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.