Ceisteanna — Questions. Oral Answers - Review of the Office of the Director of Public Prosecutions.

Dermot Ahern

Question:

2 Mr. D. Ahern asked the Taoiseach the plans, if any, he has for implementation of the proposals in the review of the Office of the Director of Public Prosecutions; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [3755/97]

Bertie Ahern

Question:

3 Mr. B. Ahern asked the Taoiseach if he will make a statement on the Department of Finance report on the Office of the Director of Public Prosecutions. [3855/97]

I propose to take Questions Nos. 2 and 3 together.

The Government authorised the publication on 5 February 1997 of the report by the Department of Finance on the Review of the Office of Director of Public Prosecutions.

In my statement announcing the publication of the report, which, together with a copy of the report, was placed in the Oireachtas Library and circulated to all Members, I said the Government had noted that good progress had been made in the following areas: putting in place of procedures to ensure that a comprehensive annual report is published in respect of the activities of the office — the first report in respect of the year 1996 will be published in June of this year; the expansion and upgrading of computer facilities within the office and the preparation of a Statement of Strategy for the office covering the period 1997 to 2000 which is expected to be published shortly.

The Government also noted that the interaction between the office and the other agencies involved in the prosecution of offences is one of the issues being considered by the High Level Review Group on the Law Offices of the State chaired by the Attorney General. That group is representative of the Attorney General's office, the Chief State Solicitor's the office of the DPP, the Department of the Taoiseach, the office of the Tánaiste, the Department of Finance and the Department of Justice and includes an international legal consultant. This group is to report back to Government within four months.

The matters discussed in the Department of Finance report impact across a number of agencies and Departments. I assure the House they are receiving careful attention within the office and the other bodies involved. The report concluded there was no evidence of unnecessary or extensive unexplained delay in dealing with files in the office.

Is the Taoiseach concerned about the number of cases that cannot be processed because of administrative errors in drafting prosecution papers which was highlighted recently by the Director of Public Prosecutions?

I am. There appears to be a problem with the nature of the files coming from the Garda Síochána. A special group to deal with this problem was established. It met this morning and it hopes to report within three months on the action to be taken to ensure that all those involved in supplying papers or evidence to the Director of Public Prosecutions will provide them in a form that is usable, so no delay can occur in his office as a result of deficiencies in materials supplied.

I will not go into the arguments put forward by the Director of Public Prosecutions on this matter as they are on public record. The Taoiseach spoke about an investigation of the complaints to produce a user friendly format. Is there a training programme for gardaí which deals with these matters and shows the types of error that occur? The Director of Public Prosecutions appears to view them as basic errors yet those who produce the papers appear to believe they are producing them to the best of their ability. An in-service training programme could resolve many of these problems. A three month investigation of the errors might not correct them. It might be easier to bring those involved in preparing such papers to the Office of the Director of Public Prosecutions where he can show them how he wants the job done.

The preparation of papers for prosecutions is one of the fundamental responsibilities of a member of the Garda Síochána. It is basic to the operation of the force and is one of the factors that informs the work of its members. It is also central to the training which gardaí receive in Templemore to ensure they assemble evidence and present it in such a way as to enable a prosecution to be carried forward, if that is the appropriate course of action.

Among the problems identified were cases where people put the wrong dates on papers. That is indicative of an absence of adequate care being taken and not an indication of a training deficiency. It is important that people are reminded to take care in what they write on something that will be used as evidence in court or as the foundation for a prosecution. There are areas, however, where further or refresher training would be appropriate for members of the Garda Síochána. Efforts, if necessary, will be made to deal with that. Furthermore, the Garda Síochána is currently the subject of a major examination in the context of the strategic management initiative. This issue is one of the matters dealt with in that review.

The Government in its programme for renewal promised it would bring holders of high office before committees of the House. When the Government published the compellability of witnesses legislation it did not envisage the Director of Public Prosecutions coming before the House. Members of the committee accept that the Director of Public Prosecutions is independent, but independence does not mean non-accountability.

There was a change of heart on the part of the Government since the Bill was originally drafted, and it put forward amendments to include the Director of Public Prosecutions as one of the people who could be called before at least one committee of the House. That amendment was put forward because the Director of Public Prosecutions was interviewed on the "Liveline" radio programme in the meantime. Will the Taoiseach extend the ability of the Director of Public Prosecutions to come before other committees of the House, apart from the Committee of Public Accounts which deals only with financial matters and Estimates?

There was discussion recently about whether the findings of the hepatitis C tribunal should be referred to the Director of Public Prosecutions. Will the Taoiseach give his views on whether, when the House establishes tribunals of inquiry, there should be reference to the fact that the findings should be referred to the Director of Public Prosecutions?

I will not take up the Deputy's invitation to become involved in comment on a matter which was the subject of discussion within a tribunal established by the House. That matter can be dealt with when the tribunal report is received. Everybody will be free to speak about it at that stage. I will not do so in advance.

With regard to the Director of Public Prosecutions accounting for his work, that role has been greatly enhanced since I was given responsibility for that office by the House. The Office of the Director of Public Prosecutions is now obliged to produce an annual report every June. That was never done under any previous Administration. Furthermore, in the near future the Director of Public Prosecutions will publish a statement of strategy for his office for the coming four or five years. This, too, was never done before. It will take a forward look at the work of the Director of Public Prosecutions while the annual report will offer an immediate retrospective on his work.

The Deputy is referring to compellable appearances by the Director of Public Prosecutions. There would be serious difficulties in maintaining the independence of the Director of Public Prosecutions if we were to compel him to appear before the House to report on particular matters. However, that does not preclude voluntary appearances by him. The Attorney General, for example, recently appeared voluntarily before a committee of the House and dealt with questions from Members. There is no preclusion of voluntary appearances. If such appearances occur, it would be important to acknowledge that we are now looking at these matters on the basis of more information being in the public domain than previously through the annual report and the statement of strategy. The Director of Public Prosecutions is more accountable than he was in previous years as a result of initiatives I have taken.

However, it is appropriate that we do not allow a situation to develop where the Director of Public Prosecutions is forced to discuss decisions about individual cases before a committee of the House. That would be an infringement of the proper independence of the Director of Public Prosecutions. That independence was one of the achievements of the first Government of the State in which I had the honour to serve as a junior member in the 1970s. The independence of the Director of Public Prosecutions is one of the great strengths of Irish democracy and its legal system. I do not wish to see it infringed in any way because it represents the best guarantee of the liberty of our citizens. It protects all citizens.

I wish to conclude these questions. I will call Deputy Dermot Ahern, Deputy Michael McDowell and Deputy O'Donoghue for final questions.

Does the Taoiseach not accept that the compellability of witnesses legislation proposes that the Director of Public Prosecutions would only come before a committee of the House to discuss statistical matters and general administration? The Director of Public Prosecutions has an important role in society. He issues important directions from time to time. Recently he issued a direction to the Garda Síochána regarding the detention of people in custody. The direction had severe ramifications for the criminal justice system. The Oireachtas wishes to ask the Director of Public Prosecutions to explain the rationale for such a decision. We do not wish to ask about individual cases and why he made decisions regarding individual prosecutions. Will the Taoiseach accept that there is a role for Deputies in questioning an officer such as the Director of Public Prosecutions about general policy matters rather than simply statistical matters to do with his office?

It is my hope that matters referred to by the Deputy, such as the reasons for general decisions and the considerations when making decisions on particular categories of cases, will be voluntarily put forth by the Director of Public Prosecutions in the annual report. If the Deputy thinks about this matter for a short while——

I have, for hours at the committee meetings.

The Deputy might think about what I am about to say. Look at what happens during the Order of Business in the House. Deputies know the rules by which we and the Ceann Comhairle must abide. We also know that virtually every day those rules are transgressed by Deputies who are frequently mentioned on news programmes the following day, as was the case in today's lunchtime news, for something that was technically not in order. However, they achieve what they want to achieve. It might be possible for us to make a rule that if the DPP were to be compelled to appear he could not be asked about an individual case, but in practice what might happen is that he would be asked the question but the Chair would intervene to say it could not be asked. The Deputy who asked the question would get publicity but the DPP would not be able to reply. That would be the worst of all possible situations, a chamber of accusation without a chamber of reply.

That would be the case anyway.

That would not be good for the independence of the prosecution service. This is a fundamental issue concerning the liberty of the citizen. A prosecutorial decision should not be driven by considerations of transient popularity or unpopularity of particular categories of individual or alleged offender. Issues of that nature should be looked at objectively and dispassionately by a truly independent person just as they are subsequently looked at independently by the courts. I do not want to see political intrusion into decision-making of the kind that could arise inadvertently and unintentionally from well motivated suggestions of the kind made by the Deputy.

I wish to advise Members that the House will proceed to deal with priority questions at 3.15 p.m.

Whereas one would be tempted to say that virtually everybody in the House fully agrees with the proposition that the DPP should never be asked to explain or justify an individual decision, there was unanimity, particularly from the Fine Gael participants on the committee, that there is a whale of a difference between that and granting the DPP the kind of immunity proposed. Will the Taoiseach agree that the report he mentioned, which suggested there was no evidence of significant or unjustified delays, is unduly complacent? Will he recall correspondence I sent him two years ago asking why nothing had been done about reference of the Goodman report to the DPP's office, a matter in which two years later I have had no satisfaction from that office?

The Deputy is raising a separate matter.

The Department of Finance considered this matter independently and came to the conclusion that there was no evidence of unnecessary or extensive unexplained delay in dealing with files in the office.

Whom did it ask?

That is not to say it did not believe that there was no delay arising from faulty information provided to the DPP, to which I referred already, and in providing information from the Forensic Science Laboratory. The Deputy is referring to his view that a decision taken, as distinct from a delay, may not be one which meets with his approval. That is a different issue.

No decision has been made. That is the point.

The Taoiseach should be allowed to continue without interruption.

Three years have elapsed without a decision.

The Deputy said in the introduction to his parliamentary question that he agreed there should not be political questioning of prosecution or non-prosecution of alleged offences——

Three years delay is unquestionable and wrong.

Deputy McDowell must cease interrupting, particularly from a seated position.

——yet he is doing precisely that in the question. In the last part of his question the Deputy contradicted the criterion which he indicated in the first part was one with which he believed all Members agreed.

I asked for an explanation of the delays.

The Deputy asked a question and he should be good enough to listen to the reply without continually interrupting.

On a point of order——

I will hear no point of order when I am on my feet dealing with disorder from the Deputy.

I asked for an explanation of the delays. There have been three years of unexplained delays in this matter, which is a scandal.

The Deputy should resume his seat and be good enough to listen to the reply.

I was listening but I did not get a reply.

The report on the Office of the DPP identified long delays in the provision of forensic reports as one of the reasons for the delay in bringing matters to court. Given that the Government decided to advertise for an assistant State pathologist, will the Taoiseach accept that that person should be based in Cork, particularly in light of recent experience——

The question deals with public prosecutions.

——and the elimination of delays. The report identified as one of the major causes of the delays the provision of forensic reports to the DPP's office. Will the Taoiseach attempt to climinate those delays, particularly in the south, by ensuring that the assistant State pathologist is based in Cork?

That is a separate question.

In regard to the Forensic Science Laboratory the Government, as part of its anti-crime package, last year approved the appointment of four additional forensic scientists in the laboratory and two additional laboratory technicians. The staff in the Forensic Science Laboratory has been substantially enhanced to enable it to provide the necessary evidence for successful prosecutions. The question of the assistant State pathologist is a separate issue and I suggest the Deputy tables a question on that matter.