The purpose of this short though rather technical Bill is to clear the way for the introduction of revised comprehensive Rules for the District Court that have been in preparation for some time. The rules in question cannot be brought into effect until certain changes have first been made by statute. This was recognised by the Rules Committee who recommended that legislation be enacted accordingly. The amendments of the law for which the Bill provides require some further redrafting of the rules and this aspect has been drawn to the attention of the Rules Committee.
While the object of the Bill is to make the changes in the law that are needed to enable the comprehensive District Court Rules to be made, the amendments that the Bill proposes are incidentally designed to simplify procedures in the District Court in relation to a number of matters, principally the renewal of intoxicating liquor licences. As is pointed out in the Explanatory Memorandum, the Bill also proposes certain other changes of which the most important relate to the periods of imprisonment that may be imposed in default of payment of fines.
Section 1 of the Bill simplifies the preliminary procedure for the enforcement of a judgment debt and will enable the District Court clerk to issue a summons to the debtor for his examination as to means, provided the creditor fulfils certain requirements. An amount of court time and that of the legal profession is at present taken up with a preliminary hearing merely to order lodgment by the debtor of a statement of his means and to order his attendance for an examination as to his means. The need for this hearing is being dispensed with under section 1 which provides a new section 15 of the Enforcement of Court Orders Act, 1926. In future, where an enforcement of a judgment debt is being sought, a single sitting of the District Court will normally suffice to settle the matter.
Section 2 provides a new scale in relation to the periods of imprisonment that may be imposed, on summary conviction, in default of payment of a fine and any associated costs, compensation, or expenses. It reduces the present maximum period of one year to 90 days and makes reductions of much the same order at other levels of the scale. Revenue offences, that is revenue cases apart from ordinary motor taxation cases, will continue to carry their own penalties. I should add that the new scale that is proposed will reflect more closely than does the present statutory scale the current practice of the court. The present scale is set out in a statute of 1851 and is clearly in need of the updating that section 2 provides.
The amendment of section 3 of the Enforcement of Court Orders Act, 1940, that is proposed in subsection (2) of section 3 of the Bill is consequential on the proposals in section 1 of the Bill. The other changes in the Act of 1940 that are proposed in section 3 represent improvements in that Act.
Senators may ask whether there should be some means of reducing the level of dependence on imprisonment in cases where a court orders payment of a debt and the defendant is unwilling to pay and also in cases where a court imposes a fine and the person concerned is unwilling to pay. Those matters are outside the scope of the present Bill but they are being examined and I will be making announcements about them in due course. For the moment, I simply point out that no one is liable to imprisonment for simple inability to pay. Liability to imprisonment arises only from failure to pay where the person concerned can indeed pay.
Section 4 of the Bill will simplify the procedure for renewing intoxicating liquor licences without, at the same time, causing any diminution in the right of any person to object to such renewal. At present a person intending to renew his licence must, as a first step, obtain a certificate of the District Court at the licensing sessions held towards the end of September each year. Unless there is objection to the renewal, the certificates are usually issued without question by the District Court. In practice there is no objection to renewal of the licence in the great majority of cases and the court certificate is issued straightaway. The renewal licence is then issued by the Revenue Commissioners on the basis of that certificate.
The District Court Rules Committee have recommended that this procedure be simplified so that where no objection is raised, the renewal licence can be obtained direct from the Revenue Commissioners. This should effect a significant saving in time spent by District Court clerks in preparing for the annual licensing sessions. Accordingly, I am proposing in section 4 to abolish, except in certain exceptional circumstances, the need to obtain a court certificate as a prerequisite to an application for a licence renewal. In future, where objection has not been lodged with the court to renewal of the licence, a court certificate will not be required save in the exceptional cases referred to in the section. The applicant will to straight to the Revenue Commissioners who, on payment of the requisite fee, will renew the licence for the following year. Senators need have no fear that controls over the renewal procedure will be lessened. The power of any person to object to the renewal remains and the licensing sessions will continue to be held throughout the country every year at the end of September, to deal with objections and to make determinations in the other exceptional cases to which I have referred.
I am proposing to introduce stiff penalties, including the possibility of forfeiture of a licence, where renewal has been obtained on the basis of false or misleading information.
Where renewal of licence is secured on the basis of false or misleading information given to the Revenue Commissioners, a fine of up to £300 can be imposed. In addition it will be a matter for the court to decide in each particular case whether the licence should be forfeited. This power is particularly important because removal of most renewals from the aegis of the court might lead in some cases to the mistaken belief that a fraudulent renewal will be easier.
Senators will have noticed a fairly long list of amendments and repeals proposed in the Schedules. One significant change proposed in the First Schedule, which I will take the opportunity of mentioning here, is the amendment of the Registration of Clubs (Ireland) Act, 1904 to ensure that all club certificates will be renewable on a common date — in practice the date of the annual licensing District Court. Otherwise, the amendments and repeals of the Intoxicating Liquor Acts proposed in the schedules are either consequential on the provisions in section 4 or are changes of a procedural nature being made in the light of recommendations of the District Court Rules Committee.
What I am proposing in section 4 was recommended by the District Court Rules Committee and the Committee on Court Practice and Procedure. I can recommend it to Senators as a relatively minor but nevertheless worthwhile contribution to court efficiency.
The change that is proposed in subsection (1) of section 5 of the Bill is procedural. The change proposed in subsection (2) will mean that where a person is remanded on bail in accordance with Part III of the Criminal Procedure Act, 1967, and there is no sitting of the court on the day to which he is remanded he will be required to appear, not at the next sitting in the District Court district concerned, which might be in a relatively distant location but at the next sitting in the same District Court area. The provisions of the 1967 Act in relation to persons remanded in custody are not being amended.
The commencement provision in subsection (5) of section 7 means that certain provisions in the Bill will not come into operation until a commencement date or commencement dates are fixed by me by order or by orders. The operation of section 1 and its associated provisions depends on promulgation of the proposed new District Court rules. A commencement provision is being provided for section 4 and its associated provisions as it may be necessary to defer the commencement of that section to allow persons affected sufficient time to comply with the new procedures before the date of the next licensing court.
I commend the Bill to the House.