Perjury and Related Offences Bill [Seanad] 2018: Motion [Private Members]

I move:

That Dáil Éireann calls on the Government to support the immediate establishment by the House of the Select Committee on Justice and for Committee Stage of the Perjury and Related Offences Bill 2018 [Seanad] to be the first item of business on the agenda and that this should occur no later than 31 October, 2020.

The motion seeks to immediately establish the Select Committee on Justice and to take Committee Stage of the Perjury and Related Offences Bill 2018. We believe that it is a priority that this legislation be brought to Committee Stage and be enacted into law.

This is a Seanad Private Members' Bill from that was sponsored by Pádraig Ó Céidigh and received the unanimous support of the previous Seanad. It was reinstated on the Order Paper earlier this week and we want to expedite it because at the moment perjury is a common law offence, which is rarely prosecuted. On average, there are three cases before the court in any particular year. The objective of the Bill is to clearly provide for perjury as a statutory offence and to make it a criminal offence with the possibility of ten years for conviction on indictment.

It is to provide a clear legal framework to hold a person to account who engages in deceitful or fraudulent activity in sworn testimony or in statements. We hear about issues every day relating to the cost of insurance, insurance fraud and exaggerated claims. Colleagues will speak about that later. The difficulty at the moment is that perjury is not clearly defined. This was a weakness in the statutes as far back as 1911 when the House of Commons introduced the Perjury Act 1911. The difficulty is that it was never extended to Ireland. In Northern Ireland, perjury was defined on statute there in 1946 but we have never done so here. The objective is to establish perjury as a statutory criminal offence just like theft or burglary. We need to have a modern statute that is clear and unambiguous and not have the vague definition that we have at the moment.

We believe it is imperative that this legislation be fast-tracked now through the Oireachtas because every day we read in the newspapers about cases and claims that are thrown out of the courts either because of exaggerated or fraudulent accusations being made or simply because judges do not believe the person that is taking the case. Some very detailed cases have been exposed in this regard. The Motor Insurers' Bureau of Ireland, MIBI, has a video online that people can watch of an individual who sought €60,000 after his bike was struck by an untraceable car. The video footage shows the individual lifting a wheelchair in and out of a car and yet when he goes in for his medical assessment, he is put into the wheelchair. That is just one of many examples in this regard.

In the current climate, everyone is talking about personal injuries, fraud and all that goes with that, but perjury is a much wider issue than the insurance claims aspect of it. People can tell appalling lies in commercial and family cases, and in many other areas, and do great damage to others, either personally or financially, while they may amass substantial gains as a result of their behaviour. It is important that there are sanctions for telling lies under oath, not merely in court but also in an affidavit that is going to influence the outcome of a court case. Irrespective of the issues, the objective is to place perjury on the Statute Book. It is not just about penalising those who commit the offence of perjury, but it is also about preventing people from doing it in the first place. By providing tough sanctions, the objective is that people would think twice before lying and before diverting the course of justice.

On behalf of the Regional Group, I am happy to strongly support the restoration of this Bill to Committee Stage. It is really important that this happens and I will explain why.

First, significant work has taken place. The former Senator, Mr. Pádraig Ó Céidigh deserves a huge credit for that. There has also been significant stakeholder engagement. He liaised with, for example, the Bar Council of Ireland, the Irish Council for Civil Liberties, ICCL, the Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission, GSOC, and a host of others including industry representatives such as Irish Small and Medium Employers, ISME. All of that engagement will come to nothing unless we capitalise on it. There has also been a huge amount of not only cross-party support but cross-party agreement to advance this Bill. The only reason this Bill is not on the Statue Book is the premature dissolution of the previous Dáil. We should seize this opportunity and capitalise on the work that has taken place to advance this Bill as soon as possible.

The second reason I am supporting this Bill is that perjury is not a victimless crime. There is a perception that it is somewhat harmless, and that it is just something we do and we turn a blind eye to it but we cannot afford to do that anymore. Deputy Naughten mentioned the insurance industry and I am sure he will also agree that the Bill is not pretending to be a panacea for the ills of that industry. It is going to focus on just one component, namely the perjury aspect. It is a major issue when people exaggerate their personal injury claims and, hopefully, the legislation will get them to think twice before they pursue that course of action. We must always remember that it is not just about insurance claims as there are more serious offences and injuries. For instance, people who have committed burglaries, assaults or sexual assaults are walking free at the moment because they were able to find someone who could create a spurious alibi for them. The Bill also focuses on white-collar crime, which is very important, family law cases and tribunals of inquiry. There have been a number of tribunals over the past few decades where senior businesspeople, and indeed politicians, have lied under oath and gotten away scot-free. That is why it is also important that this be advanced and expedited.

The third reason I like the Bill is that there is an emphasis on deterrence rather just than on punishment or penalties. There is a grey area at the moment to which Deputy Naughten alluded. The Bill will provide the necessary clarity so that when people take the stand or sign a sworn affidavit, they are aware that if they perjure themselves and deliberately try to mislead the courts process, there will be consequences.

Fourth, the Bill is balanced to it and safeguards are included. For instance, it requires more than just one person's word against another to be convicted of perjury. This Bill will not only cover the little person who is perjuring themselves in the dock. There will be also an opportunity to prosecute the person who incites the first person to commit perjury. As such, not only does one get the little person but one goes after the big fish as well, which is very important. Crucially, there is an obligation not only on the person taking a personal injury claim to be truthful, but also on the person defending that claim. There is, therefore, an obligation on both parties to be honest and truthful.

Finally, this is not just about insurance claims but about the core administration of justice in this country. We are a rule of law country. When someone signs a sworn affidavit or gives oral testimony in a court of law, we must be sure that the evidence is accurate and truthful and there are consequences for those who try to deliberately mislead the courts process. In summary, I am very much in favour of this Bill and I urge my fellow Members to support it.

I welcome the opportunity to take part in the debate. I support the Bill and welcome the fact that is now back on the agenda. The background to this Bill is that it was passed by Seanad Éireann on 19 June 2019 and referred to select committee in the Dáil on the 11 December 2019. At that stage the then Government said it would make minor amendments on Committee Stage. There was cross-party support for this Bill, support from industry and there is a commitment on it from the current Government in their programme for Government.

The purpose of the Bill is to simplify and consolidate the law on perjury and related offences. According to figures supplied by An Garda Síochána to the CSO in 2016, there have been just 31 recorded incidents of perjury in our courts in the past ten years. Currently, perjury is considered a common law offence in Ireland and as such is rarely prosecuted. If passed, the Bill would once and for all give a clear definition of "perjury" and provide proper guidance on the resulting penalties. It is vital that the Bill be passed simply because we need a strong deterrent to stop the crime of perjury in this country. It would send a clear message that everyone involved in perjury faces a severe penalty and that severe penalties would also exist for those who encourage others to perjure themselves.

This Bill will be a major help to the many small businesses around the country who have, over the past number of years, faced massive increases in their insurance premiums. Many small business owners to whom I have spoken during that time have made the point that the one reason they have been given for soaring insurance costs is false personal injury claims. As a former business owner, I can relate to this. We all know of businesses that have suffered as a result of false personal injury claims. I firmly believe that anyone proven to have made a false claim of injury should face the full rigours of the law. This Bill will help in this regard and at long last make perjury an offence with severe penalties. I hope this will make people think about making claims in the future.

For the legislation to be successful once it has been implemented, we must ensure that insurance companies utilise its full power. Too many times we have seen cases where insurance companies have settled cases out of court without the permission or indeed the knowledge of the policyholder. The effect of this on the policyholder can be devastating. I know of one particular case of a business owner in Dundalk who thought a small claim for personal injuries was being brought against them. They wanted to contest the case and firmly believed that the client had made incorrect claims and that no personal injury had actually occurred. They informed their insurance company of this and provided as much evidence as they could to the insurance company to back up the claim that no personal injury had in fact been suffered. They found out later that the insurance company had settled out of court for a sum in excess of €50,000. The effect of this on the business was that their public liability insurance increased from €3,500 per year to more than €15,000, all because the insurance company did not contest the case.

I welcome the fact that this Bill is being reintroduced to the House but we need to ensure complete support from the insurance industry and that it will use the power of this Bill to fight fraud. I am not sure how we can ensure insurance companies will effectively use the power being given to them in this Bill. I would be interested in debating this aspect further with colleagues.

Perjury does not only apply to the cases I mentioned earlier. Criminals are walking the streets today because someone perjured themselves for them. This is a difficult situation in that the person who has perjured themselves may have been put under extreme pressure do so by criminals. We need to examine this to ensure that those who have been pressured to perjure themselves are given adequate support and protection. How we do this is probably a matter for another day but we must consider it.

I reiterate my full support for the Bill. We need a strong and robust system in this country that penalises those who deliberately perjure themselves for financial gains or otherwise. We need to send a strong message to those who commit perjury that severe penalties exist and will be used. We must also send out a very strong message to those who pressure innocent people into committing perjury on their behalf that severe penalties exist and will be used. We must protect those who have been forced to commit perjury as well.

Finally, I hope the Government supports this Bill as it passes through the various Stages and that we do not see any undue delay. I look forward to the passage of the Bill and to the day we can finally see perjury for the crime we all know it is and that severe and punishing penalties await those who commit this crime.

I am delighted to have the opportunity to speak on the Bill and I acknowledge the tremendous amount of work that former Senator, Pádraig Ó Céidigh, did in bringing forward the Perjury and Related Offences Bill 2018. The Bill received cross-party support when it was passed in the Seanad in June 2019. The fact the Bill is included in the programme for Government demonstrates the urgency and importance of signing the Bill into law. In drafting the Bill, Pádraig Ó Céidigh met the Bar Council, the Law Reform Commission, the Irish Council for Civil Liberties, the Irish Small and Medium Enterprise Association, victim support organisations and the Dublin Rape Crisis Centre.

It is surprising that a developed country such as Ireland is alone among the common law jurisdictions of the world in not having a statutory offence of perjury. While this will not be a magic solution to resolve the insurance crisis plaguing businesses it will signal to the courts, the Garda, the legal profession and society that Ireland as a nation will no longer tolerate lying under oath for personal gain. It is a positive sign that cases of false and exaggerated insurance claims are now being referred to An Garda Síochána, as until recently this was not the case. Over the past 12 to 18 months, we have seen more and more instances of insurance companies fighting claims in the courts. Signing the Bill into law will put the crime of perjury on a statutory footing, offering some possibility there will be serious consequences for taking exaggerated claims or lying under oath.

I support fully the four overreaching objectives of the Bill, in particular that we will now be able to define a statutory offence of perjury. It will be easily interpreted by the Garda, the legal profession, defendants and the courts. Clear statutory penalties will act as a deterrent for the act of perjury and will be sufficiently punitive to reflect the substantial effect that perjury can have.

I hope the Bill will have a practical impact on businesses, especially in relation to spiralling insurance costs. It is a sad reality that every week business owners, motorists, clubs and organisations throughout Ireland are before the courts as a result of claimants presenting with false or exaggerated personal injury claims, and until recently even if these cases were thrown out by a judge there were absolutely no consequences for the people making the claim. Many of these cases are taken on the basis of no foal, no fee. It is almost impossible to prosecute the people concerned for perjury because there is no definition of the offence in common law or statute law. The Bill will also send a clear message to those involved in the legal profession that there will be consequences for false claims, which must be related to clients before they step in to court and lie under oath.

We have all seen videos of people going into the bathroom. In my hometown of Galway, Pat McDonagh of Supermacs has engaged in a long campaign to highlight staged personal injury claims. Thanks to CCTV, some people can even be seen practising their fall or throwing water on the floor first. In situations such as this, small businesses are severely affected. If we put this into context, increasing insurance costs mean one person's lie becomes everybody's financial liability. This encompasses what Pádraig Ó Céidigh is trying to do. He has the full backing of the commercial world and small and medium enterprises in particular. They are very concerned with the damage that false claims can do to businesses and to schools.

When speaking on the Bill, Pádraig Ó Céidigh quite rightly pointed out that perjury is not a victimless crime and this is a point worth repeating. Good names have been destroyed due to lies told in court. Businesses have closed because of escalating insurance costs as a result of false and exaggerated claims. Whistleblowers have often been vilified due to the ease with which lies can be told without consequence. Perjury is not victimless. It affects people's lives, businesses and the rising insurance premiums of everybody in the country.

If the Bill is enacted and enforced it will signal a significant change in the "compo" culture mindset that has prevailed in Ireland in recent years. It will send a stark message to those who believe it is okay to lie under oath that there will be consequences for doing so and those consequences will be significant. It will not solve the problems related to insurance but it will be a start. It will also be of importance to the victims of crime as there will be a penalty for those who attempt to inflict injustice on them.

I commend the Bill to the House and I ask for the support of all parties for this important legislation.