Friday, 18 December 2020
Harassment, Harmful Communications and Related Offences Bill 2017: Committee and Remaining Stages
I thank the Senators for their contributions. Section 7 refers to summary offences only or where someone is charged summarily. Section 10(1) of the Petty Sessions (Ireland) Act 1851 provides that summary prosecutions must be initiated within a time limit of six months. The time limits provided for in law for summary offences reflect the fact that an individual should not have a relatively minor offence that is summary in nature hanging over that person for a disproportionate period. Section 7 already extends the time limit for the bringing of a summary prosecution from six months to two years. I support this as I appreciate that there may be difficulties in investigating offences that may occur entirely online, as recognised by the Law Reform Commission. However, I am also mindful that this extension is also an exception to the normal rules relating to bringing prosecutions and should be treated as such. As I pointed out in the Dáil yesterday, this section only applies to summary offences under the Bill and not to indictable offences that attract higher penalties. There is no time limit for the prosecution of indictable offences in Ireland.
While I appreciate the intention behind the Senator's proposals in amendments Nos. 19 to 21, inclusive, I do not believe it is appropriate to extend the time limit for the bringing of summary proceedings beyond the significant extension being provided for in the Bill already. Amendments Nos. 20 and 21 in particular could have the effect of extending the time limit for summary prosecutions to any point in the future that would mean it could be treated the same as an indictable offence. This is not desirable in practice and could be considered to interfere with the right to a fair trial guaranteed under the Constitution. As we know, summary offences are treated in the absence of a jury. We have to be careful about what we put in and treat as a summary offence. If we start blurring the lines between what is a summary offence and what can come under an indictable offences, we are at risk of seeing the summary offence being struck down because it is not seen to be a fair procedure or the right to a fair trial guaranteed under the Constitution. That is the concern around it.
I wish to clarify as well that the relevant date is from the date of distribution. We should bear in mind that if there is redistribution or if someone reposts at any stage or posts on to another person, then every post is another offence. I wish to clarify that point.