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Seanad Éireann debate -
Tuesday, 9 May 2017

Vol. 251 No. 9

Courts (No. 2) Bill 2016: Second Stage

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

I am pleased to have this opportunity to introduce the Courts (No. 2) Bill 2016. I look forward to engaging with Members as we progress the Bill through the various Stages. The purpose of the Bill is to provide part of the legislative framework necessary for the introduction of what is termed “the third payment option” regarding road traffic offences in respect of which a fixed charge notice may be served under Part 3 of the Road Traffic Act 2010. This short Bill of just four sections is centred around the amendment, for technical reasons, of section 1 of the Courts (No. 3) Act 1986. It will allow for the integrated printing of a summons and the related fixed charge notice for serving on persons alleged to have committed certain road traffic offences. This will ensure that those who commit such offences can be brought fully to account.

In this respect, the Courts (No. 2) Bill 2016 is a joint initiative between the Tánaiste as Minister for Justice and Equality and the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, Deputy Shane Ross. The intention would be that, when enacted, its reforming measures will be made operative by the Minister, Deputy Ross, through his commencement of section 44 of the Road Traffic Act 2010, that being the section which provides the legislative basis to bring these reforms into practical effect. This Courts (No. 2) Bill will, therefore, provide the legal nuts and bolts for the desired reform while section 44 of the Road Traffic Act 2010 will trigger that reform into operation. The designated date for this to happen, including having the relevant IT supports in place, is 1 June 2017.

The reform objective behind the very technical provisions of today’s Bill is to resolve an unintended legal loophole which has emerged over time. At present, under the Road Traffic Act 2002, a person who does not pay a fixed charge notice within the 56 days set down in law is served with a summons. At that point the person has no further payment option and must attend court. However, persons regularly appear in court and state that they did not receive the original fixed charge notice and many such cases are dismissed by the courts. In these cases neither the fixed charge nor the penalty points end up being applied. This can even happen in cases where a person might not be taking issue with the alleged infringement concerned.

As the law stands, a fixed charge notice offence affords two payment options before a summons is issued requiring a person to attend court, namely, a first period of 28 days during which the person may pay the fixed amount followed by a second consecutive period of 28 days, during which the person may pay the fixed amount plus 50%. The key objective now proposed under the Courts (No. 2) Bill is to provide the essential technical and administrative measures to enable the introduction of a third payment option, namely, the payment of the fixed amount plus 100%, while upholding any penalty points concerned without necessitating further court or Garda time. This third option will be made available up to seven days before the date on which an offender will otherwise have been summoned to appear before the court. If a person takes up this option, proceedings in respect of the alleged offence will be discontinued and the person need not attend court.

This is a short but highly technical Bill of four sections. It is important to note that the Bill, as passed by Dáil Éireann, contains some differences, principally related to drafting, compared with the Bill as initiated in December 2016.

These differences arise from Government amendments which were accepted on Committee Stage in the Dáil.

I will now endeavour to summarise the provisions of the Bill as passed by Dáil Éireann. Section 1 provides for the definition of the term “Act of 1986” as meaning the Courts (No. 3) Act 1986 being the Act which sets out in primary law the provisions relating to the issue of District Court summonses for offences.

Section 2 amends section 1 of the 1986 Act in the form of five amendments as set out in paragraphs (a) to (e), inclusive. The amendment of section 1 of the Act of 1986 is the primary purpose of the Bill. Section 1 of the Act of 1986 deals with the issue of summonses for offences as a mailer of administrative procedure. In 2004 the Act of 1986 was recast, principally for the purpose of allowing for the issue of a summons to be effected by transmitting it by electronic means to the person who had applied for it. This allowed for the issue of summonses electronically by the relevant court office, in addition to the issue of summonses manually. The introduction of the “third payment option” requires not only the issue of summonses by electronic means but also the creation of the summons document in an automatic manner. The drafting approach to achieve this objective has undergone a revision by the Office of the Attorney General since the Bill was published in December last year. The original drafting approach adopted in the Bill, as initiated, sought to integrate the new method for the creation of a summons in an automatic manner with existing provisions of the Act of 1986, particularly those relating to the notion of an original summons document and true copy summons. However, in the new automated system there is no longer considered to be a need for a physical original in circumstances where both the original and the copy are created from the same source data and on foot of an automated process. This changed drafting approach is incorporated into the Bill as passed by Dáil Éireann.

Paragraph (a) adds a new section 1(2A) to the Act of 1986 which provides that the issue of a summons by electronic means in accordance with section 1(2) of the Act of 1986 shall be deemed to have been effected where the appropriate court office transmits by electronic means all of the information necessary to create the summons in an automatic manner. Under this provision the creation of the summons occurs when it is printed on paper in legible form by electronic means. Paragraph (b) adds a new section 1(4A) to the Act of 1986 in a way which is intended to allow for the automated processing of batches of summonses or applications for summonses. Paragraph (c) adds a new section 1(8A) to the Act of 1986 which provides that references in other enactments to an original summons or a true copy of a summons shall be construed as references to the summons as created - this is printed on paper - under the new system. Paragraph (d) substitutes section 1(9) of the Act of 1986. This is essentially a restatement of the existing provision with the substitution of a presuming clause for the deeming clause which is in the Act of 1986. However, the legislative effect is intended to be essentially the same. Paragraph (e) adds a new section 1(9A) to the Act of 1986 which provides for a presumption that the summons created under the new subsection (2A) is created on the basis of the information transmitted by the relevant court office.

Section 3 makes specific provision for a summons to be issued in circumstances where the person who is alleged to have committed a specified road traffic offence is a member of An Garda Síochána. Section 88(3) of the Courts of Justice Act 1924 and the relevant District Court rules include a provision that a summons against a person who is a member of An Garda Síochána shall be signed by a judge. This latter procedure cannot be accommodated in the proposed new streamlined arrangements for the creation of a summons in an automatic manner. Accordingly, section 3 provides for an exception to be made from the general rule requiring signature by a judge.

The Bill, as initiated, had also included an offence in relation to which a fixed penalty notice would be served under section 29 of the Road Traffic Act 2010. However, a Government amendment, accepted on Committee Stage in the Dáil, deleted this element as it was not directly linked with the third payment option. The issue can be revisited as part of a wider review of the summons process under which it is a more logical fit. Section 4 deals with the Short Title; the collective citation of the Bill and its construction with the Courts (Supplemental Provisions) Acts; and its commencement by means of ministerial order. I commend the Bill to the House as a means of closing an undesirable loophole in the application of the Road Traffic Acts. It has the potential, if brought to enactment, to increase payment on foot of the relevant fixed charge notices, to ensure the application of the relevant penalty points and to keep down the number of cases that would otherwise take up valuable court and Garda time. It will provide a further means of ensuring those who commit such offences on the roads can be brought fully to account.

I welcome the Minister of State. We welcome the Bill and any legislation to deal with the almost 7,500 cases dismissed because of the current system. The Bill aims to rectify the allowance made by the court where a person states he or she did not receive a previous notification. The online issue of a summons is to be welcomed. As it is a technical amendment, we will not go through it in great detail as the Minister of State has outlined the various sections which all deal with matters of procedure. We welcome the introduction of the third payment option that will ensure a more streamlined and effective use of Garda time in not having to appear in court where the courts dismiss charges. If one looks at the 7,500 cases dismissed and calculates the figure for Garda man hours, it is a phenomenal waste of Garda resources which, no doubt, could be used better and more effectively elsewhere.

I thank the Minister of State for brining the Bill before the House. We will be tabling amendments on Committee Stage, but the tenor of the Bill and the concept behind it are welcomed by all sides.

I support the comments of my colleague, Senator Mark Daly, on the Bill. It is technical and one which we all concede is needed. Senator Mark Daly has rightly referred to the efficiency of court administration and the freeing up of Garda resources, but we also hope the Bill will deal the issue of people using the excuse that they did not receive a notice through the post. When I reflect on the Bill - I am sure the Minister of State does likewise - above all else, we should be hopeful that it will act as a deterrent to speeding in the first place. That should remain our focus. I will have more to say on the next Stage, but for now we support the Bill, as it stands.

I welcome the Minister of State. This largely is a technical Bill and its contents will meet with the approval of most Members, if not everyone in the House. I welcome the support of Senators Mark Daly and Niall Ó Donnghaile. Regularising the position in this way is absolutely appropriate. I commend the Bill to the House.

I welcome the Minister of State and the Bill. As other colleagues said, it is very technical. I hope it will streamline the system in dealing with a lot of issues which end up in the courts and consume a huge amount of Garda time that could be avoided. I welcome the third payment option, whereby if a person does not pay the fine when a summons is issued, he or she can do so without having to go to court, provided it is paid within seven days of the court hearing.

Another issue in the public domain is the collection of fines. It is an area in which a lot of ground needs to be made up. I know that there are cases in which proceedings have gone ahead that should not have because there is a major question mark over the fixed-charge notices in not having been served, but there are still a huge number of fines and a large amount of moneys outstanding on fines that have been imposed. There are people who are law abiding and comply with the rules of the road, but there are others who do not and are fined and the fines are not collected. The Minister of State might set out how it is proposed to deal with this issue. I understand the amount of money outstanding is quite substantial; it is money that could be used for a lot of things, including road safety measures and other initiatives that could help to make the roads safer. It is important that we make sure where a fine is imposed that it is collected and the person concerned pays the penalty for the offence committed.

I thank Senators for the exchange of views and their observations on the Courts (No. 2) Bill 2016 which, as we have said, is very technical. Our debate has been taken a step further towards enabling the introduction of a new third payment option as part of a dual strategy. The Bill provides for the amendment for technical reasons of section 1 of the Courts (No. 3) Act 1986 which deals with the issue of summonses for offences in the matter of administrative procedure.

It also deals with the commencement once the proposed technical amendments to the Courts (No. 2) Bill have been made to section 44 of the Road Traffic Act 2010 by the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport so that the third payment option can be put into practical effect. The operative date for these changes, for which the necessary IT infrastructure has been put in place, is 1 June 2017.

The benefits anticipated in the course of the Courts (No. 2) Bill and the subsequent introduction of the third payment option include an increase in instances of detected road traffic infringement resulting in penalty points - I note Senator Ó Donnghaile's point about the ultimate aim being to get people to slow down - as well as a reduction in the number of cases coming to court, thereby saving time for the Courts Service and An Garda Síochána and an increase in the number of persons taking first and second payment options, and also an improved service to the public who might otherwise overlook the payment of a fixed-charge notice. It is also important to remember that we are not only addressing a legal loophole in this instance, but being fair to the majority of drivers on the road who behave within the law every day. By the same token, the introduction of the third payment option is a key component in a series of ongoing measures to improve the operation of the fixed-charge processing system in the overall aegis of the Government's road safety strategy for 2013 to 2020.

For Senator Mark Daly's information, while the initial 2013 estimate of the number of cases which may be at issue under the reform of the Courts (No. 2) Bill was 7,500, it is understood from the Courts Service that a more recent estimate is about 2,000 cases per year. However, it has been emphasised that in providing this latest figure, it is very much an estimate on account of the variety of approaches being taken at judicial level to such cases and the fact that the relevant figures fluctuate from court to court and from year to year.

Senators might be interested in some other statistics. In 2016, some 325,762 fixed-charge notices were issued, of which 234,000 were paid, which is a 72% payment rate. A large amount of money is coming in, but I take Senator Burke's point about the need to ensure that other outstanding funds are collected, if possible. We will respond to the Senator on that in more detail later.

I thank the Senators again for their approach to this Bill. I look forward to the ongoing debate on the Courts (No. 2) Bill 2016 as it progresses through its forthcoming Stages.

Question put and agreed to.

When is it proposed to take Committee Stage?

Committee Stage ordered for Tuesday, 16 May 2017.

When is it proposed to sit again?

Tomorrow at 10.30 a.m.

The Seanad adjourned at 6.45 p.m. until 10.30 a.m. on Wednesday, 10 May 2017.