Adjournment Debate. - Garda Investigations.

I welcome the opportunity to raise this matter on the Adjournment and I thank the Minister for coming in to respond to it.

An elderly constituent of mine received an unsigned and undated document from the District Court, which had a case number and a fine number attached and a demand for €130. It appears that a lady charged with shoplifting in a department store gave the name and address of this elderly constituent of mine. A garda from Store Street Garda station dealt with the case. As a result of the intervention of a concerned neighbour who visited the Garda station to find out what was happening, the garda visited my constituent at her home and having met with her confirmed to her that she was not the person involved in the shoplifting incident. This visit happened only because of the intervention of the neighbour who was concerned for my constituent.

My constituent was given to understand by the garda who visited her that a letter would follow, confirming to her that she was not in any way guilty. No letter arrived. However, in mid-April, a notice addressed to my constituent and signed by a garda from Sundrive Road Garda station, was delivered to her address, stating that a number of warrants were processed for her arrest and imprisonment. This lady is 76 years old and lives alone. As one can imagine, she was terrified by this turn of events. It had already been confirmed to her that she had no involvement in the shoplifting incident. On her behalf I made a number of telephone calls and wrote to the Garda, requesting clarification and confirmation of her innocence.

As far as she is concerned, she is still at risk of being arrested and thrown into jail. Her name is on a file somewhere with this charge against her. I need to know that the matter has been resolved; that it is confirmed to my constituent that she was not the person involved in the shoplifting incident; that her name is removed from the file; and that she will not be served with another summons or warrant for her arrest. She also needs an apology for all the distress she has been caused. It is not good enough that an elderly person can be left to worry about an incident like this for months.

I thank Deputy Upton for raising this matter for debate on the adjournment.

I can well understand the annoyance caused to this lady as a result of the events the Deputy has outlined. I understand that on 2 September 2002, gardaí arrested a woman for suspected shoplifting in Dublin city centre. The suspect gave her name and address as that of the lady to whom the Deputy refers. It is clear that the sequence of events was set in motion by the woman who was arrested on suspicion of shoplifting and who gave the name and address of an elderly and blameless lady to the Garda as her own.

When the accused person subsequently failed to appear in court, a series of events was set in train which resulted in correspondence regarding estreatment of bail proceedings and a bench warrant for non-appearance. That is the normal procedure. If somebody does not appear, his or her bail is estreated and a notice is sent out in relation to that matter and to the effect that a bench warrant for non-appearance has been issued.

However, I understand that the arresting garda met with the lady last October – I now hear this was at the intervention of a neighbour – and satisfied himself that she was not the person he had arrested. He informed her of the position there and then, and assured her that she should not worry and that the matter would be attended to. Subsequent to the Deputy's contact with the local Garda, I understand that the local warrant officer also gave assurances that she had no cause for worry. I am informed that at no stage did a garda call to the lady's house for the purposes of executing a warrant.

I have been informed by the Garda today that a letter has been issued to Deputy Upton's constituent explaining the matter and reassuring her with regard to her position. I have been in touch with the Garda authorities but, in the time available, it has not been possible to ascertain the level of detail which I consider is necessary to give the Deputy a full response in this matter.

In view of the fact that we are coming to the end of the Dáil term, the Deputy probably felt it was better to raise it on the Adjournment rather than put down a parliamentary question which might not be answered until October. I am not at all suggesting that it was inappropriate for the Deputy to act as she has. As I was in London today and since this matter was raised fairly late in the day, I have not had an opportunity to go into the matter in the detail which I would like in order to fully deal with it. I will communicate further with Deputy Upton regarding this matter and, in the meantime, I want to extend my regret for any inconvenience, anxiety and worry caused to the lady in question by these events.

It was a cruel and mean thing for the suspected shoplifter to use the name of an elderly woman in that way. The Garda is confronted every day by people who are arrested for offences on which they are entitled to due process. They are entitled to be set at liberty pending trial. On occasions, gardaí have to take at face value information which is given to them. On this occasion the Irish people were the victim of a cruel hoax but the Deputy's constituent, in particular, was the victim of a cruel hoax.

I have to say in favour of the Garda that the investigating garda went and satisfied himself, at the intervention of a neighbour, that this hoax had been perpetrated. I regret that the mills of God grind so slowly and so fine in these matters that once the computer system gets going it is hard to stop.

On the other hand, I wish to assure the lady in question, through this House, and through Deputy Upton, that she stands without any blame of any kind whatsoever in the eyes of the law or the gaze of the State. I will ensure that this is emphasised to her in writing and that whatever steps can be taken to ensure that this incident does not have any further echoes or reverberations for her will be taken. I know that it is easy for me to make that promise and then for some computer generated form to land on her doormat the day after tomorrow. If anything further does go wrong she should remain assured that it is just the result of a system operating and she should take it in good heart.

The Dáil adjourned at 11.20 p.m. until 10.30 a.m. on Thursday, 3 July 2003.