumstances on any given day. Therefore, everything that needs to be done in that regard must be done. It is very welcome that we are looking at dealing with trainees and, beyond that, with even the civilian staff who work with gardaí.
In dealing with this issue, I think of my own constituency and the cases of Adrian Donohoe and Tony Golden, who died doing their jobs. We all understand the dangers that are out there. We probably do not understand just how dangerous it is on a day-to-day basis. From time to time, we see some of the violence that it is out there. We have particular issues, particularly late at night and in urban settings. We need to look at the sort of policing that is required. As Deputy O'Reilly stated, we need an audit of the need so that we can ensure we have the full resources required. That is an absolute requirement.
We have seen some degree of increase in violence and aggression late at night. We all know that Ireland has never had a particularly great relationship with alcohol. Many of us may have been less than saintly over the years. Beyond that, we are aware that we are dealing with a significant issue in respect of drug abuse, especially cocaine abuse. An awful lot of people see cocaine as a recreational drug that they can take without doing any real harm. It has been brought to my attention in the last while that taxi ranks in Dundalk have recently been closed down. They did not want to leave their doors open because drivers and staff were dealing with wholesale aggression. I cannot help but think that some of that relates to the current widespread use of cocaine.
I have spoken to the Minister many times before about the need to deal with the wider issue of the drugs epidemic. I welcomed the establishment of the Drogheda Implementation Board in an attempt to deal with the brutal outworkings of the Drogheda feud but we need a significant level of resourcing across the board and a proper plan to deal with the drugs epidemic. This plan should cover everything from the addiction side and a health-led approach to it to criminality and drug debt intimidation. We have dealt with the Family Addiction Support Network before. That service provides great support to An Garda and to families who have been directly impacted by drug addiction and drug debt intimidation. We need to give it the capacity to stay in the game.
There is a wider issue. We need a citizens' assembly. We hope that this will be convened very early next year, although we would have preferred it to happen a lot sooner. There is a wider issue even beyond this State that we need to look at if we are to deal with the drugs issue. I have said here more than once that this is something we need to do at the European level. The issue is enormous and all-encompassing. There is no one who has to deal with this more and no one for whom it creates greater levels of danger than the gardaí themselves. Unfortunately, that is an issue given where we are and the societal difficulties we have. We all welcome the moves that have been made, particularly those made internationally, to deal with the Kinahan cartel but, unfortunately, these sorts of organisations exist in every town and village in this State, albeit on a smaller level and sometimes in a more disorganised way. We cannot continue doing what we are doing. We need to look at something far more radical. It is a simple as that. We need a full audit of what is required. We know there has been under-resourcing and that, even lately, there have been issues with regard to An Garda Síochána not having-----
I know. I was watching the clock. I am talking about supervision in Dundalk. That related to the appointment of sergeants. The solutions to those issues are in train but they have an impact on An Garda Síochána's ability to do business.
While I have the Minister in front of me - as everybody says - I will mention that we need to deal with the issue of duty of care. Deputy Daly raised the issue of PIAB. We still have not seen a solution with regard to insurance premiums. We all have multiple people coming to us to say that the price of their car insurance has not dropped. Beyond that is the very significant issue of public liability insurance. My residents' association is facing a bill of €3,400 and a claim has been made in respect of a particular piece of ground it has stewardship over. We need to look at duty of care as soon as possible.
There is general agreement that, as they are now structured, the existing compensation mechanisms available to members of An Garda Síochána who are injured and to their family members is cumbersome and in need of major overhaul. I heartily welcome the new arrangements set out in the Bill before the House. The objective is to make the process easier and speedier. We hope that will also be the outcome because we have often enacted legislation with certain objectives only for it not to turn out exactly as hoped. The objective is also to bring about more predictable outcomes for every individual member of An Garda Síochána who experiences suffering or injury and for the family members of murdered members and to allow them to expect compensation to arrive in a predictable and timely manner. I am mindful of the fact that members of An Garda Síochána go out and protect us day in and day out. I attended the opening of the new divisional Garda headquarters in my home town of Wexford, which is a magnificent new building.
Poignantly, when one walks in the front door, there is a plaque dedicated to the memory of the late Garda Seamus Quaid, who was murdered by the IRA in 1980. That tells the people of Wexford how much they owe to the members of An Garda Síochána for the maintenance of peace since the foundation of the State.
We are fortunate to still have a largely unarmed police force in this country, the members of which generally enjoy the trust and confidence of our people. I remember the day a couple of years ago when members and former members of An Garda Síochána walked out of their old premises in Wexford town, which they have occupied since the 1930s, and marched through the town to the new building. I was privileged to march among them as one of the local representatives. The townspeople lined the street and applauded as the members of An Garda Síochána marched between the two buildings. That speaks volumes as to the standing of our unarmed police force.
Another measure of the trust and confidence the people of Ireland have in An Garda Síochána, as any of us who are called to public meetings know, is that the one thing we can be sure of is there will be a call for more gardaí, more patrols and more visible policing. There are not too many agents of enforcement for which that would be the case, but it is the case for members of An Garda Síochána. We are mindful, too, that this is not the case in every state. It is important, therefore, at the outset of a debate like this, that we recognise and acknowledge the critical role played by An Garda Síochána in all our communities. By international comparisons, the force is greatly regarded.
By the nature of their work, gardaí put themselves in harm's way, whether in responding to a break-in or robbery or when called to a domestic dispute. They do not know what will face them when they arrive or what personal danger may confront them. When gardaí are inevitably injured in the course of their duties, the State not only has a duty to provide appropriate and adequate compensation but also to provide a clear mechanism to process such claims that is both timely and efficient. The Minister's new scheme meets this objective. She referenced the new process briefly, but it is useful to go through the individual elements.
If this particular measure is enacted, an injured member will be able to apply to the Garda Commissioner for compensation within six months of the injury and the Commissioner will appoint a reporting officer. If the latter concludes that the injury is one comprehended by this Bill, he or she will recommend compensation. If not, it is open to the member to have that decision independently reviewed. An assessment will then be made, should the reporting officer deem it appropriate, by PIAB. Should the decision of PIAB be queried, it is possible to have an independent judicial review of its determination.
I want to say a few words about PIAB, but, first, I remind the House of the long debates regarding that body, which have not entirely ended. There was an enormous pushback from the legal profession, which is extremely well represented in the Oireachtas, to the establishment of the board. I am afraid I am going to ascribe a base motive to this opposition in that some of the resistance from some barriers was because they foresaw an end to a lucrative source of work for themselves. PIAB has, in my judgment, impacted to the good on general personal injury claims. The establishment of a book of quantum has brought some measure of standardisation to payments, which is really important. If a person is injured in a road traffic incident, for example, or if a member of An Garda Síochána is injured in the course of his or her duties, the amount of compensation that person receives should not be dependent on the viewpoint of the individual judge who has seizure of the case. There must be some degree of standardisation in these matters. It seems that the PIAB mechanism could also be applied fairly to cases where gardaí are injured. As I said, there is an ultimate right of appeal is to the courts where there is a belief that fairness has not been achieved in terms of the compensation awarded.
Having said that, I want to make a clear distinction between accidental injuries caused by road traffic incidents or workplace incidents, for instance, and some of the injuries sustained by members of An Garda Síochána. The latter are sometimes deliberately attacked, including by having acid, urine or contaminated materials thrown at them. Some are stabbed with vials of liquid which could be anything and which could contain any kind of contamination. Some have had vehicles deliberately driven at them, causing horrific injuries. Such attacks are unthinkable for most people in most lines of work. They just do not happen. Unfortunately, however, they are incidents that are endured not absolutely infrequently by members of An Garda Síochána. They have been experienced by gardaí in the past and, as we must be mindful, they will be experienced by members in the future. The psychological impact of such attacks must be weighed alongside physical injuries and increased compensation calculated accordingly. If we are going to ask people to put themselves in harm's way in protection of our communities, they need to know they will get adequate compensation if they are hurt and that, God forbid, should they lose their lives in defence of our communities and our State, their families will be more than adequately looked after, protected and held in the esteem that is appropriate and proper to members of An Garda Síochána.
Important points were raised in the other House about persons who work alongside members of An Garda Síochána, often doing the same type of work. For example, members of the Criminal Assets Bureau, CAB, were mentioned. I thought the Minister might respond to those comments in her statement and indicate whether those types of workers are to be brought into the embrace of this legislation. It seems to me a reasonable and fair request that if there is a raid by CAB on people suspected of serious crime in order to seize goods, which certainly would be a case of those involved putting themselves in harm's way, and where they are not attested members of An Garda Síochána but other officers of the State working alongside the force, then they should have the same type of protection. I do not know whether the Minister has had an opportunity to reflect further on that matter since the debate in the other House. Perhaps she will respond in her closing comments.
The Minister has responded to the other matter that was raised in Seanad Éireann, namely, the situation of the growing number of civilian staff who work hand in glove with members of An Garda Síochána. It was my understanding from reading the text of the debate in the Upper House, which was taken by the Minister of State, Deputy James Browne, that a commitment was given to introduce an amendment to broaden the definition of "member" encompassed by the legislation to include civilian staff.
However, in her opening statement today, the Minister indicated that this is currently under consideration in the Department. I had hoped the decision to do this would be made and that the period of consideration would be over. The Minister might clarify if it is intended to amend the Bill on Committee Stage to broaden the definition to include civilian staff of An Garda Síochána and, it is to be hoped, others.
There is another point on which I am not clear; perhaps I have not read the Bill comprehensively enough. Are active members of the Garda Reserve encompassed by the legislation? If not, they should be. It is a matter that the Minister might mention in her response.
There are three categories that I would like to be encompassed by the legislation - officers of the Criminal Assets Bureau working in tandem with An Garda Síochána, Garda civilian staff who are often working on the front line inasmuch as they are meeting people coming in off the street into a workplace and members of the Garda Reserve should they be called out in uniform, so they would have the same protections. They might well have, but, if not, they should have. Again, that is something the Minister might mention.
In providing for this new mechanism for compensation, we must also acknowledge that our first duty, both as an Oireachtas and as a people, is a duty of care to prevent harm happening in the first instance. Although we are focused on the compensation for harm that has actually occurred, we also should be mindful to do everything possible to prevent injury and harm from happening in the first place. There is the provision of adequate and proper equipment, such as stab-proof jackets. There were endless rows and calls for this to happen. Is it the case that they are uniformly and everywhere available to members of An Garda Síochána now? Is a stab-proof vest available for anybody who wishes to use it? When visors are needed are they always available? Is appropriate footwear always available? With regard to vehicles, there was a request some time ago for high-capacity vehicles to be made available to An Garda Síochána because there was often the ludicrous situation where a vehicle being used by organised criminals would leave the standard Garda vehicle in its wake. I am aware that some expenditure was provided to An Garda Síochána to provide appropriate vehicles. However, is that comprehensive? Are those types of appropriate, high-performance vehicles in every Garda division? I might table a parliamentary question to the Minister so she can gather the information for me. What I am saying, in essence, is that whenever members of An Garda Síochána are on the front line they should have whatever degree of support and protection we can give them. That should be a matter of course.
The other issue is the provision of body cameras. To safeguard members of An Garda Síochána and also the general public, it is important that all incidents are properly recorded. Again, the Minister might give us an indication regarding the roll-out of body cameras for members of An Garda Síochána. I believe they are essential pieces of safety equipment too. Are they uniformly available?
In addition, although we have built a number of new Garda stations across the country, there are still many decrepit Garda stations. I am sure many Members of the House could point to their own localities where there could be investment. It is to ensure, from a safety perspective, that if people come into a station who are perhaps under the influence or are rowdy or violent, that we do not have probably largely civilian staff but also members of An Garda Síochána front-facing and vulnerable. We have to balance the right of every citizen to access An Garda Síochána and to have private discussions that are not overhead by anybody else who happens to be in the vicinity with affording whatever protection we can give to members of An Garda Síochána and their support staff in carrying out their duties.
There is another issue I wish to raise with the Minister. It is not exactly central to this legislation, but it is to the overall context. The Minister is leading a significant reform agenda in respect of An Garda Síochána. I have said many positive things about gardaí, the esteem in which they are held and the sacrifices they have made. However, it is the nature of any disciplined force that often it circles the wagons and is inward-looking. All of us who have been in public life for a long time have encountered instances where members of An Garda Síochána feel bullied within the force. If we are talking about the safety and protection from harm of individual members by way of compensation, we should also make sure that there are robust protection mechanisms for everybody, particularly now that there are many more women attested members, so they feel safe, secure and free from bullying within, and free to call out cases of bullying where they occur in the workplace. I know the Minister has a personal interest in this, but I wished to mention it in the context of this legislation. However, perhaps we will return to it. People, regardless of where they work, are entitled to do their duties free from any sense of bullying and harassment. That can happen occasionally, particularly within a disciplined force, and unfortunately there are cases of bullying now emerging from within the Army. Any instance is one too many, and too many have arisen.
We are at a point where substantial change is taking place in policing in Ireland. There are a number of reforming legislative measures. The leader of the Labour Party today raised a concern I have about one legislative measure which deals with the management body of An Garda Síochána. It is one point of an important and progressive set of reforms, but we will debate that at another time. The Bill before us is a small but significant part of the important modernisation to which the legislation being brought forward by the Minister on so many fronts is contributing. By and large, it has support across all parties in the House.
I welcome this important legislation. It is timely. When speaking on this Bill we should remember that we are talking about the men and women of An Garda Síochána who protect and serve us all. That is very significant.
The Bill provides for a major reform of the compensation scheme that is currently in operation. I compliment the work undertaken by the Minister, Deputy McEntee, in this area. The key aims of the Bill are to reduce the length of time it takes for Garda compensation claims to be dealt with from the initial application through to award, to ensure settlement and resolution of claims can be reached earlier in the process and to set out clear limits relating to each stage of the process. It also aims to reduce the number of applications proceeding to court by allowing the Personal Injuries Assessment Board, PIAB, to assess quantums in the first instance. This is an important step forward which will, in turn, reduce the legal and administration costs associated with the scheme. Currently, there is an enormous backlog in the High Court and it can take up to four years for a case for Garda compensation to be heard, so this is important reform in that area.
I acknowledge the great work done by members of An Garda Síochána in putting their lives at risk daily. I have enormous admiration for the work An Garda Síochána does in view of the harm ordinary members can face while doing their job. This Bill provides for an important simple method whereby members of An Garda Síochána who are entitled to compensation can have a clear path to it that is not strewn with obstacles or unnecessary expense.
We must remember that members of An Garda Síochána are working on behalf of the State and that they must be able to rely on being compensated because of the work they do, as well as ensuring that gardaí and their families can be compensated by means of a simpler and more effective process.
I appreciate that the purpose of this Bill is to reduce waiting times and the costs that are associated with claims for malicious injuries to a member of An Garda Síochána in the course of their work. It must be noted that current backlogs in the High Court have resulted in some cases taking as long as four years to progress from the initial phase to its conclusion. When legal proceedings go forward in this way, it typically results in higher costs, and further pressure on the services provided by the court. However, it also delays the process for the claimant, and may prolong, unnecessarily, the trauma that the garda member or their representatives have been subject to. Therefore, that is welcome, but it also leads me onto another, associated matter. I refer to the psychological effects of a maliciously inflicted injury. Not only is a maliciously inflicted injury a physical one; it can also stay with the injured person for some time, if not permanently. I hope that the PIAB takes account of this when it engages in deliberations on Garda compensation claims.
Our gardaí are unique in terms of workers, in so far as the nature of their duty means that, on a daily basis, they must put themselves in harm's way. It is also a profession in which some aggrieved persons may wish to vent their frustration with the course of justice. Therefore, it is only proper that the men and women who carry out their duties on behalf of the safety and security of us all would have the security of knowing that legislation has been designed to ensure that if they become a victim of a malicious assault in the course of their duty, they have a process of compensation that is as free as possible from undue complications.
I also refer to the difference between the courts system and the PIAB process. Some members of An Garda Síochána may prefer to deal with the courts or pursue their case through a solicitor. The nature of an injury sustained by a garda may cause him or her to want to go through a solicitor and go through the courts. If they wish to address the malicious manner in which an injury was inflicted upon them, the court proceedings would allow for an added level of detail. I would appreciate a response from the Minister to those specific points. Overall, I welcome the Bill. I thank the gardaí for the work they do. I hope we can reflect that appreciation through the legislation we pass through this House.