Other Questions

Garda Traffic Corps

Derek Keating

Question:

43 Deputy Derek Keating asked the Minister for Justice and Equality if he will consider requesting the Garda Commissioner to activate the traffic corps to its maximum during peak traffic times particularly onto and off motorways in the morning time to try and ease the increasing traffic delays; if his attention has been drawn to any traffic plan that the Garda Commissioner, in conjunction with the local authorities, has put in place when a serious accident takes place at a major junction (details supplied); and if he will make a statement on the matter. [30794/11]

The function of An Garda Síochána is set out in the Garda Síochána Act 2005 and includes regulating and controlling road traffic and improving road safety. I am informed by the Garda authorities that Garda management, to the greatest extent possible, ensures that the deployment of Garda traffic corps personnel reflects and coincides with identified peak periods of commuter traffic to facilitate the smooth flow of traffic during these times. Within the Dublin region, city and county, a specific traffic management plan — Operation Artery — is in place which allocates traffic corps resources to managing morning and evening peak traffic. Operation Artery operates as an inter-agency response to traffic management involving the four relevant local authorities and the public transport providers.

While one of the primary responsibilities of the Garda traffic corps is traffic management, all Garda resources respond to and deal with traffic management issues. Local Garda management has contingency plans in the event of a major road traffic incident on motorways, major arteries and other thoroughfares, with a major emergency plan in place specifically for an incident on the M50. The primary purpose of such plans is to ensure that such incidents are dealt with as expeditiously as possible to minimise disruption to traffic, to ensure that such incidents are subject to thorough investigation, and to ensure, as far as possible, the smooth flow of traffic by way of early notification to road users, through road-side and overhead notice-boards and the media, of the occurrence of a major incident and rolling traffic diversions.

I am informed that the incident to which the Deputy refers, and in which, tragically, a person was fatally injured, occurred at Steeven's Lane and involved a Luas tram. Steeven's Lane, which is not open to through traffic, was immediately closed to allow for the proper investigation of this serious incident, including a technical examination of the scene. An Garda Síochána has agreed protocols in place with Luas senior management when such incidents occur. Every effort is made in such circumstances to ensure continued access to and egress from locations and that road closures and stoppages of rail and tram services are kept to a minimum, while at all times ensuring that all available evidence is collected to allow such incidents to be thoroughly investigated.

I thank the Minister for his considered and comprehensive reply to my question. The Government's main focus since its election some months ago has been on our national recovery. Difficulties with the movement of traffic to and from the workplace only delay our national recovery and do not help the economy. Like me, I am sure other Members have experienced considerable logjams following a simple breakdown or accident and this is the motivation behind my question. A co-ordinated response is required and it should involve some of the activities mentioned by the Minister. It should also involve local authorities and, where appropriate, the emergency services.

There is no better example of where the emergency services needed to be involved than yesterday and the experience we all had returning home from work. When I eventually arrived home from the House, I was struck by the comments made by a number of people that but for the support of 98FM, they would not have had much direction on what route to take. Considering the horrendous flooding along the quays, including at the Guinness premises, there was an absence of personnel to assist. I agree that the circumstances were unprecedented, but I would like to see a more co-ordinated response.

As someone who was in the city centre yesterday, I can say the weather conditions were exceptional. There was flooding in all sorts of locations. I would like to praise all of those working in the employment of the city council, the Garda Síochána and the fire service for the extraordinary work they did yesterday in very difficult circumstances. They dealt not only with traffic jams but with the exceptional and unusual flooding that took place at a variety of locations across the city, north and south. Certainly, there were traffic delays, but the traffic moved to a better degree than might have been anticipated. One of the difficulties that sometimes arises in extreme weather conditions of this nature is that traffic delays occur, not as a result of accidents, but as a result of dysfunctional traffic lights, which seem to be affected by extreme weather conditions. This is a matter for the city council, but too frequently at times of extreme wet weather, we see traffic lights ceasing to function and a traffic jam developing for no particular reason other than that.

The Garda traffic control centre, which is based at the Garda communication centre in Harcourt Street, co-ordinates the Garda response to traffic management issues in the Dublin region. At the control centre, there is direct access to an extensive range of CCTV facilities, including Garda, Dublin City Council, Dublin Port and Luas cameras. There is a considerable degree of co-ordination between the agencies when a major difficulty arises, which occurred yesterday evening.

Given the exceptional circumstances to which the Minister referred in some detail, perhaps he can assist me at a suitable occasion in getting a considered report from the Garda Commissioner detailing reports from the emergency services, the Garda Síochána and the local authorities in the greater Dublin region. This would be of assistance in planning for the future.

The Garda Síochána traffic control centre liaises directly with the control rooms of the national traffic control centre, Dublin City Council traffic control, South Dublin County Council traffic rooms, the Dublin Fire Brigade, Luas, Dublin Bus, Dublin Port Tunnel, the M50 concession and, in partnership with these agencies, it directs responses to incidents when they occur. There is substantial arranged co-ordination and information exchange at all times.

Legal Costs

Bernard J. Durkan

Question:

44 Deputy Bernard J. Durkan asked the Minister for Justice and Equality the extent to which it is envisaged that various levels of legal fees identified by the public as being excessive are likely to be reduced in the context of current or proposed legislation; if any evaluation has been done to identify those aspects of legal charges deemed to be most costly; if studies have been done to compare the various costs of legal services with those in adjoining jurisdictions; the extent of the calculation that has been done as to the likely benefit accruing to the Exchequer arising from a reduction in the legal costs of the various tribunals; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [31223/11]

Clare Daly

Question:

66 Deputy Clare Daly asked the Minister for Justice and Equality his plans to deal with excessive legal fees being charged, particularly in relation to family law cases which are covered by the in camera rule. [30797/11]

Catherine Murphy

Question:

72 Deputy Catherine Murphy asked the Minister for Justice and Equality his views that for the purposes of transparency and competition that the in camera rule for family law cases should be relaxed in respect of the fees charged; if he is considering introducing a requirement to keep time records in order to assist the Taxing Master to adjudicate on the fairness of fees charged; if he intends to make other such proposals to ensure that those family law cases that end up in courts are handled in a cost-effective manner; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [31260/11]

Catherine Murphy

Question:

78 Deputy Catherine Murphy asked the Minister for Justice and Equality if sufficient information is available to introduce penalties for legal professionals who are repeatedly the subject of overcharging following complaints to the Taxing Master; if so, the measures he intends to introduce and the timeframe for same; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [31259/11]

I propose to take Questions Nos. 44, 66, 72 and 78 together.

In the Programme for National Recovery 2011-16, the Government made a commitment to "establish independent regulation of the legal professions to improve access and competition, make legal costs more transparent and ensure adequate procedures for addressing consumer complaints". The Legal Services Regulation Bill 2011, published on 12 October, provides the statutory framework for meeting all of these commitments. By the same token, the Bill supports the urgent objectives of structural reform, national competitiveness and economic recovery contained in the EU-IMF-ECB memorandum of understanding, while taking account of the recommendations for reform made by the legal costs working group and by the Competition Authority. I had the opportunity to brief the EU-IMF-ECB Troika on the provisions of the new Bill on Monday, 17 October. The troika considered the Bill to have met both the spirit and the letter of the Government's relevant undertakings.

The Bill provides three levers of sustainable reform. There will be a new and independent legal services regulatory authority with responsibility for oversight of both solicitors and barristers, an office of the legal costs adjudicator to assume the role of the existing Office of the Taxing Master, which is being conferred with enhanced transparency in its functions. The legal costs regime will be brought into the open with better public awareness and entitlement to legal costs information. There will be an independent complaints mechanism within the new regulatory authority to deal with complaints about professional misconduct and this will be supported by a new independent legal professions disciplinary tribunal. These three levers of change are mutually reinforcing in terms of oversight, standard-setting, enforcement and redress. For example, as well as providing a modernised framework for the adjudication of disputed legal costs, the Bill makes the issue of an excessive bill of costs one of those matters which may be considered as misconduct when a complaint is made to the new regulatory authority.

Part 9 of the Bill sets out, for the first time in statute, a set of legal costs principles that are to guide the assessment of legal costs, the key principle being that of reasonable costs for appropriate work done. Lawyers will be required to notify clients in a more detailed and intelligible way about legal costs. Key changes include the fact that both solicitors and barristers will now have to provide proper costs information. A client has to be issued with a notice of costs as soon as he or she has given instruction to a lawyer and the notice must also specify a cooling-off period allowing the client to consider whether or not to continue with the case.

The process of notification of costs to clients is ongoing and responsive to any developments in the conduct of a case and is not just an initial, once-off exercise. When legal work is completed a detailed bill of costs has to be issued, which also explains that the options of negotiation, mediation or adjudication are available to resolve any disputed aspects of the bill. Contravention of the notification requirements is misconduct and may be taken into account to disallow costs in a costs adjudication.

Arbitrary costs practices, such as imposing the two thirds of senior counsel rule in charging for the services of a junior counsel, are abolished. Recruitment to the role of legal costs adjudicator, previously confined to solicitors of ten years standing only, is now extended to people with a wider skill-set, that is, to similarly qualified barristers and legal-costs accountants. The office of the legal costs adjudicator — currently the Office of the Taxing Master — will be made subject to the governance and accountability practices, such as annual reporting, applied to public bodies generally. The office will be able to issue legal costs guidelines and will, for the first time, maintain a register of decisions on adjudications. This will publicise both the reasoning and outcomes of legal costs adjudications.

It will be possible to publish decisions made by the office of the legal costs adjudicator in regard to family law cases. Provision is made in section 82, subsections (3) and (4), to publish such a decision and the reasoning for it. Only certain information will be withheld, for example, the name of the party to a decision, the name of a child where one is involved and such other information as is protected by rule of law, including, for instance, thein camera rule. This means that the basis of cost adjudication decisions arising from family law cases will become transparent in a way that has not been possible up to now, while the in camera rule and other relevant privacy provisions continue to be observed. A case progression initiative has been operating in recent years in the Circuit Court for family proceedings and such case management has been mandatory for family law cases since October 2008. Under this system cases are listed before a county registrar for a hearing to determine whether they are ready to proceed. I participated in the launch of the Dolphin House initiative last May involving the Courts Service, the Legal Aid Board and the family mediation service of the Family Support Agency. This initiative encourages parties into an alternative mediation process with a special focus on cases involving the welfare of children.

The principles relating to legal costs, which are contained in Schedule 1 to the Legal Services Regulation Bill, include "the time and labour that the legal practitioner has reasonably expended on the matter" concerned. The legal costs adjudicator is obliged, under subsection 95(5) of the Bill, to ascertain reasonably the time taken to carry out the work concerned as part of his or her determination of the appropriateness of work done and the reasonableness of its cost. While solicitors and barristers alike will have to inform clients of any time-based rates that may apply to their work, they will also have to satisfy the other principles relating to legal costs that have been set out. This is considered the best way to achieve a balance between time and the other factors that relate to legal costs, for example, the complexity, urgency and priority of a case. The intention is to avoid creating a situation where over-emphasis of time as the determinant of legal costs could incentivise inefficiency in the handling of cases or be unfairly exploited as a "plodder's charter".

Additional information not given on the floor of the House

The interests of client consumers and legal practitioners will be balanced under this Bill better than ever before, to the mutual benefit of both. Under the provisions of the Bill everyone will be clearer about what should be happening when legal services are being sought or provided, how much these services will cost and where they can go to for independent adjudication if they have a complaint or wish to settle a dispute about legal costs. These measures, combined with the proposed new business structures for legal practitioners set out in the Bill, will provide a basis for enhanced competition and efficiencies in the legal sector and will lead to a reduction in legal costs. The Bill represents a package of reforms that will be of long-term benefit to the legal professions, consumers and the national economy.

I welcome much of what is proposed in the Bill. Shedding light on the issue of legal costs is a particularly welcome amendment, although whether they will be reduced is another argument. I do not want to anticipate the Second Stage debate, but will the Minister indicate when it is intended to bring it forward?

I am conscious that this is a detailed and complex Bill. As such, I wish to afford time to Members opposite and to those affected by the Bill, including consumers of legal services and the legal professions, to consider its provisions. It is anticipated that Second Stage will not be taken until after the second week in November, at the earliest, to afford an opportunity for the fullest possible consideration to be given to the Bill before proceeding to detailed debate on it in this House.

We were under the impression that this legislation would run to some 300 pages. While the Bill we have been presented with is comprehensive, it comprises just over 100 pages. I am not complaining about this——

The Bill was 300 pages in typed print, but when it was printed by Cahill Printers it turned out at approximately 100 pages.

Will the Minister confirm that nothing was removed from the Bill at the last minute which he wished to include?

Yes. I will be pleased to show the Deputy my very thick folder of typed content. To be specific, there were originally 298 pages of content in typeface, but the printing process reduced that substantially.

I thank the Minister for his comprehensive reply. Will he indicate whether an assessment has been done of the extent to which legal fees are likely to be reduced arising from this legislation? I have raised this question many times in the past. It concerns the extent to which legal fees are likely to be reduced arising from the proposed legislation, particularly in respect of the costs of tribunals and the level of legal fees identified by the troika as being a serious impediment to competition. The Minister might indicate in quantifiable times the extent to which the benefit will accrue to the taxpayer arising from that as opposed to a rejigging of the structures which might mean we will end up in the same position we were in when we started.

A broad range of issues must be addressed to bring about a reduction in legal fees. Legal fees will be reduced as a consequence of this Bill, first, because of the new transparency that will apply to the charging of legal fees; second, the adjudicative process will cease to be a mystery both to some members of the legal profession as well as to the entire general public by the publication of decisions which should provide for a greater uniformity in the charging of legal fees; and, third, as a consequence of the new structures that will be available that will reduce costs. For example, under the provisions of the Bill it will be possible to directly consult a barrister to obtain advice without having to first consult with solicitors. The Bill envisages the provision of legal advice through alternative structures as well as the current form of solicitors practice and barrister practice being able to continue out of the Bar Library with barristers operating as sole contractors. Those alternative structures will create the possibility for barrister partnerships, multi-disciplinary firms and the possibility of solicitors and barristers jointly representing clients as advocates in court proceedings.

All of those measures will contribute to cost reduction but the Legal Services Bill is not a magic bullet in affecting cost reduction because a broad range of other things must be done, some of which we are engaged in dealing with. First, we must try to ensure that people use alternative dispute resolution methods as opposed to litigation when disputes arise and I am happy to tell the House that a mediation and conciliation Bill which I hope to bring before the House is at a reasonably advanced stage of preparation. Second, there is a need to provide for greater efficiencies within the court services to ensure our courts operate in a manner which does not unnecessarily give rise to legal costs.

In the context of tribunals, the Deputy is right in saying that tribunals have proved particularly costly. I do not believe there is a way of guaranteeing to the House that if a tribunal in the future is investigating the issue the substantial costs will not be incurred. That is the reason we need new accountability mechanisms and why there is a referendum taking place to facilitate committees of this House investigating matters of substantial public importance and holding hearings with a view to ensuring not only that this House does its duty, but issues that need to be inquired into can be inquired into without the enormous costs that have been incurred in the past through the use of the mechanism of tribunals.

I have not mastered the art of bilocation yet. I was in a committee meeting and missed much of the response the Minister gave. There are a number of components to my questions, the first of which is the requirement to keep records. It is very difficult for the Taxing Master to adjudicate on something if there is no requirement to keep records. I do not know if the Minister indicated in his reply that he intends to make changes but I presume it is open to him to make those type of provisions by way of an amendment to a piece of legislation.

The second component concerns people who are persistently complained to and found to have been offenders in regard to the Taxing Master. Most of those would concern family law cases. The lack of that information does not act as a warning to people when they take on someone to prosecute a case. Those are the areas on which I would like to hear the Minister's response.

The Deputy may have missed hearing me say that an important element of the new reform is that the legal costs adjudication office will have to maintain a record of decisions delivered by it and that they will be published. In the context of the way the legislation is drafted, I hope there will be a facility, for example, for those decisions to be on a website.

In the context of the family law area, while the anonymity of estranged spouses in a family dispute, for example, or the names of their children will be preserved because of thein camera rule, if there is a dispute over legal costs in a family law matter it will be adjudicated upon and the outcome of the adjudication can be published while preserving the privacy of the individuals concerned. The lawyers will not have anonymity in the context of publication. The anonymity applies to the parties, that is, the husband, the wife or the cohabitees in a family dispute or, if it involved an adoption issue, the adopters and perhaps the biological parent but the anonymity will not apply to the law firm under the provisions of the Bill. The fact that these decisions will be published, whether we are dealing with family litigation, civil litigation or any other litigation, will also act as a spotlight on costs that are charged.

As I mentioned in my initial response, where a complaint of excessive charging is adjudicated upon it is an issue that can fall within the context of misconduct as it arises under the Bill, which may result in that matter being dealt with from a disciplinary perspective. There is a range of what I would describe as connected reforms which should not only shed a spotlight in this area but disincentivise persons who overcharge. In fairness to members of the legal profession, not every allegation of overcharging against members of the legal profession is true. Some are true but some are not.

To what extent have comparisons in respect of legal fees been made between this jurisdiction and adjoining jurisdictions, for instance, Northern Ireland, the United Kingdom and France, having particular regard to the recognition by the troika of various aspects of our financial services and various structures, legal and otherwise, as being a deterrent in terms of competition and costs? If he has not done so already would it be possible for the Minster to produce a graph illustrating the comparisons between the fees for similar activities here and in the other jurisdictions?

I do not have a graph I can produce for the Deputy but I refer him to the initial report and the final report of the Competition Authority published towards the end of 2006 which regarded a range of difficulties within the legal professions as restrictive practices which unduly added to the legal costs for the consumers of the legal profession. I see the legislation to be published as being of substantial benefit to consumers in particular and I hope that when members of the legal profession, both solicitors and barristers, have had an opportunity to reflect on the detailed contents of the Bill they will see it is also modernising the structures through which legal services can be provided, bringing the legal professions out of the 19th into the 21st century and, in sweeping the cobwebs out of the legal corridors, is giving an opportunity to those who wish to be competitive and provide legal services to consumers to do so through new structures which will be to the benefit of both the legal profession and consumers and which I believe will reduce costs because of increased competitiveness.

The view of the troika is that, on average, legal costs in this jurisdiction are something in excess of 20% of what they would be in our neighbouring jurisdiction in England. I am not sure how they have calculated that sum because often it is difficult to do the comparisons.

The issue of legal costs is not simply about what lawyers charge. A range of reforms are necessary to incentivise people to use mediation instead of litigation in resolving disputes and to incentivise lawyers to encourage clients to resolve disputes by agreement where mediation is not necessary. There are substantial reforms needed within our court structures, which ensure that those who have to litigate areas of difficulty in their lives know lawyers are kept waiting around courts from one day to the next with court hearings lasting an hour or a couple of hours while other matters intervene. Court cases end up costing clients of the legal profession for three or four days in court when, if the courts were better organised, the matter might have been dealt with within a single day.

These are specific issues and I have urged the Courts Service to address them in the interests of consumers and also in the interest of the State, in the context of the substantial legal costs the State must meet in dealing with litigation taken against the State.

Has the Minister a figure in mind for what people can expect legal costs to be reduced by over, for example, a two year period as a result of full implementation of the Legal Services Bill and addressing the other issues?

I cannot give the Deputy an answer to that. Every legal issue is different and every type of legal work that must be undertaken, be it by solicitors or solicitors and barristers and, hopefully also in the future, by barristers alone, can vary. It can depend on not only the issue that must be addressed but also the personality of the client with whom the lawyer is dealing. The Deputy knows that well enough. One cannot prescribe a specific fee that is payable in a range of litigation areas; in other areas it is a great deal simpler. In the making of what I describe as simple wills or the conveyance of a property there are set fees that can be readily identifiable and that people should know they will incur in advance of legal work being undertaken.

Court Accommodation

Billy Kelleher

Question:

45 Deputy Billy Kelleher asked the Minister for Justice and Equality the court houses across the country that are due to be closed by the Courts Service; the reasons for each proposed closure; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [31121/11]

As the Deputy should be aware, the provisions of the Courts Service Act 1998 conferred sole responsibility on the Courts Service for management of courts and, as Minister, I have no role in the matter. Section 4(3) of the 1998 Act provides that the service is independent in the performance of its functions, which includes the provision, maintenance and management of court buildings and provision of facilities for court users.

I have, however, had inquiries made and the Courts Service has informed me that in the current financial climate all court venues are kept under continuing review. A number of qualitative criteria are applied to each venue, including case count, condition of the building, proximity of local gardaí, number of sittings per annum and so forth. The service endeavours to ensure, in so far as possible, that venues have cell accommodation available in order to reduce Prison Service escort costs as well as meeting the standard that court users are entitled to expect while also considering the efficiency of the particular court.

The Courts Service board decided at its meeting on 17 October last to approve the closing of the following district courthouses: Ballymote which will be amalgamated with Sligo; Boyle which will be amalgamated with Carrick-on-Shannon — the Circuit Court also sits from time to time in Boyle and these sittings will now take place in Roscommon; Templemore which will be amalgamated with Thurles; Kiltimagh and Claremorris in County Mayo which will be amalgamated with Castlebar. I understand the District Court has not sat in Claremorris since 2009 and that its business has been heard in Kiltimagh. I am informed that the business of all three venues will in future be heard in Castlebar.

While there are no courthouses in Castleisland and Athenry, the Courts Service has informed me that those District Courts sit in very unsuitable premises and will also be relocated. With the exception of Castleisland, which is due to close on 1 December, it is intended that the other closures will take effect early in 2012. In this context it should be noted that the board, over the past 12 years, has amalgamated 140 District Court areas.

Additional information not given on the floor of the House

The Courts Service has informed me that decisions to close a particular venue are generally taken due to its poor conditions, some of which present a health and safety risk which would cost a great deal to rectify. The absence of holding cells in a number of cases is also a factor. However, achieving greater efficiencies, particularly with regard to freeing up judicial staff and Garda time currently spent travelling between venues, is also a consideration. I am informed that this rationalisation policy has gained operational efficiencies, saves time and improves speed of access to justice.

The Minister does not have direct responsibility for the Courts Service, but the service is responsible to the Minister and this House for its budget. I wish to raise a number of concerns that have been expressed about the specific closures outlined by the Minister. First, the users were not consulted. Even though they are represented on the board of the Courts Service the day-to-day users of the courts concerned, that is, the solicitors and judges who work in the courts, were not consulted in advance. Second, when they were consulted they were told, particularly regarding the closure of Kiltimagh, that it was being done for efficiency reasons, not cost saving reasons. When Deputy O'Mahony raised this issue with the Minister last week, the Minister undertook to find out if a cost-benefit analysis for the closure of Kiltimagh had been prepared to measure the extra costs that would be incurred. This would equally apply to Ballymote, Boyle, Templemore and the other venues. There are the extra costs for gardaí travelling, prison issues and extra subsistence costs. Has the Minister found out if those analyses were prepared and will they be published or put before the Oireachtas committee on justice?

The Courts Service has informed me that decisions to close a venue are generally taken due to its poor conditions, some of which present a health and safety risk which would cost a great deal to rectify. The absence of holding cells is a factor in a number of cases. However, achieving greater efficiencies, particularly in freeing up judicial staff and Garda time currently spent travelling between venues, is also a consideration. I am informed that this rationalisation policy has gained operational efficiencies, saves time and improves speed of access to justice. The same matters have informed the consideration given to the closures I mentioned. By achieving efficiencies, one effects savings and one ensures, at a time when there are limited resources, that those resources are used to the best extent in the interests of taxpayers.

One of the concerns expressed is that there is no rural representation on the building sub-committee of the Courts Service. The venues that are being closed, as outlined by the Minister, are all in rural areas. This will put an extra mileage burden on people to get access to justice. Can the Minister bring the concern about the lack of rural representation on the building sub-committee of the Courts Service to the notice of the Courts Service and ask it to address it?

If there is no rural representation on the building sub-committee of the Courts Service, it was calibrated during the term of my predecessor when the Fianna Fáil and Green Party Government was in office. I will certainly inquire into that issue. The Deputy was correct when he said earlier that the Courts Service is independent but that it must report to me. It falls within the envelope of the Department of Justice and Equality in the context of the funding available to the Courts Service. The Courts Service, like all other bodies, is under an obligation to effect efficiencies, ensure that resources are used wisely and, in so far as possible, to achieve savings. The Courts Service cannot be exempt from the savings that must be achieved across the broad range of justice expenditure. That obligation applied to the service in 2011 as a consequence of the funding allocated in the 2010 budget for the service and it will continue to apply in 2012. It is likely that the Courts Service will continue to make decisions to operate with greater efficiency and effectiveness and it is likely that there will be further court closures in 2012.

Joint Policing Committees

Aengus Ó Snodaigh

Question:

46 Deputy Aengus Ó Snodaigh asked the Minister for Justice and Equality his plans to establish a joint policing committee community fora in areas outside the 14 local drugs task force areas; the timeline for same; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [31232/11]

The functions and powers of joint policing committees, JPCs, are set out in the Garda Síochána Act 2005, which provides for a committee in each local authority area. The Act provides that JPCs operate under guidelines issued by the Minister for Justice and Equality after consultation with the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government. The current guidelines were issued in September 2008.

The Act also provides for the establishment of local policing fora at neighbourhood level under guidelines. These fora are intended to operate in a more informal way than the JPCs and deepen the engagement between gardaí, the local authority and neighbourhood communities. Guidelines for the establishment and operation of fora were issued by the then Minister in July 2009, following consultation with the Ministers for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government and Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs and other stakeholders. These guidelines restrict the establishment of fora to the 14 areas where local drug task forces operate. It was decided to prioritise the establishment of local policing fora in these areas, in the context of the resources available and in accordance with the national drugs strategy, because their need is greatest. This process is currently under way.

With regard to the JPCs generally, I am aware that some are working better than others, depending on the local authority. As I have already informed the House, I intend shortly to communicate with local authorities to get an overview of how the JPCs are operating and the extent to which their activities are constructive and beneficial to the community and the Garda. My Department, the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government and An Garda Síochána have commenced work on reviewing the operation of the committees. My intention is that a document will be prepared on the basis of which consultations will take place with the local authorities on how the operation of the committees might be improved, with a view to updating the guidelines. I envisage that this process will be substantially complete in the early part of next year. The role and extent of local policing fora will be examined as part of this process.

I thank the Minister for his reply. He touched on one of the critical issues, that some of the joint policing committees are working better than others. I welcome the timeline outlined for the review process. I am aware from experience that it works very well in Cork. However, that is due not to the guidelines but to the individuals who sit on the committee, including members of the Garda who are open to the idea. In other areas where I have discussed the issue with councillors there is not the buy-in from some elements, not just the Garda. but the community and local authorities. That is one area on which we need to tighten up. In Cork, where the system works well and the Garda buy in to the process, it is having an effect on the ground and improves confidence in the Garda. If that could be replicated across the State we would be doing well. That is an area where we need to look at the guidelines.

I agree with what the Deputy has said. It is my experience, having sat briefly on one of these committees, that it depends on the Garda and the councillors. The councillors may have choices in the context of how these committees work. They can constructively engage with the Garda and come forward with suggestions in regard to policing in local communities that are generally beneficial and, on the Garda side, if there is openness they will engage. Alternatively, councillors can just use the committees to table a motion or a question to get a written reply, not engage particularly, and send the reply out to their constituents.

The first type of engagement, where there is a dialogue between councillors representing local communities and the local gardaí working on the ground and where there is a degree of openness between the two in problem solving, is most valuable. I hope the review being conducted will provide a greater insight into this and might assist the workings of the committees, where there is a perception that some are not working particularly well, and will feed into the need for any changes that may be made to the guidelines.

Does that include giving additional powers, if necessary, to the committees? In the North there is greater participation in regard to the operational process. While the committees are good, additional powers are needed to make them more effective in some areas. Will that review contain recommendations and, if so, is that something on which the Minister is willing to act?

As the Deputy is aware, the functions and powers of joint policing committees are set out in the Garda Síochána Act 2005. In the context of the review it would be interesting to get an insight across the country as to the extent to which the provisions contained in that Act are being utilised and applied and whether some committees are more constrained than others. Should the review show that some beneficial changes could be made to the legislation, I am open to looking at that issue. Given the Deputy's knowledge, he is welcome to feed into the process. I would hope, when the review is complete, to publish it and to discuss it in the House or in the Joint Committee on Justice, Defence and Equality before conclusions are reached from what is learned through the review.