Courts and Court Officers Bill 2009: From the Seanad.

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

Seanad amendments Nos. 1 to 3, inclusive, are related and may be discussed together. Is that agreed? Agreed.

Seanad amendment No. 1:

Section 5: In page 4, to delete lines 14 to 17 and substitute the following:

""holding area officer" means—

(a) a governor, or a member of the Garda Síochána, in whose temporary custody a person is placed under section 6,

(b) a person who assumes the duties of a holding area officer under section 11(6),

(c) a member in charge who assumes the powers and functions of a holding area officer under paragraph (a) of section 11(7), or

(d) a member of the Garda Síochána to whom the powers and functions referred to in paragraph (c) are transferred under paragraph (b) of section 11(7);”.

I thank the Deputies for allowing me to report back to the House at an early stage on the amendments introduced to the Bill on Committee Stage in the Seanad. Before detailing the changes, I wish briefly to reiterate the reasons we are introducing the Bill.

The Government's objective in bringing the Bill to the House is to streamline management procedures and provide for the efficient operation of the new criminal courts of justice complex when it comes into operation later this month and the Circuit Criminal Court commences hearing cases. Given the scale of the new complex, it is essential that a proper custody management system is put in place. In the interest of all court users, this is best managed by one agency, the Irish Prison Service. It also avoids duplication of effort by An Garda Síochána and frees up its members for operational functions.

The Bill, by providing a unified staff structure, builds on the modernisation and streamlined management structures introduced over the past decade by the Courts Service. This measure is extremely timely in light of the current financial situation and the need to ensure maximum efficiency in the deployment of limited resources, including staff. The provisions in the Bill, while in the first instance applying to the new complex, can, in the future, apply to other court venues, as appropriate.

On Committee Stage in the Seanad I introduced three related amendments to the Bill. Two of these amendments were to section 5, which deals with definitions. An amendment to section 11 deals with the functions of the holding area officer. The first amendment expands the definition of a holding area officer to include a member in charge in a Garda station. The second defines, for the sake of clarity, who a member in charge is in the context of the Bill. The final amendment expands the functions of the holding area officer in section 11 of the Bill.

These changes are included to take account of the fact that from time to time prisoners may be brought to a local Garda station and held in custody there, pending their court appearance. This tends to happen, particularly in rural locations, where no holding cells may be available in a small courthouse. This circumstance is given a legal basis in section 1 of the Prisons Act 1956. Once the prisoner is in the Garda station, as Deputies will be aware, there is a designated member in charge. This is true for every Garda station. Under the 1987 Garda custody regulations, the member in charge has certain obligations and responsibilities for any person in custody in the station.

In order to distinguish between the existing role of a member in charge and that of a holding area officer, I have introduced an amendment to section 11 of the Bill. When a prisoner, for the purposes outlined in section 7 of the Bill — namely, for temporary custody purposes facilitating attendance at court — is placed in a Garda station, the amendment confers on the designated member in charge the powers and functions of a holding area officer. The effect of this change ensures that within a Garda station the member in charge will always have the duties and responsibilities of a holding area officer. It is important to inform Deputies that this refers to "within a station only" and not outside a station.

When a member in charge is handing over his or her duties to another member in charge, for example, at the end of a shift, all his or her duties and responsibilities automatically transfer to the new member in charge. The amendment provides that his or her holding area officer responsibilities also transfer automatically, and this will facilitate the smooth day-to-day management of custody within Garda stations.

The amendment will also allow a member in charge to delegate or transfer holding area officer duties and responsibilities to another Garda station. The reason this amendment has been introduced is twofold.

In the first place, the member in charge, while having all the duties and responsibilities of a holding area officer, may not be the garda physically looking after the detention area. This would be the case, for example, in stations in which several gardaí were on duty. In such circumstances, it is important that the garda in the custody area be authorised to be a holding area officer and be responsible for the functions and responsibilities attached to that role. Allowing the transfer of holding area officer powers from the member in charge to another garda is important for the management and smooth operations of the provisions of the Bill within a Garda station. A good example of this is when the member in charge is a male garda and the prisoner in temporary custody is female. In such circumstances, it would be appropriate to transfer holding area officer functions to a female garda for the purposes of a search. It should be noted that transferring holding area officer duties and responsibilities does not relieve the member in charge of those duties and responsibilities. The member in charge will always automatically have those duties and responsibilities when a prisoner is in his or her custody.

To sum up, within a station a number of gardaí may have holding area officer duties and responsibilities. Such responsibilities always will apply to the member in charge and may also apply to the garda who originally is handed the prisoner under section 6 of the Bill, plus any garda to whom the member in charge may transfer or may delegate functions. This only applies where the temporary custody provided for under a section of the Bill is taking place within a Garda station. It is worth stating that when the temporary transfer of custody of a prisoner for the purposes of a court appearance takes place outside of a Garda station, the garda taking temporary custody of a prisoner is the holding area officer. Under the Bill's current provisions, that garda cannot transfer his or her holding area officer duties and responsibilities to another garda unless authorised to so do by a superior officer. I consider this to be an important provision to retain because the circumstances in which a garda would take temporary custody of a prisoner outside a Garda station for the purposes of the Bill should be limited, given that I consider it appropriate that the transfer of holding area officer functions should only be permissible when authorised by a more senior officer. I hope the House will agree that the amendments introduced will strengthen the provisions of the Bill in respect of its operation within a Garda station and I commend the Bill to the House.

While I do not intend to detain the House, I thank the Minister of State for his detailed explanation and clarification on the amendments. This issue was discussed on Committee Stage and I am pleased the Minister of State has introduced an element of clarification to what was a somewhat uncertain provision on the role and function of the holding officer or the manner in which powers were vested in other officers and powers assumed between members of the Irish Prison Service and members of the Garda Síochána.

The Bill's provisions are all fine in theory. This Bill is designed primarily to deal with the new criminal courts complex which will be officially opened shortly and which I understand is already engaged in some business this week. I wish everyone well in that complex. However, what about situations in which there are no holding areas of any description? I refer in particular to Portlaoise in my constituency, which houses the headquarters of the Garda Síochána for the Laois-Offaly division, as well as a busy District Court. It is busy both because of the local business in the area and the existence of approximately 750 prisoners in the town. There is no holding cell in the Victorian courthouse and it is impossible for any member in charge who assumes the powers and functions of holding area officer as there is no holding area in either the courthouse or the Garda station. Consequently, the holding area is in fact a prison van which usually is parked on the main street of Portlaoise in an area that is designed almost exclusively for pedestrians. How may the powers be vested, assumed or transferred to persons whose only holding area is a mechanically propelled vehicle? I merely make this point to illustrate the poor conditions under which many of our courthouses and Garda stations still engage in business. Like much of the criminal justice legislation that passes through this House, the Bills as enacted are only as good as the resources that accompany them and the enforcement procedures that allow for the Acts to remain of high repute. I ask the Minister of State to consider the position in respect of holding areas, be they cells, safe units or otherwise, both in courthouses and Garda stations.

I welcome the Minister of State's statement and the Bill is better for these amendments. This was a non-contentious Bill that was welcomed by all sides of the House and the provisions introduced by the Minister of State this morning will give further necessary clarity in the definition sections in respect of the holding area officer and subsequently in section 11 on the functions of the holding area officer. The amendments bring needed clarification to the area and the Bill will be improved as a result, which the Labour Party welcomes. The Minister of State should indicate in his reply when the criminal courts complex will be fully operational. What is the expectation there? Can he indicate when the formal opening is likely to be? While the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Justice, Equality, Defence and Women's Rights is scheduled to visit it, what is the latest schedule?

The Deputy is correct and I will make one or two comments on that specific point. I acknowledge there was cross-party support for the Bill here and in the Upper House, where I took the legislation. This specific amendment relates to a practice that occurs around Ireland. I acknowledge that the Bill was framed initially around the new court facility being provided. However, it also is intended to give effect to practice in other areas and the context is that in small, rural towns nationwide, courts frequently do not have holding areas and the Garda station is used.

On Deputy Charles Flanagan's specific point, it is regrettable that unfortunately, prisoners are held in Garda vans from time to time. The holding area referred to here, as well as the responsibility of the member in charge, refer specifically to the Garda station. Outside of the Garda station is separate and unaffected by the amendment I have made.

As for the opening dates, the best advice available to me at present is that full operations will commence from early next year. District Court hearings will commence in the first week of December and Circuit Court hearings will commence on 23 November. Although all Members would like to know the official opening date, I am afraid I do not have information in this regard.

The Minister of State misunderstood my point when I mentioned the issue of the prison van. A prisoner or a detainee could not be described as being in transit if he or she is being detained in a van because no other room or safe unit is available. It is not a question of being in transit because the van is stationary. The detainee is in the van not because he or she is being transferred or transported anywhere but merely and exclusively because it is being used as a centre of detention on four wheels.

I acknowledge that. While I accept it is not an ideal situation, the Courts Service is investing considerable resources in improving courthouses around the country. I detailed some of those earlier.

The amendment we made in the Seanad applies specifically to Garda stations and the original provisions in the Bill would apply to anything outside that environment.

Seanad amendment agreed to.
Seanad amendment No. 2:
Section 5: In page 4, between lines 17 and 18, to insert the following:
""member in charge" means a member of the Garda Síochána who is in charge of a Garda Síochána station referred to in section 11(7);".
Seanad amendment agreed to.
Seanad amendment No. 3:
Section 11: In page 6, after line 42, to insert the following subsections:
"(7) Wheresection 6(1) applies, and the prisoner placed in temporary custody is or has been placed in a Garda Síochána station, then notwithstanding that any other member of the Garda Síochána is also a holding area officer under this Part, the member in charge of that Garda Síochána station—
(a) shall assume the powers and functions of a holding area officer under this Part,
and
(b) where he or she considers it necessary for the performance of any of his or her functions, and for such period or periods as he or she considers necessary, may authorise the transfer of any or all of the powers and functions assumed under paragraph (a) to another member of the Garda Síochána.
(8) Wheresubsection (7)(b) applies, the transfer of the powers and functions concerned to a member of the Garda Síochána shall be construed as reserving to the member in charge the right to exercise those powers and to perform those functions concurrently with that member.”.
Seanad amendment agreed to.
Seanad amendments reported.