I move that the Bill be now read a Second Time.
This Bill comes before the Dáil after having passed through the Seanad where it was subjected to very careful and detailed consideration and to fairly extensive amendment. In the result, I am bound to say that, to my mind, the Bill which Deputies are now invited to consider is a better and more comprehensive measure than it was as originally introduced.
The Bill, as Deputies will have observed for themselves, consists in the main of provisions of a technical character which will provide remedies, shown by experience to be necessary, or at any rate desirable, for defects in the existing law relating to criminal justice and administration. The primary purpose of the Bill, however, is to provide for an enlargement of the District Court's criminal jurisdiction and it is with this aspect of the measure that I propose mainly to concern myself at this stage.
One of the criticisms most frequently heard of the existing procedure for the administration of criminal justice is that an inordinate amount of time has to be spent in taking depositions on the preliminary investigation of indictable offences, even in cases in which the accused person would be quite willing, if the state of the law permitted, to have the charges against him disposed of summarily. Sometimes also a person charged with an indictable offence is prepared at all material times to plead guilty, but, notwithstanding this, the depositions must be taken in full before the accused is returned for trial. The existing law, it is true, provides for a summary trial of a limited range of indictable offences, provided that the district justice is satisfied on the facts proved that the offence constitutes a minor offence, fit to be tried summarily and that the accused does not object to being so tried.
The principle of a summary trial for certain classes of indictable offences having been long since established and having worked well in practice, it was perhaps inevitable that the first reform to suggest itself should be an extension of the range of indictable offences that might be tried summarily. Such a reform would enable cases to be disposed of by the District Court which would otherwise have to be sent for trial before judge and jury after depositions had been taken and might, therefore, be expected to result in an appreciable saving of time, trouble and expense and, of no little importance, in a substantial measure of relief for witnesses and jurors. From the point of view of accused persons, protracted delays in the disposal of cases would be eliminated and more expeditious trials ensured.
The Bill, accordingly, proposes to extend the range of indictable offences that may be tried summarily and it does this in two ways. Firstly, certain specific offences—perjury, forgery, conversion, for example—are being added to the list of indictable offences that may be dealt with summarily. Secondly, the property value limits applicable in cases of larceny and malicious damage to property are being increased, the increase in larceny being from £20, as fixed by the Courts of Justice Act, 1924, to £50 and, in malicious damage to property, from £5, which was the limit prescribed by the Malicious Damage Act, 1861, to £50. The very considerable fall in the value of money constitutes, of itself, a sufficient warrant for the proposed increases in the property value limits.
Deputies will note that power is being taken in Section 2 of the Bill to enable the Minister for Justice to prescribe further indictable offences as offences that may be tried summarily. It is unlikely, I think, that this power will be frequently availed of. The First Schedule to the Bill pretty well exhausts the offences that, by common consent, are fit to be tried summarily, subject to the conditions laid down in Section 2, but it is conceivable that practical experience will occasionally show the desirability of adding a particular offence, or class of offences, to the list and, in the absence of a power such as the section proposes to confer, the only way by which this could be done would be by legislation. The essentials of Parliamentary control are preserved by the requirement that an Order made by the Minister for Justice under the section must be approved by both Houses of the Oireachtas before it can come into force.
It is as well, perhaps, that I should stress the fact that the power of the District Court to deal summarily with indictable offences will continue to be subject to two conditions, namely: (a) that the offence must be in the nature of a minor offence, and (b) that the accused does not object to being tried summarily. With regard to the minor nature of the offence, Section 2 of the Bill proposes a change in the law which, though largely of a procedural character, is important from the practical point of view. Under Section 77B of the Courts of Justice Act, 1924, the justice, before he could decide to deal with the case summarily, had to be satisfied on the facts proved that the offence constituted a minor offence fit to be tried summarily. On a narrow construction, this provision meant that the justice had to hear the case in full, taking the depositions as it proceeded, before he could form the opinion that the offence was a minor offence with which he might deal summarily. The time spent laboriously taking depositions was almost wholly wasted in such a case. Section 2 of the Bill alters the law in this respect, and, in future, instead of having to be satisfied as to the minor nature of the offence on the facts proved, the court may so satisfy itself on the facts proved or alleged. Thus, for example, the court will be able to form the opinion that the offence is a minor offence after the charge has been read, or after hearing the opening statement by the prosecution, and will be able to proceed at once to deal with the case summarily, provided the accused does not object. The accused's right to object to a summary trial is an unqualified right and preserves for him his right to a trial by jury which the Constitution guarantees, except in the case of minor offences.
I have already referred in passing to the case, which occurs not infrequently, in which an accused person is, from the outset, prepared to plead guilty. Unless the offence is a minor offence, in which event the justice may dispose of the charge summarily, there is no alternative in such a case, notwithstanding that the accused pleads guilty, to taking the depositions in full. The accused is then returned for trial and may be kept waiting for months before his case can be heard and, although he has pleaded guilty, the depositions have to be copied and the State has to instruct counsel and to ensure that all the necessary witnesses are available, lest the accused should change his mind and at the last moment withdraw his plea of guilty.
Section 3 of the Bill contains provisions which, it is hoped, will help to eliminate the waste of time and money and the delays which the procedure I have just described necessarily involved. The section, at the same time, contains safeguards that are, I submit, adequate to protect the constitutional and traditional rights of accused persons. I do not think it necessary at this stage to comment in detail on the section, the provisions of which are self-explanatory. I would like, however, to direct the attention of Deputies to the fact that the powers of the District Court under the section do not extend to the more serious crimes of murder, treason or piracy or their cognates. Not even the most zealous reformer would. I think, propose that the District Court should be given the power to deal summarily with such serious crimes or even to apply the alternative procedure provided for in the section of allowing the accused to sign a plea of guilty and thereupon returning him for trial without taking any depositions.
It will be observed that the section vests a discretion in the District Court either to deal with the case summarily or to send it forward for trial, without depositions or with such depositions as may have been taken up to the time at which the accused signs the plea of guilty. It is contemplated that the district justice, in exercising this discretion, will, apart from any other relevant considerations, have regard to the adequacy or otherwise of the punishment which he is permitted by law to impose for the offence. If he thinks that the maximum punishment which he may order would be inadequate, he will doubtless send the accused forward to the Circuit Court which will have the power to impose a heavier sentence. The justice's discretion is not wholly unfettered, however, because he cannot, if the Attorney-General objects, deal with the case summarily. This seems a desirably proviso, but it is to be noted that while the Attorney-General can object to, he cannot insist upon, a summary trial.
In view of the increased powers being given to the District Court to deal summarily with a wider range and more serious types of cases, it is necessary to give the court the power to impose correspondingly greater punishment. Six months imprisonment is the maximum sentence that the District Court may impose at present (unless it imposes consecutive sentences for two or more offences), while the court has no general power to inflict a monetary penalty. Section 4 of the Bill empowers the District Court to impose a fine of up to £50 or imprisonment up to 12 months or both such fine and imprisonment on conviction for a scheduled indictable offence or for an indictable offence dealt with under Section 3.
As will have been gathered from what I have already said, one of the primary objects which we hope to achieve by Sections 2 and 3 of the Bill is to reduce the amount of time that district justices have to spend on the preliminary investigation of indictable offences. It is proposed, on the one hand, to extend as far as possible the range of cases that may be disposed of summarily and so eliminate depositions and, on the other hand, to enable cases to be sent forward for trial at the earliest possible stage once the accused is prepared to plead guilty, thereby again eliminating depositions in whole or in part. There may be some who think that the proposals in the Bill are not radical enough and that we should have gone even further. There have been propounded, for example, such suggestions as the returning of a person for trial on the establishment merely of a prima facie case against him and notwithstanding that all the depositions have not been taken or, where there was a multiplicity of charges, returning the accused for trial on one or two of the charges and preferring the remainder on indictment although depositions had not been taken in regard to them. Such suggestions were carefully considered in all their aspects before it was decided to reject them. They would involve a more or less radical departure from the existing procedure for the preliminary investigation and trial of indictable offences and would not, it was felt, on the whole, be in the best interests of the administration of justice.
Before I leave this part of the Bill, there is just one other point I would like to emphasise. We are not proposing in these provisions to confer any wholly new or novel jurisdiction on the District Court. All that we are doing is to extend a jurisdiction that the court has had and has operated very successfully ever since its inception. That is not to minimise in any way the importance of what is proposed or the useful and beneficial consequences that we hope and expect will ensue. I am glad to be able to tell the House that the proposals have been welcomed by the general body of justices and I think that the Legislature can entrust the increased jurisdiction and powers which the Bill provides for to the District Court in the confident knowledge that they will be administered and exercised no less successfully than have been the more restricted jurisdiction and powers in the past.
The remaining provisions of the Bill are of a technical character and I do not propose to dwell on them at this stage except to say a word or two on the subject of Section 18 which provides for the clearing of the court in certain cases and for the prohibition or restriction of the reports of certain criminal proceedings. My main reason, indeed, for referring at all to this section is that, in its original form, it was the subject of considerable comment and criticism. There was a certain amount of confusion as to the purport of the provision and there was even a suggestion that it could lead to the establishment of secret courts. I need hardly assure the House that no such intention was ever present to the minds of the Government. The section, as it now stands, is restricted in its application to two classes of criminal proceedings, namely, (a) the preliminary investigation of indictable offences, and (b) criminal proceedings in relation to offences of an indecent or obscene nature. There is, in fact, nothing very novel in the provisions of the section and provisions on very similar lines are to be found in various earlier statutes. Whether any of these earlier provisions survived the express provision of Article 34.1 of the 1937 Constitution that justice should be administered in public courts is, at least, open to very serious doubt.
Article 34.1 was amended in 1941 so as to provide that, in such special and limited cases as might be prescribed by law, justice might be administered otherwise than in public courts. This amendment, I am advised, could not, and did not in fact, operate to revive any provisions which might have been impliedly repealed by the original Article. The provisions of Section 18 are, therefore, necessary to implement Article 34.1 as amended and to remove all doubts as to the powers of the courts in this important matter. I think that there will be general agreement that in the two classes of cases with which the section deals it is not merely desirable but necessary that the courts should have the powers which the section proposes to confer on them.