Court Funds Administration Bill 2017: First Stage

I move:

That leave be granted to introduce a Bill entitled an Act to allow for the operation of the Fund of Wards of Court by the Courts Service to be subject to audit and scrutiny by the Office of the Comptroller and Auditor General.

The legislation providing for the governance of funds managed by wards of court dates back to 1870 or thereabouts. Difficulties with these funds were highlighted as long ago as 1940. Other issues pertaining to the management and transparency of these funds were raised through the Committee of Public Accounts in 1963, 1964, 1966 and 1967. Approximately 18,500 people are affected by this issue. It was recorded that there was €1.5 billion in these funds in 2015. Almost €1 billion of that figure relates to 2,500 cases that are part of the wards of court system. Over the years, the people who are involved in this area have been fighting for greater transparency and accountability in this regard.

I have looked back at correspondence that dates back to 2004 and more recent years. It clearly states that a new unitised arrangement for the investment of funds was being considered, as was a new way of governance. In 2009, the same commitment was given in relation to the management of these funds and with regard to accountability to the individuals, families and others on whose behalf the funds were being managed. In one case in 2009, the fund for a particular individual came to €327,000. Within a short space of six years, that fund was reduced to €97,000. When individuals and families want to get transparency and accountability, they meet a complete blank wall. They are not responded to. They are not given the details. They are deeply frustrated because these funds have been diminished to the extent that they are now almost at zero. Families are continuing to have to care for individuals who are wards of court even though little or no funding is available.

Following a hearing some time ago, the Committee of Public Accounts made a number of recommendations to the Minister. None of them has been implemented. The rights of parents and those involved in these funds have certainly not been recognised. That is still the position to this day. In one particular year, the Comptroller and Auditor General suggested that he could audit the accounts. In other years, it was suggested that his office's remit does not extend that far. In the interests of transparency and accountability, the families want the recommendations that were made following hearings of the Committee of Public Accounts to be implemented by the Minister. This would provide greater accountability. There needs to be an explanation of where these funds are invested and why they may have been poorly invested or managed in certain years. It is outrageous to see funds being diminished in this way, particularly when they are going towards the upkeep of an individual family member who requires extra care and assistance.

When inquiries were made about these funds, the Courts Service did not reply in some cases. It cited the separation of powers and its independence. Even though civil servants are being paid to manage these funds, which are being invested on behalf of people who have received awards in court, family members who are closely associated with these funds are entitled to nothing. From the 1960s up to now, it was promised that in the interests of transparency and accountability, the Comptroller and Auditor General would be given the power to examine the accounts and to recommend whatever appropriate changes he sees fit. This Bill seeks to ensure that happens now. I ask the Minister, in the spirit of this Bill, to insist that each and every ward of court or committee should be entitled to a review of its accounts dating back to 2005.

These accounts should be given to them so that they clearly understand how the fund was managed - or mismanaged - and someone should be held to account in view of the losses incurred in respect of each and every amount of money in the ward system. It is a simple Bill but it brings the transparency required. It would also bring necessary reform and answer the frustration and anger people feel over the losses they have to endure, including future losses, because of the care they have to provide to their loved ones without that money.

Is the Bill being opposed?

Question put and agreed to.

Since this is a Private Members' Bill, Second Stage must, under Standing Orders, be taken in Private Members' time.

I move: "That the Bill be taken in Private Members' time."

Question put and agreed to.