Amendments Nos. 1, 2, 3, 4, and 5 to be taken together by agreement.
Courts Bill, 1984: Report and Final Stages.
I move amendment No. 1:
In page 5, line 22, to delete "Courts Act, 1986" and substitute "Courts (No. 2) Act, 1986".
The five amendments tabled by the Minister are all of a technical nature. They do absolutely nothing to improve the effectiveness of the Bill and they certainly do not help from the point of view of simplification or, indeed, the problem we discussed the last day in relation to the need to consolidate legislation. In relation to the Bill, as amended, there is very little one can say at this stage in relation to the Minister's five amendments because they are merely technicalities. They do nothing to change the structure of the Bill in any way.
I move amendment No. 2:
In page 8, line 15, to delete "Courts Act, 1986" and substitute "Courts (No. 2) Act, 1986".
I move amendment No. 3:
In page 10, column (3), opposite the reference to Intoxicating Liquor Act, 1960, paragraph (a), to delete "Courts Act, 1986" and substitute "Courts (No. 2) Act, 1986".
I move amendment No. 4:
In page 10, column (3), opposite the reference to Intoxicating Liquor Act, 1960, paragraph (b), to delete "Courts Act, 1986" and substitute "Courts (No. 2) Act, 1986".
I move amendment No. 5:
In page 10, column (3), opposite the reference to Fire Services Act, 1981, to delete "Courts Act, 1986" and substitute "Courts (No. 2) Act, 1986".
I wish to make one or two comments arising from discussions which we had on Committee Stage and from the remarks made by Deputy Hyland a few moments ago. When we were discussing Committee Stage, Deputy Mervyn Taylor raised the point in relation to section 1 of the Bill, that is subsection (6) of the new section 15 of the Enforcement of Court Orders Act, 1926. Deputy Taylor's point was that the certificate required under subsection (6) as the amount of the debt still outstanding at the date of the certificate, does not constitute sworn evidence of the amount that is due and it was important that the Bill should require the creditor or his witness to give sworn evidence in this matter. I have considered that point but decided not to put down an amendment. Briefly I would like to say why.
Subsection (6) proposes that at the examination of the debtor pursuant to a summons the creditor will be required, among other things, to produce evidence of the original debt that is due in accordance with the relevant court decree and the certificate as to the amount of the debt still outstanding. This certificate would be in a form required by the Rules of Court. Under section 15 as it stands this evidence is given at the preliminary hearing. That preliminary hearing is now being dispensed with and instead new proceedings are being initiated on the basis of a statutory declaration as covered in the new subsection (2). The change that is proposed in subsection (6) makes it clear that the evidence of the debt that is due and that is already required under section 15 as it stands has or may have two components, the amount of the original sum for which a decree was granted and the amount that is currently outstanding after taking account of any repayments already made by the debtor of any interest and of any interest due. The change will enable that net amount that is owing to be stated clearly and concisely by being set out in a certificate the form of which will fall to be settled by the Rules of Court. This is designed to simplify and to speed up matters for both parties concerned and for the court.
What we are talking about in subsection (6) is evidence to satisfy the court that the debt exists. That evidence would normally be the court order, or a copy of the court order if the original is not available. However, if by the date of the hearing there is any change in the amount then due the creditor simply completes the certificate in a settled form. There is nothing in the Bill which says that the certificate is conclusive evidence and the debtor is not precluded in any way from challenging it. The result is that the evidence furnished by the certificate, the form of which as I have said will be settled by the Rules of Court, would be open to be contested. Therefore the district justice is not precluded from exercising his judgment in respect of the matter. I am satisfied that the provision as proposed, which is being recommended by the Rules Committee will be operable and will maintain a fair balance as between the rights of the creditor and the debtor.
During Committee Stage last week I undertook to give further consideration to publicising the date of the annual licensing sessions in the newspapers. In the past, this has not been necessary as a rule. The annual licensing sessions are held at the same time each year and accordingly anyone who has an interest in them, for example licenses, Garda superintendents or members of the public, know about them well in advance. Under the new arrangements the annual licensing sessions will continue to be held every year at the same time as they are held at present, that is at the end of September. Under the old system, as we discussed on Committee Stage, objection to the renewal of a licence could be made on the day of the court without any prior notice being given. This power of objecting without prior notice was very little used in practice but it was capable of being abused. I propose that it now be abolished. Objecting without notice is clearly unfair to the licenses and disrupts the work of the court.
It is likely that for the first four years after this Bill becomes law the placing of advertisements in the newspapers before the latest date for lodging objections would serve as a useful reminder not only for those who feel that they have genuine grounds for objecting but also for licensees who would thereby be reminded of the new arrangements. Accordingly, I am prepared to have suitable advertisements placed in newspapers for a few years at least after the new renewal procedures come into force so as to help everybody concerned during the period in which they will be familiarising themselves with the new arrangements.
Deputy Woods inquired as to whether the saving of time from the introduction of the new procedures had been quantified. If I remember correctly he got himself into a bit of a wax about the lack of quantification. As I said, I did not consider it necessary to attempt to arrive at a precise quantification but I am satisfied nevertheless that the saving in time for individual court clerks will be substantial. The vast majority of licence renewals go through at present without objection but a considerable amount of time has to be spent in sending out the requisite forms in every case, in assisting the licensees or their representatives in filling out the forms, checking the completed forms and getting them in order for the annual licensing sessions. It is clear that under present rules a considerable amount of time is spent on this administrative work. It would be unrealistic, unjustified and would amount to a disproportionate expenditure of time and money to try to arrive at a more precise estimation of the savings in time that would be achieved by the measures contained in the Bill. I am, however, satisfied that there will be substantial saving in time for the District Court clerks.
On Committee Stage, Deputies opposite, including in particular Deputy Hyland, were concerned by what they seemed to believe was a dilution of local control over the issue of intoxicating liquor licences. I can assure the House that that is not the case. In all important respects the procedure for renewing the licences remains as it is at present, the only substantial change being that in the majority of cases a court certificate will not be required where no objection has been raised. The licensing sessions will be held as before in the District Courts. The power of objection, including objection by the Garda, will remain. All objections will be heard at local level as they are at present.
As to the details of the new procedure, the position will be that the person wishing to renew his liquor licence will apply directly to the Revenue Commissioners and they will issue the renewal licence in accordance with their own procedures. Anyone wishing to object to the renewal may do so by serving a notice of intention to object on the licensee at least 21 days before the date of the annual licensing court and must send a copy with a statutory declaration of service to the District Court clerk 14 days before the sitting. The District Court clerk will then send a notice of the objection to the Revenue Commissioners, and, where the objector is not a member of the Garda Síochána, he will also send a copy of the notice of objection to the Garda superintendent for the area. After the annual licensing session the District Court clerk will send a certified copy of the court order to the Revenue Commissioners. Where an appeal has been lodged against the order, he will also send a notice to that effect to the Revenue Commissioners.
I think I have dealt with most of the points raised on Committee Stage to which I said I would give some further attention, apart from one further point which does not really arise on this Bill, but Deputy Hyland mentioned it, and I want to assure him that it is not being lost sight of. Deputy Hyland asked me to give some serious thought to the abuse occasioned through the purchase of wine from supermarkets by young people. As I explained on Committee Stage, I am very concerned about the extent of alcohol abuse particularly by young people. The preparation of proposals to help curb under age drinking is being proceeded with in my Department and will be the subject of a separate set of proposals which I hope to bring before the House in the not too distant future.
I am disappointed that, having reached Report Stage and despite a number of amendments tabled by me on Committee Stage, the Bill remains substantially unchanged. The Government, and the Minister's predecessor— the present holder of the office is new to his present portfolio—missed an opportunity to bring about worthwhile and much needed reform in the District Court system. This Bill has done very little in this regard, with the welcome exception of making provision for the introduction of the new District Court rules which are long overdue. I compliment both Ministers on their efforts to bring in this very necessary procedure.
In my opinion the introduction of the new rules would have provided an ideal opportunity for the reform of the District Court system to make it more meaningful and more relevant to the people. On reflection, and having participated in the debate on all Stages, I consider that the provisions in this Bill do nothing in the area of general court reform. In some instances the provisions in this Bill add further complications to legislation which is already confusing many citizens. I am sure the Minister will agree that this Bill does nothing to streamline the operations of the District Court as it affects the renewal of intoxicating liquor licences and other provisions. As I said in my earlier contributions, it took no more than an hour of the courts' time annually to renew the licences in the various District Court areas. From that point of view there is no real benefit in terms of court efficiency under this Bill.
I would like to acknowledge the Minister's commitment to the renewal of intoxicating liquor licences. He indicated that in the short term a public notice will be inserted annually for the purpose of notifying the public of the opportunity and the time for renewal of licences. I acknowledge that gesture and I thank the Minister for it. I appreciate the sincerity of his gesture in response to my request on the last occasion that something be done about the almost free availability of wine in supermarkets in so far as this affects teenage drinkers. I accept fully the Minister's sincerity in this area. This concern is shared by many Members of this House and we should try to curb and control the menace of alcoholism. This is not an area for political point scoring. The Minister can be assured of the full support of all Members on this side of the House. I appeal to him to move as hastily as he can along that road and to bring in this much needed legislation.
I said I was disappointed that, despite a number of amendments which I genuinely believed would have improved the provisions of the Bill, the Bill remains substantially the same as introduced by the Minister's predecessor. I might refer briefly to section 2, which discriminates against and places at a disadvantage a private citizen who through no fault of his or hers has fallen on hard times and who is unable to meet his or her financial commitments. In many instances these will have been family commitments — the commitment, say, of a father who became unemployed and who had no means with which to pay the court fines referred to in that section. This Bill and the law generally requires that in such cases an individual surrenders himself to the custody of the State for a period of imprisonment. That period of imprisonment is specified in this section where, in relation to fines not exceeding £50, the person in default of a payment would have to spend five days in prison. In future legislation the Minister might take a serious look at the need for reform in this area. I would ask him to do so with a view to amending this provision as soon as possible, giving the district justice the discretion of applying other sanctions or of deferring payments until family circumstances change. This provision is somewhat regressive in what we would like to regard as being modern legislation. At a time when we have spoken so much about the need for general law reform and administration, it is regrettable that the only sanctions referred to in this Bill are those of imprisonment.
The Minister will recall that I and my colleague, Deputy Woods, spent many hours in this House endeavouring to impose on the Minister's predecessor the importance of devising or of finding alternative forms of sanction than the overcrowded and unsatisfactory system which operates in terms of imprisonment at present as constituting the ultimate sanction in respect of some of these offences. I might cite the example of the community services order. In regard to the first requirement of fines not exceeding £50, where a defaulter would have to spend five days in prison, surely a better and more credible alternative would be that a justice would have flexibility under legislation to impose some other form of sanction — for example, to be able to use a community services order. It is a great pity that in the upgrading of legislation in this area we find ourselves so rigidly attached to the oldest sanction known and available to us, that of imprisonment. I submit that in many cases the sanction of imprisonment and its effects on the family unit far outweigh the seriousness of the offence in the first instance. I would contend that, where the breadwinner must spend five days, or even one or two days, in prison as a result of not meeting a court fine of £50, the damage done not only to the individual himself but to the members of his family far outweighs the extent of the charge or crime in the first instance. When discussing any law reform Bill in this House surely we should be genuinely interested in upgrading the law in that area for the purpose of finding sanctions other than imprisonment.
In contrast with the structures and rigidity of the law in relation to the individual, as we are discussing them here, it is interesting to note that the provisions of this Bill are more flexible, and certainly less severe in their sanctions, in relation to corporate bodies. It is regrettable that we treat the individual to one set of sanctions while applying another set, less severe and rigid, to corporate bodies. We accept that there are many genuine cases on financial grounds for dealing in a considerate manner with corporate bodies. However, we are all aware of the increasing number of cases in which such bodies have tended to be organised and used for deliberate evasion of the law. We are aware that some of the individuals involved, with assistance provided under various legislative headings approved in this House from time to time, find loopholes, deliberately flicking their fingers at this House and at law enforcement generally. I contend that such anomalies in legislation, as in this Bill, tend to undermine the confidence of the ordinary citizen in legislation.
Why should we be more strict on the individual and less strict on corporate bodies who use the structure of the corporation to evade their legal responsibilities in relation to matters of this nature? While it cannot be dealt with under the provisions of the Bill before us, it is an area worthy of examination. Night after night there are glaring examples on our television screens of people who tout and utilise the law to their advantage and get away scot free, where some poor unfortunate unable to pay a fine of £50 finds himself locked up in Mountjoy for five days. That is unsatisfactory and does not constitute a fair and balanced administration of the law.
There was scope under the provisions of this Bill to make use of community service orders as an alternative to imprisonment. I made the point on Second Stage that perhaps the Minister should have considered introducing a small claims court, some procedure whereby small claims could be processed with the minimum of expense, thereby reducing the burden on the District Court system. It is a source of regret to me that we were not sufficiently progressive in outlook and that the Minister did not find it possible in relation to this matter, which has a direct bearing on families and individuals and which contributes to overburdening our District Courts, to devise a way of dealing with such small claims. Another point I might make in relation to small claims generally is that the cost to the individual of having to go into the court adds another tier, if you like, to his indebtedness. I would hope we would be able to devise a means in future legislation whereby small claims could be dealt with outside of the court system as it operates at present. I realise that, with the indulgence of the Chair, I have perhaps deviated somewhat from the exact contents of the Bill before us.
I should like to deal with section 4. I have already acknowledged the Minister's sincerity and generosity in meeting our views in regard to that section. I am anxious that the strongest possible control should exist in regard to the availability and sale of alcohol. However, the success of our efforts requires the goodwill and support of those involved in the licensed trade. It is true of every Bill debated in the House that a level of goodwill on the part of those affected by the legislation is required if it is to be successful. In regard to this area it is important that we get those involved in the licensed trade to share our concern about the abuse and misuse of alcohol. They are important from that point of view. The vast majority of licensed vintners conduct their business in a credible and professional manner and are anxious to see the law upheld, just as we are, in this crucial and delicate area.
I have some reservations about the effectiveness of the endorsement of vintners licences as a means of dealing with breaches of the licensing laws. The Minister, when preparing the new legislation he has promised, should consider more effective sanctions such as the imposition of substantial fines. A district justice should at least be given flexibility under the new legislation to endorse a licence, apply a substantial fine in relation to a breach of the licensing laws by a publican or an endorsement and a fine. We do not want to be seen as anti-vintners because they are an important element in our commercial life and the majority of them do an extremely credible job.
Too credible, some of them.
However, to some extent we are a bit hypocritical in our attitude to the sale of alcohol. We announce annually that we expect the Exchequer to take in substantial amounts in tax by increasing the price of a pint or a half one. In that regard the State is to some extent living on immoral earnings. In the long term we are losing more than we are gaining. We have the direct short term benefit of the revenue generated as a result of decisions by the Minister for Finance.
And the direct short term benefit of the half one.
As against that increase in revenue we have the total loss to the State by a reduction in the level of industrial output, a loss in work days and an increase in the cost of health care not to talk about the many family problems that result from an abuse of alcohol. The sooner the Minister legislates to reduce the abuses and protect citizens the better. That would be the first step along the road.
It is extremely difficult, because of the climate in which we live, for vintners to be always up to the mark in regard to complying with the licensing laws. It is difficult at closing time for a vintner to be able to close his house instantly because he will always have to deal with aggressive people, those who do not want to leave and those who may be difficult. The view expressed by the vintners is worthy of consideration. They have suggested that the sanction in relation to endorsement is too severe from their point of view and does not do anything to achieve what the Minister and Members want to achieve in terms of controlling the sale of alcohol. It would be better if a district justice was given flexibility when dealing with breaches of the licensing laws. He should have the power to impose a substantial fine if he considers it is warranted, and, in serious cases, to record an endorsement and impose a fine. We should not legislate against such commercial enterprises.
Our main objective should be to legislate for the proper sale of alcohol. That can be done by bringing our legislation up to date. I accept the Minister's assurances but I regret that the Bill before us does not do that. It is only fair to record that the Bill did not set out to do that but I urge the Minister to introduce a new Bill as quickly as possible to cover the areas I mentioned. I should like to express my concern at the abuse of alcohol and the fact that it is available to school children. That should be a cause of major concern to us all.
I should like to address myself to section 1 which deals with the Enforcement of Court Orders Act and the amendments to that procedure. This enforcement of court orders procedure, the last vestige still outstanding of the old Victorian imprisonment for debt system, should be scrapped and done away with altogether. In the old days under the Victorian procedure people were put into prison for debt until the money was paid. That has been carried on in attenuated form to the present day under the enforcement procedure I have outlined. In this day and age people can find themselves in prison for not paying a civil debt. I am not talking about fines but about civil debts, hire purchase debts or whatever. It is not as though there is not already an adequate armoury in the hands of creditors, hire purchase companies, banks and so on to recover the moneys due to them. They have many and varied remedies apart from putting people in prison for civil debt. They can and do send in the Sheriff to seize the person's goods. They can apply for a judgment in regard to mortgages if they have a house and there are all sorts of charging orders and other procedures available.
I would regard it as acceptable in a modern system of law enforcement that there could be a simple procedure whereby a debtor in employment and in receipt of weekly or monthly wages could have a court order directed to his employers to pay a fixed weekly or monthly sum of an appropriate amount directly to the creditor. That would be reasonably acceptable as long as the person was in employment but, where the person is unemployed or in receipt of social welfare benefits, that procedure should not apply. The Minister should look at this in a broad, historical context. One thinks of the pressures on prisons at present and we hear reports of criminals convicted of quite serious crimes having to be released from prison because there is no room for them. It is rather strange that prison space should be taken up by people who have committed no crime and who have merely not paid a civil debt.
The Minister introduced an amendment under the Enforcement of Court Orders Act and its thrust is to make the position easier for creditors. It seems to be based to a large extent on recommendations made possibly by the officials of the Department and the District Court Rules Committee. I have no doubt that the District Court Rules Committee are a fine body of men and women but, if the Minister went along to any District Court, he would see that people are brought up for examination as to their means with a view to having instalment order and, subsequently orders made against them and he would find that all the crditors are represented by solicitors. However, seldom if ever does a debtor appear in court represented by a solicitor. It is a rarity. Obviously, any debtor in that position has had the Sheriff out to his house but he got nothing. He will not be very flush with money and, if he cannot afford to pay the debt, he is hardly likely to be able to afford a solicitor.
Most, though not all, solicitors will not act unless they get a fee. There is no free legal aid available for assistance in this kind of case and the Minister should look at this aspect. Debtors are not represented by solicitors and, therefore, it follows that that element of the District Court Rules Committee who are made up of solicitors, as a certain proportion is, will be either solicitors who do not represent debtors or creditors or solicitors who represent creditors. I am not saying that they did not approach the matter objectively. I am sure they did, but the reality is that the amendment increases the pressure on the debtor in a number of respects, which is regrettable. I would have thought there were some aspects of the procedure which would have warranted an improvement from the point of view of the debtor.
The Minister responded to the point about the acceptance of a certificate giving the final balance as of the date of the examination order hearing and I listened carefully to what he said. I appreciate the point he made but I am not happy about it because it does not adequately meet the situation. The certificate would be produced, according to this amendment, when the examination order hearing takes place and would be handed in by the creditor's solicitor. Of course, the Minister was correct when he said it is not conclusive and that the debtor could give evidence if the amount was wrong and so on. That is true but it does not have reality for a number of reasons. The debtor does not know what the certificate says or what final balance figure will appear on the certificate. He may not hear anything at all as, normally, he is at the back of a crowded courtroom and does not know what is happening. Even if he does hear it, he does not know in advance what the figure will be and he has no opportunity of checking it.
The judgment in the original court debt could have been given a year before these events, may be even longer. There is a provision for six and 12 year periods here so it could have been over a year since the original hearing. There are all sorts of complications in so far as the balance of the debt is concerned. The debtor may pay £5 here, send in a postal order for £4 there and, in the meantime, costs are being added on to the bill. It is a jungle and if you were to ask debtors, particularly in hire purchase cases, how much they owe, with the best will in the world, they could not tell you. They do not keep records. When they get a few pounds together they send them off.
Where the debtor is required to send in his statement of means showing his asset, liabilities and income and so on, he is required to send it in well in advance according to section 1 (4) which states:
The statement of means shall, not less than one week before the sitting of the District Court at which the examination is to take place...
It does not say that the creditor has to send in his view of the final balanced debt so that the unfortunate debtor could check it and go through whatever receipts he might have. Why is the debtor obliged to send in information a week in advance? It is to enable the creditor to go through it with a fine tooth comb, to prepare and to have all arrangements made to cross-examine the debtor as to the accuracy of what the debtor is putting forward. What is the position of the debtor? The creditor comes into court when the case is called, hands in a written certificate, not even a sworn statement, saying that the balance due is £628.24. To expect a debtor to be able to rebut that with that kind of notice is just not on.
The point we were trying to make on Committee Stage about the sworn statement was that at least it would give a degree of seriousness, of formality, to the situation from the point of view of the creditor. There is much less seriousness when all that is done is when the secretary or someone from the creditor firm produces a form with such wording as "I hereby certify that the balance due is £624." Human nature being what it is, one would be inclined not to take that too formally, or at least not to regard it with anything like as much care or as necessitating such research as would be required if one had to take the oath in open court and swear to a certain figure or even, not going that far, handing in a sworn affidavit or a statutory declaration. Even that would apply the mind of the creditor firm to the issue and we are taking of a very important issue from the point of view of the debtor.
For the most part what is involved in these kinds of proceedings is not one single case but bulk cases. For instance, there might be the case of a hire purchase company who had 70 to 80 cases for hearing on one day or at every court sitting. In that kind of wholesale procedure there is not the individual care that would apply in the case of the single case perhaps. The unfortunate debtor is caught up, in that kind of situation. We are talking in this context about people who are at the wrong end of society. In fairness to the district justices, they have always practised a kind of unofficial rule whereby if a debtor appears in court where one of these matters is being dealt with and says he is unemployed or is on social welfare and produces his unemployment card, no order will be made for any weekly payment. The district justices are to be applauded for taking that line. The problem is that many people who are unemployed and many who are in receipt of social welfare assistance are not aware of that practice and very often for that reason omit going to the court to point out those circumstances.
Such people consider their cases to be hopeless. They do not go to court but find that an order is made against them for a sum which they could not possibly pay. Subsequently when the order is found not to be honoured an order is made for imprisonment though the sole offence on the part of the debtor would be ignorance, not knowing that if he simply went to the court and produced an unemployment card or a social welfare card, no order would be made against him. Imprisonment orders are made in many of these cases of default. It would be fair to assume that there are in Mountjoy at least some people who have been sentenced for non-payment of debt but who, if they had known the procedure, would not be in prison. On occasion the imprisonment of such people is brought to the notice of a solicitor or a public representative.
Some time ago one of my constituents found himself in this position and I had extreme difficulty in having him released from Mountjoy. He had been in prison through ignorance. The officials of the Department were more than helpful to me in my efforts to have the man released but it was not a simple matter of the Minister making a ministerial order because the case had to be researched and arrangements made with the creditor so it was a complex procedure which took some days to resolve.
On reaching the stage of amending this procedure one would have thought that more balanced kinds of amendments could have been proposed, not only in terms of speeding up the procedure and simplifying it in ease of the creditor, which is what these amendments are proposing to do, but also in ease of the debtor. What is proposed will simplify matters considerably for the creditor and his solicitor in that they will only have to hand in a signed certificate. The certificate will not need to be sworn and there will be no need to produce witnesses. There is nothing wrong with speeding up matters but something should have been done from the debtor's point of view. This aspect could have been tackled in a number of ways. There could be some spect of his initiating a declaration to give what information he may have as to whether the debtor was in employment. The creditor must make a declaration in terms of section 2 but is there any reason why he should not be asked to include also whatever knowledge he might have of the employment status or otherwise of the debtor? In many cases the creditor might not have that information but the courts are entitled to access to such information as the creditor may have as to the employment status of the debtor. This could have been provided for by making it obligatory to have a prescribed form on the summons sent to the debtor setting out clearly in block capitals and in red such wording as: "If you are unemployed, or if you are on social welfare and if you come to the court and produce your unemployment card or your social welfare card, it is unlikely that an order will be made against you." Such a formula would help to avoid the situation of helpless and innocent people finding themselves in prison through ignorance alone.
It would have been helpful, too, if a provision could have been included to deal with the circumstances of a person being in prison through ignorance of the procedure. I am thinking of the kind of provision that would simplify the procedure whereby officials of the Department of Justice could have the person released immediately following satisfactory evidence that he was wrongfully imprisoned in the first place.
I do not know whether any of these points will meet with the approval of the Minister or whether I have succeeded in making the various points clear but perhaps he will consider these matters further when the Bill is before the Seanad.
I shall leave aside the point about speeding up the procedures. The issue in contention is cui bono, so to speak, in this regard. I would be prepared to consider the Deputy's suggestion in relation to information that might be given on the forms sent out to debtors. It is not a matter, strictly speaking, of court rules. Looking back on his remarks on Committee Stage and listening to what Deputy Taylor was saying this afternoon, it seems that there could be scope for dealing with the matter in the administrative way he has suggested. As a general rule I would have to agree with him that when official contact is made with people, for whatever reason, we should look at the types of cases involved and consider whether in certain kinds of cases — he has identified one — we should find some summary way of advising people as to what their rights might be. I will consider that point and see if we could deal with it in the way Deputy Taylor has mentioned.
The other point on which Deputy Taylor concluded is not one for the rules of court. I readily grant the point that, if the court procedures are handled properly in the first place and people are made aware of their rights and use them, this kind of situation should not occur very often. In relation to the number of cases where this difficulty arises, I would draw Deputy Taylor's attention to an answer given by my predecessor to two questions from Deputy McGahon on 20 November last, Questions Nos. 107 and 108. The then Minister said that as of that date 18 persons were in custody on foot of committal warrants issued in the types of case which Deputy Taylor has mentioned.
Was that for the whole country?
Yes. I will consider whether we should have a simplified procedure in the event of a person being committed who should not have been committed, in the light of the considerations Deputy Taylor has mentioned. It is not a matter that would be appropriate for discussion within the framework of this Bill.
While I am not in any sense criticising what Deputy Taylor has been saying or the people he has been talking about, we should be very careful to ensure that when people get a summons to appear in court they take it seriously. We all have experience of people who come to see a public representative and claim they never knew the case was coming up in court. In about 60 per cent of cases that is a bit less than the truth, and the people knew perfectly well it was coming up in court but could not be bothered to appear and perhaps ended up with a higher penalty being imposed than they had expected. Not having bothered to turn up, they were not able to explain the circumstances in a way that might have led the justice or the judge to take a different view. Since the system is there, people should take a summons seriously. I know it is not always convenient for people to do that but, on the other hand, the law is not intended to be there for the convenience of people who do not wish to be discommoded by its application.
Deputy Hyland raised a number of issues on section 2. Nobody may be committed to prison for failure to comply with a court order unless there has been an examination of the person's means. Nobody may be committed to prison if the court decides that the person has not the means to make the payment. That is an established part of practice and should not be overlooked. It is regrettable that Deputy Hyland did not raise all the points he raised this afternoon while we were discussing Committee Stage. He made some remarks on section 2 during the debate last June which were very much briefer and less comprehensive in scope than those he made this afternoon.
I would draw his attention to the fact that in relation to the penalties provided for individuals in the case of non-payment, we are actually reducing very substantially the penalties as far as individuals are concerned, all within the framework of the provision I have mentioned that nobody may be committed to detention for non-payment unless the court has decided that the person has the means and will not pay. I know that Deputy Hyland will be as familiar as I am with the cases of people who have not paid fines, not because they have not the means to pay them but because they find ways of delaying payment, sometimes for a very long time. This disturbs me but I do not intend to go down that lane at the moment. That section reduces the penalties on individuals.
They do not go into means in relation to fines.
I am talking about the enforcement procedures, not the fines. Section 2 reduces the penalties involved on individuals quite considerably.
Section 2 has no reference to the enforcement procedure.
I am sorry if I am not responding to the question which Deputy Taylor has in mind. I am responding to Deputy Hyland and perhaps Deputy Hyland's remarks do not correspond to Deputy Taylor's questions. There is a slight disjunction.
Regarding the provisions in relation to corporate entities, I do not accept that we are providing for outrageously differential treatment or more favourable treatment for corporate bodies than for individuals. We are reducing the penalties in relation to individuals and we are streamlining and modernising the procedure in relation to corporate bodies.
I do not think there is much point in going into great detail on section 4. If I may be a little discordant for a moment, I cannot see the point of Deputy Hyland's coming along, after I have spent some time discoursing on the way in which the change in the procedures will save time for the District Court clerks, for the fifth or sixth time during the course of this debate, and saying that this will not make any difference.
It will not make any difference.
The reason Deputy Hyland has not bothered to try to refute what I am saying is quite simply that he knows it would be a waste of time.
Has the Minister spoken to District Court clerks? I have.
I am not talking about the amount of time the court spends in licensing sessions or dispatching applications. I am talking about the amount of time the District Court clerks spend preparing for these sessions. If we can save them that amount of time, by all means let us do so, particularly if it will not result in a more relaxed or loose approach to the renewal of licences.
Is the Minister getting around dismantling the District Court clerks and their office?
That is an example of the kind of loose argument that should not be allowed in the House. The Deputy knows perfectly well that I am not talking about dismantling court clerks — painful as that procedure would be. I am not talking about dismantling court procedures. I am talking about one simple measure which we have in this Bill that will save time for District Court clerks, time they could more constructively use for other business. For Deputy Hyland to come in and operate on the basis of a bland assertion makes no difference. It is not debate.
It is not. It is another legislative statistic.
We could be here until kingdom come arguing about this. The only circumstances in which Deputy Hyland would actually take a different view would be if he and I were to swap places. As I said, I have nothing at all against Deputy Hyland.
On section 5, there was one point which I meant to refer to earlier. Deputy Woods expressed a fear on Committee Stage that section 5, which provides for the amendment of the Criminal Procedure Act, 1967, was in a sense hidden by being included in this Bill and should be brought to notice in some other way, perhaps by adverting to it in the short title. As I promised him at the time, I have reflected upon it and went back to the parliamentary draftsman for advice. On a matter of this kind, which is very technical, I would defer to the advice of the parliamentary draftsman. It is on such advice that I have come to the conclusion that I cannot do the kind of thing that Deputy Woods had in mind.
That is a reversion of the argument the Minister was putting to me a few moments ago. Just because the suggestion came from this side of the House the Minister could not agree with it.
If it is any consolation to Deputy Hyland, I can safely say to him without fear of contradiction, and I think Deputy Taylor will agree with me, that it would not matter twopence worth whether it was Deputy Liam Hyland, Minister for Justice, who was asking the parliamentary draftsman for advice—God be between us and all harm—or whether it was Deputy Alan Dukes, Minister for Justice, who is asking the question. The parliamentary draftsman will give the same answer in either case. This is a totally non-political point.
There is no law which says that the advice of the parliamentary draftsman necessarily should be taken.
Indeed, but in a matter of this kind which is very technical and in the nature of the suggestion made by Deputy Woods I would defer to the judgment of the parliamentary draftsman. There are, of course, other cases where that does not arise but we will not go into that now.
Deputy Hyland made quite a number of references to various matters concerning endorsements, fines and things of that nature. I do not intend to follow Deputy Hyland down that road because it is not relevant to the Bill. I intend to stay within the confines of the Bill. I will be meeting a deputation from the Irish Vintners' Federation next week to discuss this matter. I have already met quite a number of them in my own constituency for what was a very cordial discussion about the matter. I do not intend to go into the matter now. Finally, I wish to make one comment on Deputy Hyland's contention that in this Bill we have missed out on an opportunity for reform of the District Court system. We have not. It was never the intention of the Bill.
It should have been.
Deputy Hyland probably does the Bill a great deal more honour, with all respect to my predecessor and myself, than it deserves. It was never presented as a major reform of the District Court system. It was intended to do some very specific things. I am sure there would be even wider scope for debate on measures of reform of the District Courts than there has been on this simple little Bill which I hope will now finish its travail in this House so that I can bring it elsewhere for its final blessing.
Was the Minister commenting on Report Stage?
No, on Fifth Stage.
Could I make a final comment on the Bill?
The Bill has been passed.
If that is Fifth Stage why does it say on the amendments, No. 34a of 1984, "Courts Bill—Report Stage"? Will somebody explain that to me?
The amendments were taken on Report Stage and we went on from that.