I am pleased to be able to speak to the Bail (Amendment) Bill 2016, the publication of which is timely. I thank the Minister for meeting the Save Our Community group in Tipperary on two occasions. One meeting took place before the general election and in fairness to the Minister when we asked her to meet it again, she kept her commitment and did so. It is a wonderful group and I salute its members who are deeply concerned about crime levels in their community and the sense of fear that pervades the mid-Tipperary area in particular but which is replicated all over the country. They have shown leadership on the issue. There is an old adage that where Tipperary leads, Ireland follows. I am proud to reflect it.
Many of the provisions included in the Bill have been sought widely. About a year and a half ago I attended a public meeting which was attended by almost 2,000 people. A committee was set up and its members have done great work, not just on crime related issues. As I said during an earlier debate today, they organised a farm safety engagement day in conjunction with An Garda Síochána and other agencies, including the Road Safety Authority. It was held on the farm of the chairman of the committee, Mr. Robert O'Shea, and proved very beneficial for those who use agricultural machinery, contractors and so on, as well as gardaí. All parties learned and gained an understanding of each other's point of view. There is a need for further community engagement of that type.
The Bill includes four main provisions. It provides for stricter bail terms for repeat and serious offenders; the strengthening of Garda powers to deal with breaches of bail; increasing the use of curfews and introducing electronic tagging for persons on bail, when requested by An Garda Síochána. I have no problem with any of these provisions. They are all needed, although we must be very careful on the last one. I am very disappointed, however, that the Bill does not include a fifth provision, namely, a reduction in the level of access to free legal aid. I hope I am not frightening off my good colleague and member of the Law Library, Deputy Jim O'Callaghan, but the free legal aid scheme has become an industry for certain solicitors and barristers. Without diminishing anyone's rights, there must be a balance in how many times a person can receive free legal aid and how many times the taxpayer can be expected to pay for it. There has to be a limit. It is a joke to see people being given free legal aid time and again. To be honest, it is just farcical. The scheme is widely abused, while victims have to pay for their experience through the trauma caused. This is especially true in the case of serious crimes. I have no problem with people being given free legal aid once, twice or even three times, but it should be a case of three strikes and they are out. It cannot be revolving such that people will continually be given free legal aid. As I said, the figures are published every year and for some law firms, it is a huge business. I know that Deputy Jim O'Callaghan will say lawyers have to live, as do barristers, doctors and other professionals. That is true, but year after year, one sees the same names of solicitors on the list of those receiving free legal aid scheme fees. The system is being abused. As I said, I have no problem with people being given free legal aid up to three times, but after that, it should not be available. It is a pity the issue is not dealt with in the Bill. Perhaps the Minister has good reasons for not doing so and, if so, I would like to hear what they are. The provision of free legal aid was one of the issues of concern for the Save Our Community group in Tipperary.
A previous speaker said judges did not have enough time to deal with bail hearings properly and that such hearings often lasted for only three or four minutes.
That, however, is not the victim's or the Director of Public Prosecution's problem, it is the State's problem. We have set up a new Court of Appeal. It cannot hear criminal cases, which I opposed at the time, and I said I did not see any direction for it. Last week when we debated the Criminal Law (Sexual Offences) Bill 2015 we said that in two years' time there would be a review of it, and possibly a three year review. I saw no provision for a review in the Court of Appeal Bill. There was no clarification on the number of cases this new court would hear or how it would deal with the backlog. The system is archaic and justice delayed is justice denied. We need accountability from our good colleagues in the court. I strongly supported the demands of the Minister, Deputy Shane Ross, but the Minister for Justice and Equality, Deputy Frances Fitzgerald, rejected them, quite robustly, as well as a chapter on public disclosure for our judges, especially when hearing cases against financial institutions. That was necessary. I am not trying to be critical of judges. I will not go into it here, but the Minister, Deputy Frances Fitzgerald, knows what I am talking about, as she knows what the Minister, Deputy Shane Ross's Bill is all about. I support his Bill and I am delighted that he seems to have got it through the Cabinet.
Enough time must be allowed and this must not be rushed. A decision on bail, which is rushed, is not fair on the victim. I am not saying that perpetrators should be taken in and the key should be thrown away; I am not one of those merchants. I am, however, sick and tired of the bonds. The ordinary people who I represent live in fear in their homes.
There is also the issue of cutbacks in An Garda Síochána. I thank the Minister for the five new gardaí for Clonmel but we are still way behind in garda numbers because we lost so many. I thank the chief superintendent there and all the superintendents in Tipperary for the work they do with their teams with the limited resources they have. I deal with superintendents William Leahy and Pat O'Connor in Tipperary town and our new superintendent in Cahir. Of course, gardaí make mistakes; the man that never made a mistake never made anything. We should place more emphasis on restorative justice. There was a good project in Nenagh, which was needed.
Figures are being quoted in this debate about the number of repeat convictions, especially for burglaries. The vast majority of those repeat offenders are getting free legal aid. We are supporting and feeding the industry and it should not be allowed to carry on. Restorative justice is very important because in a different situation one of us, or someone in our family, could become involved in crime and end up not being able to see one's grandchildren.
There must be more use of the juvenile liaison officer system, a very good system which I have supported. Earlier it was suggested the court poor box would be gotten rid of. That is a very important, too. People can get hit hard in their pockets, often for motoring offences, and they must pay a nice sum to a very decent and well-meaning charity through the poor box. It gets them thinking and it is good for the charity and for the people who gain from it. In a way, that is restorative justice also.
Reference was made to professional development for judges. If a judge is appointed he or she is a judge for life, unless he or she is impeached but, thankfully, that has seldom happened. We need a measure, such as professional development courses, because, like everything else, the law is evolving. I am sure the Minister, if she was honest with us - I am not saying she is dishonest - would say she has learned a lot since she joined her Department of which she was not aware before. I admit this too. I do not have an infinite pot of knowledge to deal with situations. Situations are complex and crimes are changing all the time, such as Internet crime and cyber-crime and what we see unfolding before us with the international trade in people. It is very different now from what it was 20 years ago; therefore, judges need to be brought up to speed. I am not being critical of any one judge, but this is badly needed.
There was discussion around Garda powers to deal with breaches of bail and reference was made to a person who was disqualified from driving for a serious road offence but was still driving while out on bail. That person should not be allowed to drive again. As I said, there needs to be more connectivity with the courts. The courts administrative system must be brought up to speed. It is well able to deal with certain issues.
I asked a parliamentary question today, and received a reply from the Minister, about county registrars sitting as judge and jury in cases of home repossessions. I asked about the qualifications they have, who appointed them and under what Act but I received a vague enough answer. I believe it would be more appropriate to leave that work to judges and leave the registrars to look after the administration of fines, etc. The fines should not have to be collected by An Garda Síochána. Gardaí have too much to do to be going around begging people to pay their fines, especially for litter offences. As Deputy Mick Wallace said, those fines should be dealt with differently or by way of restorative justice. These people should be out doing community service. We should not have the wasteful situation of a garda using his or her time going back ten to 20 times to get a fine paid, eventually taking the person to prison where there is no room, so they are sent home again and the fine is wiped away. I have seen cases where an unfortunate businessman gets into trouble even though he does his best, and this happens to young people, in particular. The person is brought to the small claims court and is sentenced to jail to serve time. The bill, however, is still there and the person can be brought to court again. However, in the case of others brought before the courts in respect of other charges, once they turn up, sign in and sign out, they are left off and the charge is wiped away. Reform is needed in that area also.
I support the increased use of curfews, especially nighttime curfews because we cannot have certain people intimidating whole communities. There is a boldness and blatantness to their actions and they need to be under curfew.
Even my wife will not agree with me on the issue of tagging, but I must raise it. The Garda and superintendent Pat O'Connor have studied electronic tagging and I am sure the Minister and her officials are aware of it. I am not comparing humans to animals but in Scotland there was a study that used electronic tags on badgers to help combat bovine TB. The tags enabled the tracing of the badgers through the land and the checking of times. It shows how easy it would be for one person to monitor a person's movement rather than having gardaí, with limited resources, following people who are out on bail. There is no hope of them being able to do that. I am not a lock them up and throw away the key merchant, but we must defend our communities. Will the Minister tell us where the victims' rights charter comes into this? The unfortunate victims must become foremost in our minds.
I compliment gardaí on how they dealt with an atrocious attack on a young family in Tipperary in the dead of night. It was a most heinous crime and thanks to the good work of An Garda Síochána in detecting the persons, they have been convicted. Thankfully, the woman was able to dial 999 that night and throw her phone under the bed in order that those in the Garda station could hear her screams for help. Butchery, horror and savagery were inflicted by people who were out on bail and who had committed numerous crimes. We saw their scoffing behaviour towards media and others as they were led away in chains from the court house having been sentenced. These people must be taken off the streets and dealt with severely. The family who were the victims in that case will never recover from that kind of a trauma. How could they? A person's home is his or her castle and theirs was invaded.
Burglaries, breaches of property and terrorising communities must stop. The Bail (Amendment) Bill 2016 is very welcome as is the Criminal Law (Sexual Offences) Bill 2015. We need this legislation because it will save so much time, especially Garda time which we do not have. It enables people to sit in the Garda stations and monitor people, without prying or being peeping Toms, and ensure the safety of the community and law-abiding people who pay their water charges and their bills and who try to rear their families and do the best they can for themselves. They are getting tired of this. People are being pushed too much in one direction. There are certain aspects of the Bill that the Minister has said form part of a programme of criminal law reform, which includes, for example, the Criminal Justice (Burglary of the Dwellings) Act 2015 and the Criminal Justice (Victims of Crime) Bill 2016, published in recent days. I welcome that, but the Criminal Justice (Victims of Crime) Bill 2016 is not strong enough on victims' rights. Under the Constitution people are entitled to go about their daily work without fear or being hindered. It is a major disappointment that there is not some curtailment of the access to free legal aid. I wonder if the law lobby and the lawyers had a big influence on it.
Section 3 expands the number of conditions which may be set out by a court granting bail. Three new specific conditions are being added to the list. The first condition is that the person must refrain from direct or indirect contact with the victim of the alleged offence or any member of his or her family. This is vital as the victim must be protected. It is bad enough that the crime was committed, but if someone is being charged, the victim must be free from intimidation.
The second condition is that a person charged with a serious driving offence must refrain from driving. This issue was discussed earlier tonight in our debate on the Courts (No. 2) Bill 2016. Certainly, that must be a taboo. The third condition is that an accused may be made to observe a night-time curfew, which means he or she could be required to stay in a specific place from 9 p.m. each night until 6 a.m. the following morning, and longer in the winter time when it is dark from 5 p.m. until 8 a.m.
Section 4 deals with electronic monitoring. The Bail Act 1997 was amended in 2007 to permit a court granting bail to make it a condition of bail that the person's movements are monitored electronically. That provision has not been brought into force, largely because of concerns about how best to operate a system of electronic monitoring in a way that is sustainable and targeted. Section 4 amends the existing non-commenced provision by linking electronic monitoring to an application by the prosecution. It is a scandal that this provision has been in law since 1997 but was never implemented. Why are we pussy-footing around on this issue? People, young and old, must be protected. We cannot have marauding gangs intimidating people in their homes. Nor can we have third forces - the Minister knows what I am talking about - of repossession agents moving about in the dead of night. These people, too, should also be taken off the streets. We have An Garda Síochána, a noble force that always served the people well, and the Army available as back-up if needed. We do not need a third force acting on behalf of receivers and vulture funds. That is not the country for which the men of 1916 fought. Michael Collins, Liam Lynch and others fought for the right of Irish people to go about their business free and unencumbered - paying their taxes, certainly, but not being cowed into submission by bankers and receivers.
The county registrars are having to take on a lot of responsibility. Why are they holding up these cases and giving the Minister a watery reply? Justice must be done and must be seen to be done. It is incredible that this provision was introduced in 1997 but has never been invoked. Who is being protected? The cartels in the legal industry must be rooted out. There are many good solicitors and barristers, but they have a very strong lobby. Some of them arrived in force into the audio-visual room last week. Every time we went into or out of LH 2000, they were there to meet and greet us. That is fine and how things work, but perhaps they are worried we have woken up to what is going on in the industry and are wising up on the cost of insurance, difficulties with claims and so on. We must stop this carry-on and serve the people we were elected to serve.
Section 6 requires a court to give reasons for a decision to grant or refuse bail or to impose conditions of bail. The purpose of this provision is to provide the greatest possible transparency in hearing bail applications and the greatest possible understanding of the decision of the court. Again, this is vital in terms of transparency. One of the court cases I attended involved an unfortunate woman who was evicted from her home by bankers and receivers. I salute the kindness of the prison officers who brought her in a car from Cork Prison. She was going to go in as a lay litigant but then a barrister decided to take on her case. However, he was not allowed to represent her. I was at the back of the court and could not hear what the judge was mumbling. I moved up to the front and we asked the judge to speak up because nobody could hear what was going on. That poor frightened woman, God bless her, could not stand, never mind speak. She was treated with disgusting disdain in the Four Courts. It is not good enough that a frightened woman who had been through the traumatic experience of being in jail, having never committed a crime in her life, should be insulted in that way by a newly appointed judge. Incidentally, that judge had a lot of connections to this House and had given advice on the disbandment of town councils and the merging of the two county councils in Tipperary.
We must have transparency, truthfulness and honesty in all these matters. I support many of the measures in this Bill. I am not one of the do-good brigade who refuses to support things. I am for fairness, justice and respect for all citizens, including prisoners. I have called for reforms in the justice system and the broader use of restorative justice and community justice. However, repeat offenders can get legal aid, continue to offend and continue to get legal aid. It is an industry. If it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, it is a duck. This effective industry is disgusting to the ordinary person who is paying his or her taxes. Legal aid does not come cheap. Ordinary people have to pay their own legal bills and that service does not come cheap either. The courts need more reform. There should be no space for courts to treat unfortunate family home owners in the way they are being dealt with in the Four Courts, down the road from this House. We know the history of the Four Courts and what happened there during the fight for freedom and democracy. When this Bill is passed, as I hope it will be, we must ensure there are no provisions that are not enacted, as happened on the last occasion, for nine, ten or 12 years. It must be debated and amended. We are entrusted by the people to do that and we must be responsible because we will have to face them before too long. We must give the necessary powers to the Garda to make our streets, roads and homes safer places in which to live.