Courts (No. 2) Bill 2016: Second Stage

I move: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."

I am pleased to have this opportunity to introduce the Courts (No. 2) Bill 2016. The purpose of the Bill is to provide part of the legislative framework necessary for the introduction of what is termed “the third payment option” in relation to road traffic offences in respect of which a fixed charge notice may be served under Part 3 of the Road Traffic Act 2010.

This short Bill of just four sections is centred around the amendment, for technical reasons, of section 1 of the Courts (No. 3) Act 1986. It will allow for the integrated printing of a summons and the related fixed charge notice for serving on persons alleged to have committed certain road traffic offences. This will ensure those who commit such offences can be brought fully to account. The Courts (No. 2) Bill 2016 is a joint initiative between myself as Minister for Justice and Equality and the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, Deputy Ross. The intention would be that, when enacted, its reforming measures will be made operative by the Minister, Deputy Ross, through his commencement of section 44 of the Road Traffic Act 2010, that being the section which provides the legislative basis to bring these reforms into practical effect. This Courts (No. 2) Bill will, therefore, provide the legal nuts and bolts for the desired reform while section 44 of the Road Traffic Act of 2010 will trigger that reform into operation. The designated date for this to happen, including having the relevant IT supports in place, is 1 June 2017.

The reform objective behind the very technical provisions of today’s Bill is to resolve an unintended legal loophole which has emerged over time. At present, under the Road Traffic Act 2002, a person who does not pay a fixed charge notice within the 56 days set down in law is served with a summons. At that point the person has no further payment option and must attend court. However, persons regularly appear in court and state that they did not receive the original fixed charge notice and many such cases are dismissed by the courts. In these cases neither the fixed charge nor the penalty points end up being applied. This can even happen in cases where a person might not be taking issue with the alleged infringement concerned. As the law stands at the moment, a fixed charge notice offence affords two payment options before a summons is issued requiring a person to attend court. These are a first period of 28 days, during which the person may pay the fixed amount, followed by a second consecutive period of 28 days, during which the person may pay the fixed amount plus 50%.

The key objective proposed under the Courts (No. 2) Bill is to provide the essential technical and administrative measures to enable the introduction of a third payment option, which is a payment of the fixed amount plus 100%, while upholding any penalty points concerned without necessitating further court or Garda time. This third option will be made available up to seven days before the date on which an offender will otherwise have been summonsed to appear before the court. If a person takes up this option, proceedings in respect of the alleged offence will be discontinued and the person need not attend court.

This is a short but highly technical Bill of four sections whose rationale is set out in greater technical detail for Members’ attention in the relevant explanatory and financial memorandum.

Section 1 provides for the definition of the term “Act of 1986” as meaning the Courts (No. 3) Act 1986, that being the Act which sets out in primary law the provisions relating to the issue of District Court summonses in relation to offences.

Section 2 amends section 1 of the 1986 Act in the form of six amendments as set out in paragraphs (a) to (f). Paragraph (a) adds a new section 1(2A) to the Act of 1986 which provides that the issue of a summons under section 1(2) of the Act of 1986 shall be deemed to have been effected by the transmission by the appropriate court office by electronic means of all the information necessary to create the summons document in an automatic manner, that is, using electronic means. A lot of work has been done by the courts office to ensure we can do this. Paragraph (b) adds a new section in a way which is intended to allow for the automated processing of batches of summonses or applications for summonses. Paragraph (c) provides for the insertion of a clause into section 1 of the Act to include a reference to a summons the issue of which is deemed to have been effected under the new section 1(2A) to which I referred.

Paragraph (d) provides for the insertion of paragraph (aa) into section 1(9) of the 1986 Act, which is intended to ensure that a summons which was created in an automatic manner shall be presumed to have been created on the basis of the information transmitted by the appropriate court office unless the contrary is shown. Paragraph (e) provides for the insertion of a clause into section 1(10) of the 1986 Act to include a reference to a summons the issue of which is deemed to have been effected under the new section 1(2A) to which I referred. Paragraph (f) provides for two defined terms to be inserted into section 1(14) of the 1986 Act, namely, a revised definition of the term "document" and the substitution of the definition of the term "true copy" in respect of a summons.

Section 3 makes specific provision in regard to a summons to be issued in circumstances where the person who is alleged to have committed a specified road traffic offence is a member of the Garda Síochána. At present, section 88(3) of the Courts of Justice Act 1924 and the relevant District Court rules include a provision that a summons against a person who is a member of the Garda Síochána shall be signed by a judge. Subsection (1) seeks to set aside this restriction for the purposes of this Bill. I intend to bring forward an amendment to section 3 on Committee Stage. This will centre on the retention of the provisions of the current section 3(1)(a) while putting aside those of section 3(1)(b) in its reference to section 29 of the Road Traffic Act 2010. Upon further reflection, in consultation with the Office of the Parliamentary Counsel and the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport, the need emerged for a more detailed review to be undertaken of the issues arising out of the current section 3(1)(b) than the narrow context of this Bill would allow. It is therefore considered that the relevant matters should be given further dedicated consideration in their own right, including further consultation with the key stakeholders. It is considered that the retention of section 3(1)(b) as it stands, while well intentioned, could slow down the overall passage of the Bill while these further issues are considered. While still under preparation by my Department in conjunction with the Office of the Parliamentary Counsel, the proposed amendment to section 3 will, of course, be explained in more detail to Members on Committee Stage.

Section 4 deals with the Short Title of the Bill, its collective citation and construction with the Courts (Supplemental Provisions) Acts, and its commencement by means of ministerial order.

I commend the Bill to the House as a means of closing an undesirable loophole in the application of the Road Traffic Acts. It has the potential, if brought to enactment, to increase payment on foot of the relevant fixed charge notices, ensure the application of the relevant penalty points and reduce the number of cases that would otherwise go on to take up valuable court and Garda time. It will provide further means of ensuring those who commit such offences on our roads are brought fully to account.

Like the Criminal Law (Sexual Offences) Bill 2015 we debated earlier and the Bail (Amendment) Bill 2016 we will debate tomorrow, the Bill before us this evening, the Courts (No. 2) Bill 2016, is welcome. I commend the Tánaiste on the productivity of her Department in bringing legislation before the House. The same cannot be said for some of her Government colleagues. Perhaps she will tell them they need to be become as industrious as she is when it comes to the advancement of legislation.

Fianna Fáil supports this Bill, the purpose of which is to provide essential technical and administrative measures to allow for the introduction of what the Tánaiste referred to as the third payment option. This will address the situation whereby persons responsible for road traffic offences do not incur fines or penalty points for technical reasons. Some of those reasons were highlighted recently in the media, with reports of cases being prosecuted in different districts around the country where individuals were able to come to court and say they never got a summons. Consequently, the judge is left with little option other than to strike out the proceedings on a technicality of the law as it exists at present. What this shows is the importance of enforcement of our laws. We spend a great deal of time in this House preparing detailed and complicated legislation which sets out procedures for when people's behaviour will be criminalised. We also set out the mechanisms for the imposition of the penalties for such criminal behaviour, but sometimes that aspect of the legislation receives only a small amount of focus. However, if there is no effective enforcement of laws, those laws are undermined. Unfortunately, that has happened in respect of certain road traffic offences. People were able, as I indicated, to state in court that a summons was not received and, as such, they should not be held criminally liable. We must ensure the enforcement mechanisms we introduce are effective and that legislation facilitates easy enforcement by the prosecution services and An Garda Síochána. We must make sure that where the law is broken, there are consequences for those responsible. If that message is not established in our legal system, there will be no deterrent for individuals who wish to break the law. In fact, the person who admits liability and pays a penalty will be seen as gullible and foolish. That should not be the case. We must ensure the law applies across the board. If a crime is committed and a penalty deserves to be incurred, it is essential that the appropriate penalty is available to the courts.

As the Tánaiste indicated, the situation that pertains under the Road Traffic Act 2002 is unsatisfactory in that a person who does not pay a fixed charge notice within the 56 days set down is served with a summons. Individuals may pay within the first 28 days or within the second 28 days. If payment is not made with 56 days, however, a summons is issued, after which there is no further payment option and the accused must attend court. Unfortunately, as I outlined, people have appeared in court claiming they did not receive the original fixed charge notice and have had their cases dismissed. It is difficult to ascertain precisely how many cases have been dismissed on these grounds, but it seems to be in the region of 7,500 annually. We must ensure, too, that people who are prosecuted for minor summary offences have the opportunity to pay. Sometimes when people know their court date is approaching, they want to pay the charge. However, under the existing legislation, if the 56-day period has elapsed, they must present in court. Under the new procedure set out in the Bill before us this evening, such people will have to pay a 100% penalty after the 56-day period. Notwithstanding the imposition of that penalty, it offers a benefit to accused persons in that it will remove the necessity of having the case determined in a court of law. Individuals should be given that opportunity and, for this reason, Fianna Fáil will support the Bill on Second Stage.

Sinn Féin supports this Bill, which will positively impact on the efficiency of court administration and free up Garda resources for much-needed operational deployment. Under the current system, those alleged to have committed a relevant road traffic offence are issued with a fixed charge notice, which is issued and printed on behalf of An Garda Síochána and payment of which is made through An Post. The notice stipulates that the fine must be paid within 28 days and the relevant penalty points accepted. Where the fine is not paid within the initial 28-day period, the fixed charge notice provides for a further 28 days within which payment of the original fine plus 50% may be made. Failure to pay a fine within the 56-day period will result in the automatic issuing of a summons requiring the alleged offender to appear in court. This process does not require a member of the Garda to apply for the summons to be issued; the summons is triggered by the non-payment of the fixed charge fine. As Deputy O'Callaghan outlined, many individuals who have come before the courts have claimed they did not receive the original fixed charge notice and have thereby avoided penalty.

Debate adjourned.