When we are dealing with civil law or other justice-related matters, it is important that we get the balance right. Above all, competence, independence, quality and true public service must be important elements running through this legislation. We need a Bill and a vision for this country that is based on honesty and equality. These core principles in any democracy should be built into all pieces of legislation, and particularly into this Bill.
Once known as the land of saints and scholars, Ireland today is better known as the land of scandals and tribunals. Politics, banking, the church, business, the law, and the Garda have all suffered from an erosion of public confidence in the wake of astonishing scandals. Moreover, Ireland has undergone rapid social, economic and political change over the past decade, which has had a profound impact on our value system. For example, the decline in authority and influence experienced by the churches in recent years has forced many people to seek ethical or moral guidance from other sources.
Ireland at the beginning of the 21st century is a fairly prosperous country, which we all enjoy, yet this creates a dilemma of its own. Difficult decisions about the distribution of resources raise awkward questions for society. How is the tension between the rights of individuals and the overall good of society to be resolved? To whom do we look for guidance? The political elite, churches, medical and legal professions and business leaders have all had their credibility seriously tainted by damaging scandals. I mention these because it is an important part of the debate since we are dealing with justice issues and civil law.
This Bill makes provision for a number of changes to various elements of mainly non-criminal areas of law. Section 1 sets out the Short Title and provides that the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform may make orders commencing its various provisions. Section 2 of the Bill provides for the collective citations of various provisions of the Bill with Acts already on the Statute Book.
The purpose of Part 2 is to establish on a statutory basis the office of the legal services ombudsman to oversee the handling of complaints by the Bar Council and Law Society, review the procedures for same and report annually on the adequacy of the admissions policies of both professions.
Section 4 provides for the establishment of the office of legal services ombudsman. Section 5 stipulates that the legal services ombudsman shall be appointed by the Government, the person appointed shall be suitably qualified and the classes of person not eligible for appointment as ombudsman. These are the details of the legislation.
Section 4 is an important element because we need people we can trust and respect. In today's world one cannot demand, buy or pay for trust or respect. If one wants the trust of the people, one must go out there and earn it. This applies to politicians, journalists, electricians and plasterers, and to any other person but particularly to those to whom this Bill refers, the legal profession. The debate yesterday was a wake-up call and a reality check for us all, and I relate this to the broader debate in today's legislation.
The primary functions and powers of the legal services ombudsman are provided in section 9. These are to ensure that complaints by clients of barristers and solicitors to the professional bodies are dealt with fairly, effectively and efficiently, to assess the adequacy of the admissions policies of the legal professions and to improve public understanding of issues relating to complaints. Section 10 stipulates that the ombudsman shall be independent in the performance of the functions of the office. It is important that the Bill stresses the independence of the ombudsman in dealing with these types of issues. I again use the words trust and integrity, which are relevant to the debate in this House over the past number of days. There must be independence and efficiency, and also recognition of the public's understanding on up-to-date situations.
When one digs further into the Bill, one sees that a complaint may be made to the ombudsman concerning the handling by the Bar Council or the Law Society of a complaint against a barrister or solicitor. A complaint may also be made to the legal services ombudsman about a decision of the Law Society to make or refuse a grant from the Law Society's compensation fund. Complaints to the legal services ombudsman must be made within six months of the determination of the related complaint by the relevant body. Provision is also made for the circumstances in which a person is not entitled to make a complaint.
Regarding due process for the Bar Council or the Law Society, I also challenge them on their integrity and objective professionalism. Recently, there have been leaks from these groups and they have now become an issue. Leaks from the legal profession or from any profession within the tribunals are not acceptable, particularly if they are directly connected with people in the legal profession.
It is also not acceptable for leaks to come from senior officials in the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform or from the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform. I refer to the Frank Connolly case. There was much high moral ground reaction during the week regarding the leaks from the tribunal, but there was not a word about the family of Frank Connolly when he was totally discredited in the House last year by the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform. I raise this matter because I am speaking about respect for the rights of individuals, justice and due process. These are fundamental matters on which we cannot sit on the fence. This is not acceptable practice in any democratic state. This is particularly relevant to section 24.
Before I go into that, I want to mention sections 22 and 23, which enable the ombudsman to establish procedures to be followed on the receipt, resolution and investigation of complaints. Such procedures shall be published. Section 24 provides that the ombudsman shall ensure that investigations are conducted in private. I urge Deputies to look carefully at section 24 and apply it to themselves, in their offices as Members of the Oireachtas or in other professions, whether as teachers, gardaí or lawyers. These are professional and ethical issues to which all Members of this House should pay attention. We need to protect privacy, but at the same time get the balance right so that it is not a matter of hiding behind privacy to cover up issues of public interest.
We must have these standards in politics. It is not acceptable that a Deputy and former Minister of State, when chairman of the then Eastern Health Board in 1991, gave a multi-million euro contract to a company and then got his house done up by the same company. There was a clear conflict of interest and a serious issue to be challenged. That particular contract was considerable and the issue involved more than a few cans of paint to which many referred in the past few days in the House. It is not acceptable and it is out of order.
Section 26 renders it an offence to obstruct the ombudsman in the performance of his or her functions. I welcome that provision because we cannot have a situation where any person in this State obstructs the ombudsman in the performance of his or her duties.
I commend the work of the existing Ombudsmen and also commend the work of the people who work directly in the interests of public service in this State, whether they are civil servants, gardaí, teachers, nurses or doctors. When we speak about them, it is important to note that there are people out there doing their jobs every day. They earn the respect and support of the public. We should commend them and thank them for their effort and for their service to the State. I particularly mention that in the context of section 26.
Section 28 provides that the ombudsman shall send a written statement on the results of the investigation, any direction given or recommendation made to the complainant, the relevant professional body and the barrister or solicitor concerned. Section 28 is strong because it involves a written statement, which gives it important teeth.
Section 32 provides that the Bar Council and Law Society keep complete records of matters related to their investigation of complaints and, on request, make them available to the ombudsman. It is essential that records are kept well. In the past, we have bad experiences of records not being kept. When I sit on the Joint Committee on Justice, Equality and Law Reform's Sub-Committee on the Barron Report, I find it appalling to hear the victims' families and the survivors of the Dublin and Monaghan bombings talking about missing files from different Departments and all sorts of documents going missing, and that we cannot get at the truth. Section 32 provides that complete records will be kept and the section will be used to strengthen the ombudsman's teeth during his or her investigations.
Sections 55 and 56 amend the Gaming and Lotteries Act 1956 to insert new values of 50 cent as the maximum stake and €30 as the maximum prize in gaming machines. Provision is also made for the Minister to vary the stake and prize amounts in future. It is important that the Minister should have such discretion. I call for professionalism, competence and decency in this regard. We should be cognisant of people who are addicted to gambling and this problem should be monitored closely. In addition, our young people must be protected when it comes to such outlets. A close eye must also be kept on gangsters who have indirect connections to casinos and clubs. A soft line should not be taken against organised crime. It is a fact of life which must be addressed.
It is unacceptable that housing estates and flat complexes in Dublin are controlled and run by gangs. For example, women in my constituency have the bottle and courage to clean their stairwells following constant attacks and intimidation but everybody turns a blind eye. It is unacceptable that women should have to put up with this nightmare. These working people deserve our support and our justice system must be strong enough to stand up and defend them. I raised this issue with the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform on the ground in my constituency. It is also unacceptable that young men can get high on cocaine before murdering people such as Donna Cleary in Coolock. People involved in the importation of drugs should hang their heads in shame and they should all be locked up.
I challenge the Judiciary. What cloud cuckoo land are judges living in when it comes to handing out sentences to these people? They should wake up and smell the coffee. These people are dangerous and they should be put away for once and for all. They are ruining communities in Dublin and they are moving into other cities. We should stand in solidarity with the people of Cork and Limerick and give them our support, not turn our backs on them.
I wish everybody involved in the Northern Ireland peace talks well. Today was historic and there is absolutely no reason all the parties should fail to get their act together. The November deadline should be met and those involved should sit around the table and accept each other on an equal basis. They should treat each other with respect and address serious justice and human rights issues. I commend those involved in the talks because they are at a historic crossroads. They have an opportunity to work together on the island, whether they are Catholic, Protestant or non-religious.
Sections 40 to 42, inclusive, arise from the enactment of the Pensions (Amendment) Bill 2002, which reduced the qualifying period for pensions for public servants from five to two years with effect from 2 June 2002. The 2002 provisions were enacted on an administrative basis by the Department of Finance in respect of members of the Judiciary. Accordingly, the amendment will not lead to additional costs. I welcome this important development.
We must keep our eye on the ball when it comes to the justice system, which should always be based on truth, due process and human rights. It is essential that these core principles are observed and flow through every Bill introduced in the House. Sadly, in modern Ireland, this is no longer the case. We have good legislation but it must be implemented in a professional and objective way. It is also sad that there is a complete lack of respect for democracy, human rights and justice, examples of which I highlighted earlier.
This is important legislation, to which we should all pay close attention. I hope it will be a major step in the right direction in improving standards and the rights of our citizens. They submit their taxes to the Exchequer every week and they bear the costs of legislation. They deserve our support, and laws that do not look after or prioritise the needs of our citizens go nowhere.