I pleased to present this Bill to the House. The purpose of this Bill is to strengthen our bail system to make the law as effective as possible in protecting the public against crimes committed by persons on bail while also safeguarding the rights of the individual. The programme for Government commits to the preparation and fast-tracking of legislation aimed at: providing for stricter bail terms for repeat serious offenders; strengthening Garda powers to deal with breaches of bail; increasing the use of curfews; and introducing electronic tagging for those on bail where requested by gardaí.
There are important objectives, which I hope command support in this House, which will increase protection for the public and victims of crime but which can be achieved while also respecting the rights of those facing criminal charges. The scope of the Bill was expanded during its passage through Dáil Éireann to allow a number of other important amendments to be made. This necessitated a change to the Title of the Bill from the Bail (Amendment) Bill to the Criminal Justice Bill, but it remains for the most part a bail Bill and I would like to focus initially on those aspects of the Bill.
The presumption of innocence is a fundamental principle of our criminal justice system. Flowing from that principle, every accused person has the right to liberty until and unless he or she is convicted of an offence. This right is guaranteed by our Constitution and the European Convention on Human Rights, but rights are not absolute and they do not exist in isolation. The State has a right and a duty to protect individuals from those who have no respect for law or justice. Our Constitution recognises the need to balance the right of an accused to liberty with the right of individuals to be protected from serious crime. It allows the courts to refuse bail to a person charged with a serious offence where it is necessary to prevent the commission of another serious offence by that person. The existing Bail Act 1997 implements this constitutional provision. However, the Bill before the house is a timely strengthening of our bail laws.
The Bill forms part of a wider programme of criminal law reform which includes the recent legislation providing for consecutive sentences for repeat burglaries, and the Victims of Crime Bill currently before the Dáil.
I will now turn to the provisions of the Bill and outline what is proposed. I will begin with the new provisions added to the Bill as it passed through the other House. Sections 2, 4, 11 and 12 of the Bill were all inserted on Committee Stage in Dáil Éireann and are all related so I will deal with these together. These amendments are technical in nature and, in general terms, are designed to preserve the legislative intent in provisions enacted in 2011 and 2014 and to address an anomaly that has arisen around commencement of the provisions in question. There is nothing new being provided for here, merely technical drafting adjustments to ensure that the legislation concerned can be operated as originally intended.
Section 5A of the Criminal Justice Act 1984 concerns the well-established right of a person in Garda custody to access legal advice and is aimed at clarifying the circumstances in which questioning may proceed, notwithstanding that a suspect has not yet had an opportunity to consult with a solicitor. The amendments in question are essentially concerned with the application of section 5A to the detention provisions of three statutes, namely, the Offences against the State Act 1939, the Criminal Justice (Drug Trafficking) Act 1996 and the Criminal Justice Act 2007.
Section 3, which was also inserted on Committee Stage in the Lower House, amends the Criminal Justice (Public Order) Act 1994 in order to give the Garda Síochána the statutory power to detain intoxicated persons who have been arrested for a public order offence. To date, gardaí have relied on a presumed common law duty of care to intoxicated persons to justify such detention but this is an unsatisfactory situation and should be placed on a statutory footing. I have been asked to do this by the representative associations and the Garda Commissioner. The new provision allows the Garda Síochána to detain intoxicated persons who have been arrested for an offence under the 1994 public order Act and who, but for this new provision, would be released. Such persons can be detained for a period not exceeding six hours where the member in charge of the Garda station in which they are in custody is of the opinion that they are intoxicated to such an extent as to be considered a danger to themselves or others if released.
The provision also allows release prior to the expiration of the six-hour detention period. This will ensure that persons are released once they are no longer considered a danger to themselves or others. A similar provision is contained in section 16 of the Road Traffic Act 2010.
Section 5 expands the factors which a court may take into account in refusing bail where this is reasonably considered necessary to prevent the commission of a serious offence by the person. Section 5 specifically provides that a court may take into account the extent to which the number and frequency of any previous convictions of the accused person for serious offences indicate persistent serious offending by the accused. It also enables a court to take into account the nature and likelihood of any danger to the life or personal safety of any person or danger to the community that may be presented by the release on bail of a person charged with an offence punishable by ten years' imprisonment or more - in other words a very serious offence.
The decision to refuse bail will of course always be a matter for the court. These additional factors which the court may take into account will, however, constitute significantly strengthened guidance from the Legislature on the factors relevant to decisions on the granting or refusal of bail.
Section 6 of the Bill expands the number of conditions which may be set by a court in granting bail. A court has general discretion to attach conditions to bail. Section 6 of the Bail Act 1997 also lists specific conditions which may be imposed, for example, a requirement to reside in a particular place, report to a Garda station or refrain from going to certain places or having contact with certain people.
Three new specific conditions are being added to this list by this Bill: to refrain from direct or indirect contact with the victim of the alleged offence or any member of his or her family, which is an important provision; to refrain from driving a vehicle where the person is charged with a serious driving offence; and to observe a night-time curfew, whereby the person on bail could be required to stay in a specified place between 9 p.m. and 6 a.m. the following morning. These are very practical provisions.
Section 6 of the Bill also provides for the arrest without warrant of a person on bail in very carefully defined circumstances which respect the constitutional rights of persons facing criminal charges. Gardaí already have power to arrest a person on bail who is about to contravene a condition of bail, but only on a warrant of arrest issued by the court. Section 6 contains a limited but important power of arrest without warrant of a person on bail who has breached, is in the act of breaching or is about to breach, a condition of his or her bail and the immediate arrest is necessary to prevent harm to, or interference with, the victim, another witness or another person that the court has specifically tried to protect. These are very carefully defined circumstances.
Section 7 deals with electronic monitoring. The Bail Act 1997 was amended in 2007 to permit a court granting bail to make it a condition of bail that the person’s movements are monitored electronically. This provision has not been brought into force, largely because of concerns over how best to operate a system of electronic monitoring in a way that is sustainable and targeted. Section 7 therefore amends the existing non-commenced provision by linking electronic monitoring to an application by the prosecution. The objective is to ensure as far as possible that electronic monitoring is used in bail cases on a consistent and sustainable basis, and that it is focused on those cases where it will prove most effective. In this regard I should say that, in parallel with the passage of this Bill, a working group has been established to identity how best this provision might be operated, including the categories of offences or offenders most suitable for electronic monitoring and the making of contractual arrangements for the provision of this service.
Section 8 introduces an important new provision as regards the evidence which a court may hear when deciding on an application for bail. It will enable a court to hear evidence from the victim as to the likelihood of direct, indirect or attempted interference by the accused with the victim or a member of the victim’s family. Evidence may also be heard as to the nature and seriousness of any danger to any person that may be presented by the release of the accused on bail. The section also provides that, where the victim is a child under 14 or a person with a mental issue, such evidence may be given on the victim’s behalf by a parent, guardian or family member.
Section 9 of the Bill requires a court to give reasons for its decision to grant or refuse bail or to impose conditions of bail. The objective of this provision is to provide as much transparency as possible in the hearing of bail applications and the greatest possible understanding of decisions of court.
Section 10 inserts a new section into the Bill to add two additional offences to the Schedule to the Bail Act 1997. The Schedule to the Bail Act sets out the list of offences which, if punishable by a term of imprisonment of five years or more, are considered serious offences for the purposes of a bail application. The two offences which will be added to the Schedule by this amendment were both inserted into section 106 of the Road Traffic Act 1961 by section 17 of the Road Traffic Act 2014. They are effectively hit and run offences. The offences target individuals who seek to avoid sanction by leaving the scene of a road accident having killed or injured an individual. A person guilty of such an offence is liable, under the Road Traffic Act, to a fine or to imprisonment of up to seven years in the case of injury and up to ten years in the case of the death of a person. These are a very serious offences and, as such, are appropriate for inclusion in the Schedule to the Bail Act.
A Chathaoirligh, these are clear and focused provisions which will enhance the powers of courts in deciding whether to grant bail, and which will improve the legitimate control which courts may exercise over those who are granted bail. They will enhance the protection of victims of crime and those at risk of crime, while respecting the rights of those accused of crime. They strike the right balance in improving the law on bail, and I hope they will get support across this House. I look forward to hearing the views of Senators.