If they did, they followed my footsteps a bit earlier. It was in the district court with regard to the Probation of Offenders Act. There was undoubtedly in a particular court an over-use of the Probation of Offenders Act. That, again, was dealt with. It was not a question of making a report to any of the higher judges. The matter cropped up in a rather casual conversational way.
The next thing I knew was that I was advised there would probably be an improvement in the attitude in our district courts in this matter and so there was. The Minister spoke about the over-use of the Probation of Offenders Act. That was the one point on which he said there was evidence of public disquiet at what appeared to be a serious lack of uniformity in dealing with habitual offenders. Why that phrase was brought in, I do not know.
The over-use of the Probation of Offenders Act, to which my notice was drawn, certainly was not in connection with habitual offenders any more than with others. That is the only basis on which it is put. Still at Column 1062, we read:
When I investigated the matter I was made very conscious of the difficulties of bringing to the notice of justices generally the bad effect of the standing of the court brought about by lack of uniformity. I found that there was no machinery available. Now, under the provisions of subsection (3) of Section 36 the justices will be able to discuss these matters among themselves.
Then, at Column 1063, we read:
There is no question of interfering with the freedom of individual justices to award the penalties they consider appropriate to the particular circumstances of each case; but the justices will have the benefit of the views and experience of other justices at these discussions and can, if they wish, take them into account when exercising their jurisdiction subsequently.
The Minister then said he had been advised the section was not in any way contrary to the Constitution.
With regard to "machinery," I do not understand the phrase "machinery to bring to the notice of the justices the bad effect created by lack of uniformity." There is the District Court Rules Committee. It is a committee of seven people. There are two ex officio members. One is a justice of the district court here in Dublin, or else particularly defined, and the other is the district court clerk for the county borough of Dublin. There are two ex officio members here and the President of the District Court could easily take over the chairmanship. With him, there are five other people, two ex officio and seven nominated.
Of the seven nominated people, four are district justices nominated by the Minister. One other nominated member shall be a practising barrister nominated by the Council of the Bar of Saorstát Éireann and two others shall be practising solicitors nominated by the Council of the Incorporated Law Society of Ireland. That is a good committee—five Justices, one district court clerk, two members of the solicitors' profession and one member of the Bar. The Secretary of each of the several committees is told to summon a meeting of such committee once at least in every year on such day as may be fixed by the chairman. The purpose is the general consideration by such committee of the practice, procedure and administration of the court in relation to which such committee is constituted and the law affecting or administered by such court.
Subsection (2) of Section 75 provides that the committee is to report to the Minister whether any, and if so what, amendments or alterations should, in the opinion of such committee, be made in the practice, procedure or administration of the court in relation to which such committee is constituted or in the law affecting or administered by such court with a view to the improvement of the administration of justice. Great power is given there. The Minister, remember, has four nominees on that committee, all members of the district court group. The committee are to meet any time the secretary summons them. He must summon them at least once a year and he is supposed to report at least once a year. There is the suggestion that built into that should be a provision that the President of the District Court, if he is to be appointed, should have the obligation to report.
I have frequently called attention to the fact that these statutory obligations imposed by the Act of 1936 have not been carried out. I think that is a scandal. I first called attention to it in the Estimate for the Department of Justice in 1958 and thereafter in successive years and by questions sought to get some indication of what reports had been made. I have not the replies to my own questions but there are one or two. I think the Local Registration of Title Rules Committee reported once or twice but the rest did not. Now, it is put as an urgent objection against me that I am asking a committee which has not fulfilled its duty to take on other duties. I am. I think the duties should be enforced.
Recently, I asked here whether the attention of the various judges concerned had been drawn to the fact that they were in dereliction of their statutory duties. I asked that either the statute be enforced or else that the provision be removed. The provision is good but it should be enforced. Surely it is possible to ensure that judges, who frequently admonish people who come before them in their various courts for breaches of statutory duties imposed on members of the public, will comply with a statute? They have to enforce statutory obligations upon other people.
I should like to see a revival of these Rules Committees. However, if it is not going to act then we would have to get something else. The President is now given the power to convene meetings. A great picture has been painted here of the district justices meeting, reading law journals, discussing the advances in the administration or the changes or improvements in the administration of law in other countries. The suggestion appears to be that there would be a sort of debating society mood on these people. The discussion will be with regard to the discharge of the business of the court, fines, penalties and the avoidance of undue divergencies in penalties. Just think of 40 district justices to be brought together, save such of them as have a legitimate excuse for not attending.
The President, having convened the 40 of them—he cannot convene them oftener than twice a year—each justice is bound to attend unless he has an excuse. Then they are supposed to discuss not merely this matter of fines and all the rest but scientific law journals and foreign publications. The thing is ludicrous. It would be much better to confine the justices' attention to the general terms of the practice, procedure and administration of their courts and that their attention should be directed to the law of the court and whether or not there is any improvement required in that law.
It should be remembered in all this, of course, that the phrase was used that the district justices are judges in every sense of the term. They are, except in the way they are styled and the way in which they are going to be addressed if the English version is used. It also must be remembered that under the Constitution the district justices have no constitutional protection in their position—none whatever. They have been given by law the protection the Constitution gives to the judges of the Supreme Court and the High Court. That law, of course, is subject to repeal at any moment. Their position is a rather weak, a delicate one.
When the Act of 1946 gave them legally this constitutional tenure given to the High Court and the Supreme Court it went on then to prescribe the method of judicial inquiry. There is a method of judicial inquiry laid down. It is, of course, only to be used in very special circumstances. It is in cases of either misbehaviour or incapacity of a type that possibly might lead to the dismissal or retirement of a judge if the machinery that is there were put into gear. The machinery is there and could be used in the district courts in a lesser way. Apart from that, there is the judicially accepted way of the Minister himself making inquiries and having a chat with a particular justice.
At column 1064 of the Second Reading debate the Minister came to the point of the new kind of jurisdiction over justices which is being vested in the President of the High Court by subsection (4) of Section 10 of the Bill. That has been changed now to the Chief Justice. The situation there was that the President of the High Court was to be empowered—and this is the time the President was first thought of although I am told this morning that it is traditionally the Chief Justice who has control of the whole administration of the courts. The first thought was to give it to the President of the High Court. Anyway, that only changed the personnel. The new jurisdiction was designed for the case where the formal inquiry by a High Court or a Supreme Court Judge provided for in Section 21 of the Courts of Justice (District Court) Act, 1946 would not be called for or would not be the best or most appropriate procedure.
The Minister said:
The view has always been taken— and I think rightly taken—that the elaborate machinery of the 1946 Act should not be set in motion by the Minister for Justice unless the allegations against the justice, if proved, would make it necessary for the Minister to move in the Oireachtas for the justice's removal from office.
The Minister then considered leaving it to the jurisdiction of the President of the High Court and it is now transferred to the Chief Justice.
The Minister continued:
The result has been that there is no redress available to the public or their representatives in less serious cases where, for example, offensive statements are made gratuitously by justices in regard to individuals or organisations or in relation to the legislation passed by the Oireachtas. All that is needed, the Government the necessary standing to advise the feels, is for some judicial person of justice or justices concerned to conform to the standards of behaviour followed by their colleagues in the execution of their office. I have little doubt that the friction which has been created from time to time—fortunately not very often— between justices and the public will be reduced, if not entirely eliminated, by the influence which the President will exercise on the conduct of justices generally.
Instead of the Minister finding it possible to approach an erring justice on his own, to bring about a better position, we have the two types of machinery, one where it is proposed that the President of the High Court should have this power, the second where that is now transferred to the Chief Justice.
What Deputy Barrett said in this connection has been referred to. I want to refer to more of what he said. He was picked out because he is the only person on this side of the House who said anything favourable at all to these proposals with regard to district justices. The Deputies beside me and Deputy Lindsay and myself all objected in very strong terms to the introduction of this officer at all. Deputy Barrett did say that he was glad the Minister was, so to speak, taking a hand in the game. That is not all of what he said.
At column 1100 he said:
I am not at all distressed by the provisions of Section 36 as some of my colleagues in these benches would appear to be. I am very glad that at last the Minister is taking a strong hand in the matter of the behaviour of district justices.
That is behaviour.
More than one district justice in this country has shown complete disregard and disrespect for the people whom they are obliged to serve. I can honestly say that these men brought the district court, which is, generally speaking, of a high standard, into absolute disrepute by their contempt through lack of punctuality.
Now it is behaviour and it is mainly lack of punctuality.
He went on to say:
I myself sat for an hour and a quarter waiting for a district justice to arrive to hold a court. I am accordingly glad to see that the Minister has at last become sensitive to such a problem. It is not before time that this is being done; it has been going on for years, and I am glad that justices are being put on notice that they will have to do their job for which they are being well paid.
That is the matter of behaviour and we know that could be dealt with in a completely different way and without this peculiar machinery being thrown in.
Deputy Barrett continued, and this was not quoted:
I do not think there is any need to be apprehensive about subsection (3) (a) of Section 36. It does not mean the justices, when they come to talk with the President of the District Court, have to bow the knee or even pay any attention to what the learned President of that court may say.
Then he quotes the subsection and comments upon that:
It does not impose upon any district justice any obligation to pay the slightest attention to what the President of the District Court says. As far as I can see, the section simply envisages getting the district justices together under the learned President of the District Court in the hope that somebody will say something of use to his colleagues during the course of the meetings. They can go home as they came up.
A later comment was:
I do not think the meetings envisaged in this Bill will be as useful as the Minister seems to hope because any ordinary district justice should be able to keep himself up to date and should be able to know what jurisdiction he has. Apart from the ordinary mistake any judicial personage may make, from the Chief Justice down to a district justice, the ordinary justice of the district court knows the jurisdiction he holds and the administration should not alter very much from district to district.
At the bottom of column 1101 he said:
One thing I feel some anxiety about is the reference to the general level of fines and other penalties. Whilst it is true in practice that district justices need not pay any attention to what the President of the District Court says about the level of fines or other penalties, we should be practical in our approach and we should realise that in any human society the personal outlook of any person who is appointed to any position whatever, be it Minister, district justice, Ceann Comhairle or anything else, is bound to be coloured by the human failings or the human attributes of the person concerned. It is a bad thing to try to effect uniformity in a matter of that nature where it is so pre-eminently a matter for the individual conscience of every district justice.
The rest of his speech was about the use of the Irish terms.
People on this side of the House may have said various things about the appointments being made but when it came to functions and powers, with the exception of Deputy Barrett, there was no commendation of the proposal in the legislation saving only with regard to the matter of behaviour.