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Dáil Éireann debate -
Thursday, 23 May 1985

Vol. 358 No. 10

Supplementary Estimates, 1985. - Courts Bill, 1984: Second Stage.

Limerick East): I move: “That the Bill be now read a Second Time.”

The provisions of the Bill are generally technical. I imagine that most of the provisions will hold little interest for those not directly involved. However, the aim underlying the Bill is of general interest. That aim is the simplification and streamlining of procedures in the District Court in a number of respects, of which the most important relate to a new procedure for the renewal of intoxicating liquor licences. In regard to this new procedure it is important to ensure — and the proposals in the Bill take this into account — that no person's rights are infringed, that a full and proper hearing is accorded in every case where necessary and that no injustice is effected by the modification of existing procedures. The Bill is also designed to facilitate the introduction of revised comprehensive Rules for the District Court that have been in preparation for some time but whose promulgation must be preceded by the changes in the law that the Bill proposes.

It may be that, in the light of what I have just said, Deputies may want to come forward with suggestions for more simplification and improvement in District Court procedures than is catered for in this Bill. I would say two things in that regard; first, that if we are to wait until we can update everything, we may end up producing nothing; second, that the Bill is framed in the light of the proposed new District Court Rules that I have mentioned — many of which will themselves further improve other District Court procedures, though without the need for statutory changes as a preliminary — and that it would be better to await the promulgation of the new rules, to see how the District Court operates in the light of all those changes and then to think again about further changes.

An explanatory memorandum has been circulated with the text of the Bill. Having regard to the technical nature of a number of the proposals and to the fact that the purpose of any particular proposal may not be readily evident from a reading of the Bill itself, I believe that this explanatory memorandum will prove particularly useful. Since the Bill and the explanatory memorandum, taken together, make it reasonably clear what is being proposed, and why, I think I need not here discuss the proposals in detail. I propose to confine the burden of my remarks to one or two matters of particular interest.

The main change that would be brought about by section 1 of the Bill is that, where enforcement of a judgment debt is being sought, a single sitting of the District Court will normally suffice to settle the matter: the preliminary hearing to order lodgment by the debtor of a statement of his means and to order his attendance for an examination as to his means is being eliminated. Elimination of that preliminary hearing will work no injustice against the alleged debtor since, under the law as it stands, he does not in any event appear and is not represented at that hearing.

Section 2 of the Bill provides a new scale in relation to the periods of imprisonment that may be imposed, on summary conviction, in default of payment of a fine and any associated costs, compensation, or expenses. It reduces the present maximum period of one year to 90 days and makes reductions of much the same order at other levels of the scale. While the reductions appear to be sweeping, I should say that the scale that is being replaced is for the most part contained in a statute of 1851 whose relevant provisions have little bearing on the circumstances, outlook and practice of the present day. In setting this proposed new scale, I have been concerned to see to it that the District Court remains in possession of a sanction adequate to ensure that fines will be paid. Revenue offences as such, that is, revenue cases apart from ordinary motor taxation cases, will continue to carry their own penalties. I may remark in passing that the machinery for collecting fines is being separately studied: that question is not one that concerns us here.

The amendment of section 3 of the Enforcement of Court Orders Act, 1940 that is proposed in subsection (2) of section 3 of the Bill is consequential on the proposals in section 1 of the Bill. The other changes in the Act of 1940 that are proposed in section 3 represent improvements in that Act with which I think members of the House will agree.

I mentioned that the most important feature of the Bill is the proposed new procedure for renewing intoxicating liquor licences. At present, an applicant for a renewal must obtain a court certificate before the licence is renewed by the Revenue Commissioners. Now, in accordance with a recommendation made by the Committee on Court Practice and Procedure and the District Court Rules Committee, I am proposing in section 4 that intoxicating liquor licences may, except in certain exceptional cases, be renewed annually by the Revenue Commissioners without the production of a certificate of the District Court. The main exception will be where objection to the renewal has been lodged with the court. The other exceptions will be: first, where there has been structural alteration of the premises concerned; secondly, in certain cases where the licence has expired and application for renewal is made within one year after expiry by a person other than the holder of the licence; and, lastly, where any change is proposed in the nature of the licence or in the conditions attaching to it. Where one or more of these exceptions apply, an applicant will still have to obtain a court certificate, as heretofore, as a prerequisite to renewal of a licence by the Revenue Commissioners.

Section 4 (11) places the onus on the applicant for renewal of a licence to inform the Revenue Commissioners if there has been any structural alteration of the premises concerned since the licence was either granted or last renewed. It will also be up to the applicant to inform the Commissioners of several other specified matters, where applicable, such as whether any change is proposed in the nature of the licence. Failure to comply with the provisions of section 4 (11) could result in the court ordering the forfeiture of the licence. It will of course be the function of the court in every case to decide whether there has, in fact, been a failure to comply.

There is no doubt that removal of the need to get a court certificate for most renewals will make it easier to renew a licence. It will amount to automatic renewal in all but a few cases. The safeguards I have mentioned will ensure that there will be no weakening in the control of liquor licences. In addition, to guard against the new streamlined procedure being used to gain a renewal fraudulently, I have provided for a fine of up to £300 for anyone found guilty of obtaining a licence on the basis of giving false or misleading information to the Revenue Commissioners. Anyone convicted of such an offence may have his licence forfeited by the District Court.

The amendments and repeals of the Intoxicating Liquor Acts proposed in the Schedules are either consequential on the provisions in section 4 or are changes of a procedural nature being made in the light of recommendations of the District Court Rules Committee. One significant change proposed in the First Schedule is the amendment of the Registration of Clubs (Ireland) Act 1904 which will ensure that all club certificates will be renewable on a common date, in practice the date of the annual licensing District Court.

In relation to section 4 perhaps I should make it clear that the section represents no change in principle in the procedure involved in the renewal of liquor licences. As I have said, a court certificate is required in every case before a liquor licence can be renewed. In the majority of cases there is no objection and the court certificate issues accordingly. So far as licensees are concerned the new procedure simply means they can apply directly to the Revenue Commissioners for renewal of the licence and a court certificate will be required only in the cases mentioned in subsection (5) of section 4. These cases represent a very small proportion of the overall cases. Subsections (10) and (11) outline particulars which must be furnished by the licensee in applying to the Revenue Commissioners for a renewal of his licence. This material will be relevant only in a minority of cases. In those cases also there will be no new burden for the licensee because at present these particulars must be furnished to the court in any case.

So far as the court staff are concerned, the removal of the necessity for a court certificate in the great majority of renewals of licence will mean a considerable reduction in the demands on staff time.

While the section therefore facilitates both licensee and the court administration it contains safeguards to ensure that the new arrangement is not abused and cannot give rise to fraudulent or illegal renewals.

The change that is proposed in subsection (1) of section 5 of the Bill is procedural. The change proposed in subsection (2) will mean that where a person is remanded on bail in accordance with Part III of the Criminal Procedure Act, 1967, and there is no sitting of the court on the day to which he is remanded, he will be required to appear, not at the next sitting in the District Court District concerned, (which might be in a relatively distant location), but at the next sitting in the same District Court area. The provisions of the 1967 Act in relation to persons remanded in custody are not being amended.

We in Fianna Fáil welcome any legislation aimed at updating our outmoded and archaic legal system. The opening paragraph of the Explanatory Memorandum accompanying the Bill reads that: The Bill proposes certain amendments designed to simplify procedures in the District Court. It is interesting to note also that the Long Title of the Bill defines it as:

An Act to amend and extend the Courts of Justice Acts, 1924 to 1961, and the Courts (Supplemental Provisions) Acts, 1961 to 1983, and to provide for other matters relating to the courts.

The very brevity of the Minister's statement is an indication of the limitations of the Bill. It is laudable and desirable that we update any legislation that is in need of updating but this Bill is extremely limited in scope and deals only with two areas of district court activity, namely, the enforcement of court orders and the renewal of intoxicating liquor licences without the need for court certificates.

The Minister has covered all the ground as the Department perceive it in relation to these two provisions. Perhaps the very fact of our having a Bill of this kind before us is at least an indication that the Government recognise the growing public awareness, indeed the growing public demand, for a radical reform of the entire judicial system that has operated for a long number of years. I have no wish to be vindictive in any way, but the Minister has admitted that this Bill is not the answer to this public demand. I regard the Bill as being extremely barren in content and totally disappointing in that it has failed to recognise and to deal with a very wide area of court activity that is crying out for reform.

The publication of this Bill has come as a great disappointment to many Members of the House and the public who have been waiting for an opportunity to debate and, hopefully, reorganise the entire judicial system as it operates. We are living in very exciting and to some extent very challenging times. Social values are rapidly changing. There is a greater public awareness of our democratic institutions and their effects on the future and lifestyle of our people. People, particularly young people, are asking questions. There is a greater expectation of accountability from those who make our laws; and it is in this context that the Minister, in introducing the Bill, has missed out on an excellent opportunity of reforming our judicial system with particular reference to District Courts, which the vast majority of people feel at this time are irrelevant, outmoded and very remote.

When introducing the Bill the Minister made the point that it was better to be making some progress rather than waiting to bring in something major and more worthwhile. That attitude has bedevilled the entire legislative process. The Bill before us deals with no fewer than 26 Acts and when this Bill is passed it will be the twenty-seventh Act. When we get around to bringing in major reform we will have to deal with the fragmentation of legislation on the Statute Book.

I do not know why the Minister brought in this Bill at this time or why, in bringing it before the House, he failed to recognise the very obvious and urgent areas where reform is needed. Before dealing with the provisions in the Bill I ask the Minister if there is any real need for the kind of legal jargon used by parliamentary draftsmen when drafting Bills. As a layman with no legal training I would be less than honest if I did not say that much of it is meaningless to me and I have no doubt that it is also meaningless and confusing to many of our citizens. Why should this be the case? Why in the preparation and presentation of laws which govern the behaviour of our citizens should the language be couched and drafted in such a confusing manner that those who are expected to comply with it do not understand it?

Sometimes it is a little hypocritical of people who debate legislation to pretend they are au fait with the complexities and intricacies of the Bills as presented. In this regard debates lack a little credibility. I would dearly love to see a situation where I, as a ordinary unqualified legal person expected to debate the provisions contained in various Bills on behalf of the people, could readily identify with the provisions of a Bill and, more importantly, that the citizens could do so and understand in simple terms what they are supposed to comply with. We and the public seem to be the prisoners of a group of people who for some archaic traditional reason specialise in putting together a form of wording which ordinary people are not meant to understand and which also poses difficulty for legally untrained Members of the House who have to interpret what they are saying. If we all understood what they were trying to say there would be no need for the lengthy legal debates which take place in our courts day after day on the interpretation of this confusing phraseology.

I say sincerely to the Minister, who is as interested as every Member in reforming our various statutes, that if we are to embark on a programme of reform we should commence with the Acts on which the judicial system is based. I believe in calling a spade a spade and I will not pretend that I am qualified to interpret something which I am not qualified to do. Nonetheless it is my duty to endeavour to interpret what is contained in the various Bills.

In a nutshell — that is not legal jargon — this Bill sets out to do two things: it transfers from the district justice to the court clerk the authority to issue a summons for the examination of a debtor as to his means. Under existing legislation a creditor would simply make an application to the courts to have the debtor summoned to appear for the purpose of having his means examined. In this proposed change, the Minister, in the interest of general law reform, is merely saying that the court clerk may issue that summons. Perhaps that is streamlining the system, and certainly it simplifies in a minimal way that aspect of District Court activity. However, it is not a major change and does nothing in relation to the simplification of the present system. It merely transfers the function from one court official to another. It is important to recognise this, because from the way it is couched in the Bill you get the impression that there is a major change.

The other change proposed by the Minister in section 4 is that he provides for the renewal of intoxicating liquor licences without the need for a court certificate. This is also a minimal, insignificant change — and I wonder if it is a change for the better. Let us look at the present position in relation to the renewal of intoxicating liquor licences. There is a traditional system whereby in September each year the publicans make an application to the court clerk who brings all these applications together before a sitting of the District Court. If there are no objections — and there seldom are in rural District Courts — the district justice stamps his seal on the applications which are then forwarded to the Revenue Commissioners and the licences are granted. Where is there even a semblance of District Court reform in relation to this proposal? The Minister's proposals do nothing by way of positive or worthwhile reform in relation to the activities of the District Court.

It is also worth mentioning that the court clerk and his office are an essential part of the court's administrative structure. Court clerks play a major role in District Court administration and they are known for their dedication, commitment, help and courtesy. The public identify far more easily with the District Court clerk and his office than with any other agent in the District Court system. I appeal to the Minister that, before contemplating any kind of reorganisation of the District Court system, he should put his own House in order and satisfy himself that the various agencies of the system are fully equipped and supported by his Department to carry out the job which they are expected to do. I do not think that there is anybody who does not acknowledge that the role of the District Court clerk has become increasingly onerous and demanding. It requires time and attention far beyond the call of duty. Down through the years these clerks have responded in a generous and committed way to the demands of their work.

I plead with the Minister to recognise the importance of the role of the District Court clerks and the wide range of activities which they perform on behalf of the public, especially in the area of family law cases where his involvement in many instances has been responsible for bringing about reconciliation and a successful outcome. I have a great belief in the capacity of the District Court clerk and his office to bring about successful reconciliations in family law cases. I hope that my plea will not fall on deaf ears.

I made the point that the Bill and its provisions are meaningless and almost totally irrelevant in so far as reform is concerned. It is interesting to note that in the Bill the Minister transfers one additional duty from the district justice to the District Court clerk vis-à-vis his entitlement to issue a summons for the examination of a debtor's means. There is no mention in the Bill nor was there any acknowledgement in the Minister's speech of the importance and relevance of the role of the District Court clerk.

Debate adjourned.

I wish to raise on the Adjournment the serious situation that has arisen in regard to the exchanges through the media between the Chief Constable of the RUC, Sir John Hermon, and the Garda Commissioner, Mr. Lawrence Wren. I would like to know if the Minister for Foreign Affairs intends to have discussions with Mr. Hurd and what action the Government intend to take about this confrontation which is so damaging——

I will communicate with Deputy Enright.

I consider this matter to be very serious and urgent.