Adjournment Debate. - Funding for State Solicitors.

Adequately resourcing and providing administrative backup and supports for our State solicitors are of vital importance. Not only are immediate financial resources required to avert industrial action by our State solicitors next week, but resources are also required if the public are to retain a level of trust in our criminal justice system. The Minister is presiding over a serious lack of resources in the criminal justice system and there is evidence to suggest that before long cases of a very serious nature, including murder, may be struck out because of the level of pressure under which the State solicitors work.

Last week such a case, a murder trial, in my own constituency, was almost struck out by the presiding judge because the State solicitor, having had the case adjourned five times, came back to court and said he was unable to prepare a book of evidence because of a lack of resources in his office. This case had come up the previous September. Then the State solicitor indicated the problems he was having and, as reported in the local paper when it came back to court recently, said he had been given to understand that he would be getting extra resources by the end of December 1998. He still had not got them by the time the case came to court this month.

The State solicitor was not in a position to produce a book of evidence and the case – a murder case – was nearly thrown out of court. It is very frightening that this almost happened and it completely undermines our criminal justice system. Last year in the same court a serious forgery case was thrown out of court because of a lack of resources on the part of the State solicitor and his office.

I regret to say that this is not unique to Limerick; many other areas face similar problems. This is a scandal which makes a mockery of our so called "zero tolerance" Minister for Justice. If the Minister does not provide emergency funding for State solicitors across the country, our criminal justice system will face crisis. If immediate action is not taken, more and more cases will fall and the hundreds of hours of hard work put in by the Garda to bring people before the courts will be wasted.

We in this House have been talking for years about the importance of supporting the gardaí in the work they do, the importance of having enough gardaí to bring criminals to justice and the importance of having enough prison places for those criminals. If the court system is falling down because the State solicitor's offices do not have the resources to push these cases to trial, that cog in the machinery of justice will be a serious flaw in the system. It means that gardaí, witnesses and others will be wasting a great deal of time.

Some months ago the Minister, Deputy O'Donoghue, outlined his high level goals for the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform. These included achieving optimum protection against criminality for all members of society and providing the resources and administrative support necessary for the provision of a quality service by the courts. Given the level of crisis in our legal system, it appears that setting these goals was a PR exercise.

The reasons stated by the State solicitors for their threat of industrial action lie in the fact that they are underfunded in the areas of staffing, research support and overhead requirements. In the context of the Minister's commitment to provide resources and administrative support to the courts to ensure a quality service, I would like to know why this action is being contemplated and why the promised resources have not been forthcoming so far. The public can have little confidence in a criminal justice system which may, because of under-resourcing, have to strike out murder cases. This is further exacerbated by the fact that there are extensive waiting lists for free legal aid services, a matter I have raised on a number of occasions. I am concerned that many cases will be left on the back burner.

I ask the Minister to explain why the resources so badly needed by State solicitors have not been provided.

I thank the Deputy for raising the matter and allowing me, on behalf of the Minister, to clarify the situation.

State solicitors are private solicitors appointed on a contract basis following open competition and are free to continue their private work. They are appointed by the Attorney General to handle Government business requiring a solicitor service outside Dublin. Their salaries comprise three elements: personal salary in the range £23,664 to £28,284; staff costs in the range £10,617 to £12,537; and other expenses in the range £7,126 to £8,542.

Contact and discussion with the State Solicitor's Association about their remuneration has been continuing since late 1997 when the association met the Attorney General. The initial request was for a full review of salary by the Review Group on Higher Remuneration but the fact that this would not take place was accepted by the association. Consequently present discussions relate to the staff costs and other expenses elements of their pay.

Although a full review of the State solicitors' personal salary was not granted, an interim offer was made in June 1998 and accepted by the association. This offer involved a 6 per cent increase in basic pay, effective from 1 January 1998, in line with the increase to assistant secretaries; an interim increase in the expenses element of the remuneration package involving an increase of £2,000 per year for 22 State solicitors with greater workloads and £500 per year for others – separate arrangements were made for Cork city – and a review of the work of State solicitors. In the light of the review of the work, the expenses and staff costs elements of the remuneration package would be further reviewed.

The terms of reference of the review group were to review and report on the following aspects of the local State solicitor service – the actual and comparative workloads of State solicitors and the need for rationalisation of State solicitor areas; the arrangements for meeting the cost of support staff and general expenses and the need for special arrangements for remunerating State solicitors in respect of fisheries cases and for any increase in workloads which have occurred in recent years.

The review group comprised Mr. Michael Murray, State solicitor for Limerick city, nominated by the association, Mr. Paddy McMahon, retired Assistant Chief State Solicitor and Mr. Brian Lenihan, Principal Officer in the Department of Finance. The review group began work in early September and reported on 30 October 1998. Subsequently the recommendations were considered and clarification sought in some cases.

Local State solicitors have been pressing for some time for improvements in their remuneration package. A report was prepared by a group involving the Department of Finance, the Chief State Solicitor's Office and the State Solicitors' Association on the support staff costs and other expenses elements of the State solicitors' remuneration package and completed on 30 October. Following completion of the report, the State solicitors sought immediate action and the State Solicitors' Association has now decided to withdraw services from 1 February 1999.

Contact and discussion had been continuing on the staff costs and expenses elements of the remuneration package but, because of the need to study the review group findings and their implications, it has not been possible to make a firm offer to the association. This has now been finalised and a meeting arranged on Thursday of last week between the Chief State Solicitor's Office and the State Solicitors' Association was held this afternoon and an offer was put to the association for its consideration.

Although this issue has been continuing for some time, there has been constant contact with the State Solicitors' Association. This is evident in the fact that an interim offer was made in June 1998 and accepted by the association some time later.

As Deputies can see from the details of the offer, the interim solution represented a substantial improvement by adding 6 per cent to basic pay and 25 per cent to the expenses element for many State solicitors. Additional extra funding over and above the foregoing has been applied to both Cork and Limerick where particularly heavy work volumes arose. Some State solicitors have heavy workloads. Equally, there are areas where the volume of Government business is not onerous and the remuneration package may be greater than would be justified in a normal commercial arrangement. I am confident that the present negotiations will provide a solution which provides adequate recompense for those State solicitors who require high levels of support staff and overhead costs and at the same time ensure the taxpayer is not burdened with high costs in areas where workloads are low. I appeal to the State Solicitors' Association to permit the current negotiations to continue without resorting to industrial action which can only exacerbate the situation.