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Seanad Éireann debate -
Thursday, 8 May 1986

Vol. 112 No. 8

Courts Bill, 1984: Second Stage.

Question proposed: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time".

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.

The Minister is correct in being rather modest about the proposals in this Bill. They do represent very minor reforms. There is nothing earth shaking in them. The deal with the examination of debtors, with the imprisonment on summary conviction, the amendment of the Criminal Procedure Act and miscellaneous amendments and repeals. It can be said that no one of them is of any great significance. It could be argued on the other hand that each of them represents some marginal advantage over the position as it exists.

It is difficult to understand why such a limited Bill should have been introduced when so many reforms are necessary and when the opportunity could have been taken to introduce many more reforms of a more important nature. It would be different if this were an emergency Bill, then a short Bill would be acceptable. We had that kind of a Bill here a couple of months ago when it was suddenly realised that the court did not have any jurisdiction over the new county borough of Galway and it was necessary to rush through a Bill to deal with that particular problem. No such emergency is disclosed in this Bill. Consequently it is a pity that a lot of other matters were not dealt with. That there was no urgency is amply proved by the fact that this Bill has been meandering through the other House and this House for approximately one year. It is difficult to understand why, on the one hand, it was introduced in such a limited form and then why it was not put through the Houses very quickly.

The former Minister for Justice said when this was introduced in the Dáil that the urgency was to enable the District Court rules to be made. Whatever the urgency may have been at that time, it seems to have abated in the following months. As I say, the Bill has been going through the Houses for over one year and the new rules still have not been made. As I understand it, they will not be made for many months to come.

The Bill is not one to which one could object. It contains some useful, if minor, reforms. I think that, as so much time was taken to bring it through the Houses, it is a pity that amendments and additions were not introduced to include many other reforms that, I am sure everybody agrees, could and should be made in the legal system.

So far as the actual sections are concerned, the first section deals with the simplification of procedure for examination of debtors. This is a useful reform. Section 2 deals with the period of imprisonment for failure to pay fines. This is certainly in accordance with modern attitudes to imprisonment generally. I welcome the fact that these have been reduced and also the undertaking by the Minister that this whole situation will be examined further. I am glad to note that in fact this period of imprisonment is only imposed if the court is satisfied, not merely that the person concerned refuses to pay the fine but is able to pay the fine and simply refuses to pay it. It would be very unacceptable that a person should have to go to jail merely because he could not pay the fine. This is an important element in this situation.

Section 4 dealing with the renewal of intoxicating liquor licences is again probably an advantage. It will save some time for the court, some time for legal practitioners and so on. It is a minor form which is acceptable and worthwhile.

I should like to say a few words about the rather complicated and devious ways in which amendments and repeals are dealt with in this Bill. They are lumped together in schedules at the end of the Bill. It is one of the things that happens again and again in Bills of this kind. It will not be surprising if practitioners looking up some of the Acts concerned, overlook the changes made in this rather innocuous Bill. The Intoxicating Liquor Acts should be consolidated. This is a very complicated section of the law. It has been amended again and again over many years. For the best part of a century amendments have been made. It is reasonably simple in the sense that all the law could easily be consolidated and should be consolidated, instead of having these numerous amendments which have made it extremely difficult to know what the law is in regard to the Intoxicating Liquor Acts. A consolidating Bill is long overdue. I certainly recommend to the Minister that this should be considered. Members of the Oireachtas are wont to criticise members of the legal profession for the complicated laws, for the archaic language used, for the difficulties which, it is implied, the legal profession make in regard to the interpretation of laws. It must be realised — and nobody should realise it more than the Members of both Houses of the Oireachtas — that the legal profession merely interpret the laws, that the Members of the Oireachtas make the laws. It is the Members of the Oireachtas who make the laws in such a complicated way.

Some countries have a practice of, in effect, consolidating every law so that when they introduce an amendment of the Intoxicating Liquor Act they merely re-enact the particular Act that existed up to then incorporating the amendments. In that way anybody looking up an Act of that kind knows that the latest Act contains all the law as amended on that section of the law. That may not be possible in every case, but it is certainly an ideal which the Department of Justice or the parliamentary draftsman should endeavour to achieve.

In general, apart from making these observations of a general nature in regard to the way in which amendments and repeals are introduced, I should like to welcome this Bill. One could not be enthusiastic about it. Certainly one could not say one is against it. In so far as it goes, one can welcome it and hope there will be other Bills in the future to deal with the many reforms which are necessary and unfortunately were not dealt with in this Bill.

Debate adjourned.