I thank the Cathaoirleach and all of the Senators who made a contribution, and in particular, the sponsor Senator Gallagher.
It is clear that the subject matter of the Bill is one to which we can all relate. We are very conscious of the important work done by people operating in front-line duties and the difficulties and challenges which they face on a daily and nightly basis. It is, of course, imperative that members of the emergency services, be they the Garda Síochána, prison officers, the fire brigade, ambulance personnel, the Defence Forces and persons providing medical services are protected in carrying out their work and that the law reflects and responds to the situations in which they find themselves, oftentimes situations of challenge, and more often than not situations of emergency.
I know that there is great deal of concern about the need to protect members of our emergency services and medical personnel when serious incidents occur, and there is great sympathy, particularly where such incidents result in injury to such persons or to innocent members of the public.
The spirit and intention behind the Senators' Bill is clear, namely, to protect members of our emergency services and persons providing medical services in difficult front-line and emergency situations.
As the law stands, a specific offence in regard to assault of a peace officer or person providing medical services is covered in section 19 of the Criminal Justice (Public Order) Act 1994. General assault offences are provided for in the Non-Fatal Offences Against the Person Act 1997 and criminal damage offences are provided for in the Criminal Damage Act 1991. The offences contained in these statutes would address both the offence of assaulting a peace officer or a person providing medical services causing harm or serious harm and the offence of ramming an emergency services vehicles as would, in the relevant circumstances, homicide offences.
In that regard, I remind Senators of the following provisions which are of particular relevance. The Criminal Justice (Public Order) Act 1994 provides for explicit statutory offences where peace officers or persons providing medical services are assaulted or obstructed in the execution of their duty. Section 19(1) of that Act provides that any person who assaults a peace officer in the execution of his or her duty or a person providing medical services at a hospital is guilty of an offence and is liable on conviction on indictment to a fine or to imprisonment for a term not exceeding seven years. This maximum penalty was increased from a five-year term to a seven-year term by the Criminal Justice Act 2006. A peace officer is defined in the Act as meaning a member of the Garda Síochána, a prison officer, a member of the fire brigade, ambulance personnel or a member of the Defence Forces.
The general law relating to assault is contained in the Non-Fatal Offences Against the Person Act 1997, which deals comprehensively with a wide range of assault provisions, the more serious of which carry heavy penalties. Let us not forget that the assault and related provisions in that Act apply to assaults on all sectors of our community, which also includes peace officers and persons providing medical services. That Act provides for penalties of up to five years for an offence of assault causing harm and a penalty of up to life imprisonment for an offence of assault causing serious harm.
The Road Traffic Acts provide for a range of offences. Section 53 of the Road Traffic Act 1961 provides for an offence of dangerous driving with penalties of up to ten years or €20,000 where death or serious bodily harm result.
The Office of the Attorney General has examined the Bill and advised that the proposed offences contained in it require clarification in that the conduct described as "ramming" another vehicle would appear to be already covered under existing road traffic legislation and that the provision in regard to assaults on members of the emergency services appears to be already covered by the existing section 19(1) but using the terminology of the assault offences contained in the Non-Fatal Offences Against the Person Act 1997. In addition, section 2 of the Criminal Damage Act 1991 provides for an offence where a person intends to damage property or is reckless as to whether any property is damaged and intends by such damage to endanger the life of another or is reckless as to whether the life of another would be endangered. This offence, which is particularly relevant in the context of an activity such as ramming an emergency vehicle, carries a penalty of imprisonment for life.
I believe Senators will agree there is already a considerable wealth of legislation in place to enable the prosecution of those who would assault causing harm or serious harm to or damage with intent to endanger the life of any citizen. That said, I know the Senators' Bill arises from concern for the safety of front-line personnel and first responders.
As the Senators have outlined, the purpose of the Bill is to amend the Criminal Justice (Public Order) Act 1994 with the introduction of mandatory minimum prison sentences in respect of assault of a peace officer and of a new offence of ramming an emergency services vehicle. Section 2 provides for the introduction of the offence of ramming an emergency services vehicle. It provides for a mandatory minimum penalty of 12 months on summary conviction and two years on conviction on indictment. Section 3 provides for the introduction of a mandatory prison sentence of 12 months on summary conviction and two years on conviction on indictment for assault causing harm or causing serious harm to a peace officer or to a person providing medical services.
I turn to the issue of mandatory minimum sentencing. As Senators are aware, the traditional approach to sentencing is for the Oireachtas to lay down the maximum penalty and for a court, having considered all the circumstances of the case, to impose an appropriate penalty up to the maximum applying and also making sure of the application at all times of the principle of proportionality. There are some exceptions to this such as a mandatory sentence for murder and presumptive minimum sentences for certain drug trafficking and firearms offences. In the latter case, the relevant legislative provisions set down a minimum sentence to be imposed unless the court is satisfied there are exceptional and specific circumstances relating to the offence or to the person convicted of the offence which would make such a sentence unjust in all the circumstances. Such sentences were specifically introduced because of the impact those types of offences have on society in general and communities in particular. In that regard and in the context of this Bill, I should mention the mandatory minimum provisions provided for in this Bill do not contain those important components. There is no provision for the court, when considering whether the sentence would be unjust, to have regard to matters such as whether the public interest would be served by a lesser sentence.
The Office of the Attorney General has also examined the provisions of the Private Members' Bill and has advised that the mandatory minimum sentencing provisions of the Bill, particularly in respect of the summary offences, are "constitutionally frail". The sentencing provisions in the Bill are described as "minimum terms of imprisonment". In the case of summary conviction, the "minimum term" is 12 months. However, 12 months' imprisonment is, in fact, the maximum penalty that can be imposed on a single offence in the District Court. This provision is, therefore, problematic in that there is no discretion left to the sentencing judge to apply the sentencing principles as part of the trial process which must be conducted according to due course of law as required by Article 38.1 of the Constitution, with the specific circumstances of each case taken into account by the court before a sentence is handed down and decided upon. Perhaps consideration could be given to the introduction of a presumptive minimum sentence rather than a mandatory minimum sentence which would allow for judicial discretion to sentence proportionately in individual specific cases.
I draw the attention of Senators to the fact that the penalties provided for in the Bill are less than those provided for in both the Criminal Damage Act and the Non-Fatal Offences Against the Person Act. Prosecution under either Act can attract a maximum penalty of life imprisonment in respect of a serious breach.
I thank the Senators who proposed the Bill and those who participated in the debate. It is clear that much work has gone into its preparation. I value that work and the interest shown in criminal justice matters. We are all immensely grateful to members of the emergency services and our medical personnel for their outstanding dedication and commitment and for the important and all too frequently dangerous work they do day and night to protect us and the public interest. As I have outlined, there is already a comprehensive body of legislation in place to enable prosecution of the type of assault or damage provided for in the Bill. However, I want to support the policy objective of the Senators' Bill and I will, therefore, not oppose the proposal.