Ceisteanna – Questions. Priority Questions. - Liquor Licensing Laws.

Ciarán Cuffe

Ceist:

3 Mr. Cuffe asked the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform the reason he proposes in the Intoxicating Liquor Bill to transfer the jurisdiction of the Equality Tribunal to hear cases of discrimination under the Equal Status Act 2000 to the District Court when it was not a recommendation of the commission on liquor licensing. [17255/03]

As the Deputy is aware, the Intoxicating Liquor Bill 2003 has been published and has been presented in the Seanad. Section 19 provides that a person who claims that prohibited conduct has been directed against him or her in any licensed premises may seek redress before the District Court. For this purpose, prohibited conduct is defined as discrimination against or sexual harassment or harassment of a person, contrary to Part II of the Equal Status Act 2000 on or at the point of entry to licensed premises. The forms of redress currently available under the Equal Status Act are extended under section 19 to include temporary closure of the premises concerned and, for the first time, to give explicit authority to the District Court to revoke the licence of a public house which engages in discriminatory behaviour in breach of its legal obligations. Provision is also made for the Equality Authority to apply to the District Court for redress in certain cases, while subsection (7) provides that the authority provide assistance to persons applying to the courts for redress.

I emphasise that the proposed transfer of jurisdiction from the Equality Tribunal (ODEI) to the District Court is based on a view that licensees should in principle be answerable for all their actions to a body exercising a single jurisdiction. There is no sense in which the transfer of the jurisdiction is designed to reflect on the professionalism, integrity or propriety of the Equality Tribunal. Suggestions that it is so intended are not based in fact.

I thank the Minister for his reply. The fact remains that the Commission on Liquor Licensing, under the chairmanship of Gordon Holmes, did not provide for a measure such as this. I fail to see the link between combating alcohol abuse and stripping the Equality Tribunal of its jurisdiction in hearing cases of discrimination that take place in licensed premises. I find it difficult to accept the Minister taking away powers from the Equality Tribunal. In the District Court there is no room for mediation and for investigation of the facts in a case. Would the Minister accept that it is pushing people into an adversarial forum, whereas the Equality Tribunal could listen clearly to the evidence of both sides without the onus of a court? Will he state whether he is aware of the widespread disquiet that over a dozen groups have queried the reason for taking away power from the Equality Tribunal and will he accept that it undermines both the Equality Tribunal and the Equality Authority in the application of their powers? Why was this included when it was not sought in the report of the Commission on Liquor Licensing? It seems to have come out of the blue. Did it come from lobbying from publicans or from where did it come?

No doubt those who are discriminated against are a very vulnerable group in the first instance. Whether they are members of the Traveller community or young people, they find it very difficult to access the District Courts, both in the physical sense because they are not physically accessible and also because they find it difficult to get the resources to engage in a court process. I ask the Minister, once again, to state the link between combating alcohol abuse and stripping the Equality Tribunal of its jurisdiction in this regard.

If the Deputy checks on the report of the Commission on Liquor Licensing on that issue, he will see that a number of options were put by it to me, one of which was to consolidate the jurisdiction in the District Court. A number of options were put to me and I chose that particular one.

Whereas the Deputy mentions that up to 12 groups have expressed dissatisfaction, I am of the view that the great majority of people support me in the choice I have made. In difficult and stressful circumstances a publican is faced with a choice as to whether to admit somebody, knowing that one tribunal, the District Court, may in the fullness of time hold him or her accountable for the decision made in admitting the person and punish him or her for letting the person in, whereas another tribunal may seek to make a compensation against him or her for making the opposite decision and refusing admission. The great majority of people believe that one tribunal should decide this issue, one way or the other, and that one tribunal should exercise discipline over licensees in respect of their admission policies. It has been suggested consistently that in some sense the Equality Acts are being disapplied from this issue, but that is not so. They still apply in toto.

It has been consistently ignored that this is a measure which actually strengthens the remedies available because a District Court judge can now close a premises which, for instance, refused a gay or lesbian person admission in a discriminatory fashion. If there were a continued pattern of behaviour along those lines, the licence of that pub could be revoked.

The Equality Authority can assist any person who wants to bring a claim for compensation in the District Court or to object to a licence in the District Court, and can effectively act asamicus curiae for that person in those circumstances. It is a fair, reasonable, balanced solution to a real problem and I am quite happy that the great majority of people agree with me on this issue.