Tribunals of Inquiry (Evidence) (Amendment) Bill, 1979: From the Seanad.

The Dáil went into Committee to consider amendments from the Seanad.

Amendment No. 1 is consequential on amendment No. 2 and they may be discussed together.

I move that the Committee agree with the Seanad in amendment No. 1:

Section 3: In page 2, line 22, "following subsection" deleted and "following subsections" substituted.

(Cavan-Monaghan): I welcome these amendments. The effect of the two amendments is to increase the penalty of £500 or 12 months' imprisonment or both for offences set out in section 3 of the Bill. These offences are the refusal of a witness to attend or the refusal of that witness to give evidence or the obstruction by that witness or other matters. The maximum penalty provided for that in the Bill as introduced was £500 or 12 months' imprisonment. The proposal in the amendment is to make it an indictable offence and to increase the maximum penalty to £10,000 or two years' imprisonment or both. The amendment also changes completely the procedure in regard to the summary offence and writes into the Bill very necessary safeguards in regard to summary offences.

These amendments represent a triumph for Committee procedure in this House. They also show how dangerous it is to rush legislation through this House without adequate discussion. When the Bill was introduced it was proposed to have all Stages on the same day. At the risk of being misrepresented, this side of the House insisted that the Committee Stage debate be held on the following day and we had a very good discussion which resulted in these amendments.

It follows from these amendments that whatever Government may be in power should amend the law immediately it appears to be defective and in this regard the law appeared to be defective in 1970. It is wrong that the law should be left in a defective condition for a long time and not amended until some very emotive incident occurs, such as the disaster in Bantry which has given rise to this amending legislation. In such an event the Government should not come into the House with amendments to legislation and seek the passage through the House as a matter of urgency, putting the Opposition—the watchdogs of the Constitution and of democracy—in such a position that if they resist they will be told they are striking the Government of the day with the child in their arms, so to speak. That is a legitimate attitude in regard to these amendments.

I accept the amendments. They are necessary and the Bill as introduced would have been very defective without them. Deputy O'Keeffe, the Fine Gael spokesman on Justice, raised the point that the penalties provided in the Bill as introduced were very inadequate. He pointed out that a fine of £500 or 12 months' imprisonment might very well mean nothing, having regard to the amount of money and the type of person who might be involved in the inquiry. We also pointed out that to have effective penalties the offences would require to be made indictable offences.

I am glad that amendment No. 2 does exactly what we suggested. It increases the penalty to £10,000 or two years' imprisonment or both. My only doubt is whether this is sufficiently high. I express that doubt because endless millions are involved in the subject-matter of the inquiry.

It is very inadvisable to introduce legislation at a time when it is necessary to deal with a specific matter, although it is amending the law in general. We cannot divorce from our minds the fact that this legislation will be used to deal with a variety of inquiries which may be held long after we have gone, either from this House or permanently. The Bill will deal in the first place with the disaster in Bantry and my only doubt is whether the penalties are sufficient to deal with the type of obstruction or offence or refusal to give evidence that might be involved. It is a substantial improvement on the penalties provided in the other Bill. Certainly there will be no question of their being unconstitutional because the offence is made an indictable offence and the large penalties of £10,000 or two years imprisonment can be imposed only on conviction on indictment in one of the superior courts.

In regard to the provision in the Bill as introduced, which provided that on summary conviction a person could be fined £500 or imprisoned for 12 months, there is a genuine doubt in my mind and in the minds of many other lawyers as to whether the 12 months would stand up if tested in the High Court. A penalty of 12 months imprisonment might very well remove the offence from the category of minor offences being fit to be tried summarily. At any rate a vast improvement has been effected in the drafting of the section dealing with a summary offence. The section, as drafted originally, merely said that the person shall be guilty of an offence who does a number of things and shall be liable, on summary conviction, to a fine not exceeding £500 or, at the discretion of the court, to imprisonment for a term not exceeding 12 months, or to both such fine and such imprisonment. The amendment in relation to the summary offence, that is an offence that may be tried in a district court says:

A justice of the District Court shall have jurisdiction to try summarily an offence under this section if—

(i) the justice is of opinion that the facts proved or alleged against a defendant charged with such an offence constitute a minor offence fit to be tried summarily,...

That is a vast improvement and did not appear in the Bill as drafted originally. Obviously now the District Justice will be able to have a look at and take into consideration the entire circumstances of the offence. He will be entitled to take into account the amount of damage that has been done, the terrible loss of life suffered and the general gravity of the matter being inquired into. The amendment goes on to say:

(ii) the Director of Public Prosecutions consents, and

(iii) the defendant (on being informed by the justice of his right to be tried by a jury) does not object to being tried summarily,

and, upon conviction under this paragraph, the said defendant shall be liable to a fine not exceeding £500 or, at the discretion of the court, to imprisonment for a term not exceeding 12 months or to both such fine and such imprisonment.

That constitutes a vast improvement on the previous subsection which was apparently hurriedly drafted and rushed into this House. I am satisfied that the larger penalties which may be imposed on indictment are waterproof, bullet-proof and will stand up to the Constitution in every way. The summary provisions of the section dealing with the offence have been improved enormously because the justice must be satisfied now—and it is written in in black and white—that it is a minor offence fit to be tried summarily; the accused must have the option, and be given that option, of being tried by a judge and jury if he wants to be so tried. It is only when he consents to and accepts the jurisdiction of the minor court that he can be dealt with there. That is adequate also. A very good day's work was done in the drafting of this amendment. I should like the Minister, when replying, to spell out what exactly subparagraph (c) of amendment No. 2 means when it says:

Section 13 of the Criminal Procedure Act, 1967, shall apply in relation to an offence under this section....

The only regret I have is that the Minister did not accept my suggestions in regard to another section of the Bill which enables the tribunal to award costs because in my opinion that was not constitutional. In my opinion the tribunal, in awarding costs, will be administering justice and will be in violation of the relevant Article of the Constitution, and that it will not be saved by Article 37 of the Constitution which says that it is only a limited exercise of judicial function.

The Labour Party welcome this amendment. On Second Stage debate I raised the whole question of the effective deterrent value of a fine of £500. At that time the Minister conceded that it was an area in respect of which the fine was miserable. I am glad to see that the Seanad have come up with this amendment and, as far as my party are concerned, we accept it.

This Bill is to enable the public inquiry get off the ground. I should like to see this Bill go through today so that the terms of reference of the inquiry can be published without delay.

The first amendment, as I said prematurely, is purely of a drafting nature. Section 3 of the Bill, as passed by this House, proposed to substitute one subsection only for the existing subsection (2) of section 1 of the Tribunals of Inquiry (Evidence) Act, 1921.

Amendment No. 2 inserts two subsections. Consequently the word "subsection" in line 22 of the Bill has to be changed to the plural, "subsections". The purpose of amendment No. 2 is to provide stiffer penalties for offences under section 3 of the Bill. Section 3 substitutes a new subsection for subsection (2) of section 1 of the 1921 Act. It creates a number of offences, such as, for example, disobeying a summons of a tribunal to attend as a witness, and prescribes certain penalties for such offences. The Bill, as passed by this House, proposed to make the offences in question minor offences to be tried only in a summary manner, that is to say, by the District Court, with penalties restricted to a maximum fine of £500 or 12 months imprisonment or both.

I should like to pay tribute to all parties in respect of the amendments which Deputy Fitzpatrick described as a triumph for the Committee procedure in this House. I endorse that sentiment. There is no gainsaying that at no time did the Minister for Justice, when introducing the Bill originally in this House, want to rush it through without discussion; quite the contrary. We wanted to have the matter discussed in a cool and proper fashion. When he requested me to deal with the Tribunals of Inquiry Bill in the Seanad, in the interim between its passage here in the Dáil and its going to the Seanad the Minister gave this a lot of thought arising out of the contributions made by Deputies Fitzpatrick, O'Keeffe and Kelly and members of the Labour Party. As a direct result of those observations and the observations he himself made on the matter we now have the two amendments before the House which the House finds acceptable. This is altogether a very happy state of legislative affairs.

The second point that Deputy Fitzpatrick raised was the question of the £10,000 fine on indictment. He felt that that was still not enough. I take the view that the two years imprisonment is quite a substantial deterrent on its own. I agree that in the circumstances we could be dealing with a large oil company whose wealth is limitless to the last gallon of oil that they have in the ground. Here we have a situation where we have individuals, coming before a tribunal in this instance who may never have been before a court, in awe of a situation because they have never come before the full trappings of a court and so on. It will be found that they are responsible individuals who have not had this experience before. Apart altogether from the financial deterrent the two years imprisonment is more than adequate if the matter becomes an indictable charge.

The other point Deputy Fitzpatrick mentions is in relation to the Criminal Procedure Act, 1967. There is provision in the amendment, in paragraph (c) of the new subsection (2A), for the application of section 13 of the Criminal Procedure Act, 1967. My information is—and this is an ascertainable fact—that this is to cater for the summary trial of an accused person who pleads guilty in the District Court.

Again I would like to thank the members of the Fine Gael Party and the members of the Labour Party who contributed to the debate on this Bill and endeavoured to make it a better Bill by virtue of their contributions. It has undoubtedly been to the credit of the House that we can discharge our duties in the manner in which they have been discharged. I agree with Deputy Fitzpatrick's point that may be in the final analysis this problem should have been dealt with a long time ago and rather than having to come here with a Bill arising out of the dreadful tragedy that did occur in Whiddy we should have had the legal apparatus there beforehand. But it is a matter of fact that since 1970—if we are to go into the business of apportioning blame and this debate has been conducted in a very civilised fashion and it is not my function to do so—there have been a number of Governments. On behalf of the Minister for Justice, I thank both Houses for their co-operation in the matter.

Question put and agreed to.

I move that the Committee agree with the Seanad in amendment No. 2:

In page 3, to delete lines 6 to 9 and to substitute the following:

"the person shall be guilty of an offence.

(2A) (a) A person guilty of an offence under this section shall be liable on conviction on indictment to a fine not exceeding £10,000 or at the discretion of the court, to imprisonment for a term not exceeding 2 years or to both such fine and such imprisonment.

(b) A justice of the District Court shall have jurisdiction to try summarily an offence under this section if—

(i) the justice is of opinion that the facts proved or alleged against a defendant charged with such an offence constitute a minor offence fit to be tried summarily.

(ii) the Director of Public Prosecutions consents, and

(iii) the defendant (on being informed by the justice of his right to be tried by a jury) does not object to being tried summarily.

and, upon conviction under this paragraph, the said defendant shall be liable to a fine not exceeding £500 or, at the discretion of the court, to imprisonment for a term not exceeding 12 months or to both such fine and such imprisonment.

(c) Section 13 of the Criminal Procedure Act, 1967, shall apply in relation to an offence under this section as if, in lieu of the penalties specified in subsection (3) of that section there were specified therein the penalties provided for by paragraph (b) of this subsection, and the reference in subsection (2) (a) of that section to the penalties provided for in subsection (3) of that section shall be construed accordingly.”

Question put and agreed to.
Amendments reported and agreed to.

(Cavan-Monaghan): Would it be in order to ask a question as to when we might expect the terms of reference of this inquiry, because it is important that the House be given an opportunity of discussing them?

I have not got the information at my disposal so I am not in a position to give the Deputy the information. I will be glad to communicate with him as soon as I have any such information.