Before Leaders' Questions commence, I wish to make a brief statement concerning the current controversy surrounding a Circuit Court judge. The Chair recognises this matter raises issues of administration which are of public concern. I remind Members that, as this House may ultimately have to adjudicate on this matter under the law as it stands, in order to ensure the interests of the House are best protected, Members should refrain from making references which could prejudice the position of the House in the discharge of its obligation, if called upon to do so at a later stage.
I will abide by the Ceann Comhairle's ruling on this matter, unlike some others I have heard.
The events surrounding the recent trial of a Circuit Court judge have given rise to considerable public concern in two broad areas. The public cannot understand how what appears to be a very grave error has resulted in this trial ending in the way it did.
Political responsibility for the administration of justice rests with the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform and the Government. It is to them that the people now look for answers. They want to know how such a basic and grave error could be made and who was responsible. They also want to know what were the roles of the Attorney General and the Director of Public Prosecutions in this matter. The second concern relates to the future of Judge Curtin and the possibility of his returning to the Bench.
Will the Taoiseach outline what action the Government has taken to deal with these two broad areas of fundamental concern?
At the weekly meeting this morning the Government considered the circumstances of the collapse of the trial of Judge Brian Curtin in the Circuit Criminal Court last Friday. The House will be aware that the trial collapsed when the trial judge determined that the warrant issued for a search of the home of Judge Curtin was invalid and that, thus, evidence of a search and of what was found in the search was inadmissible and could not go before the jury.
Today, the Government decided to write to the Director of Public Prosecutions to request a report on the reasons the trial ended in this matter and also to ask the Garda Commissioner for a report. The Director of Public Prosecutions indicated he is prepared to give such a report.
It is also recalled that on 20 May 2002 Judge Peter Smithwick, President of the District Court, on an application from the Garda Síochána, issued a search warrant for a search of the residence of Judge Brian Curtin. The underlying factual basis for that application for a search warrant and for the preferring of charges was not heard in evidence. Judge Curtin did not give or adduce evidence on his own behalf in response to the charges preferred against him because of the course of that trial pursued.
In these special circumstances and bearing in mind the seriousness of the charges against him, the Government decided to write to Judge Curtin to seek an explanation from him of the circumstances of his apparent access to a website and downloading of child pornography images from same. This request of Judge Curtin is with a view to shortly making a fair and objective assessment as to whether grounds exist for a motion for removal of the judge from office for stated misbehaviour.
As this matter will come before the House, I have to practice caution and urge caution on the part of Members of this House as to what is said. This is an extremely serious matter. It is of profound constitutional importance. Confidence in the Judiciary is of vital importance to a democracy. The maintenance of that confidence in the integrity of the Judiciary means that, in accordance with our constitutional provisions, the Houses of the Oireachtas can, where there is stated misbehaviour, remove a judge from office. That is a decision the House could have to address in the near future. If there are grounds of stated misbehaviour, removal from office is the only option. There are no alternatives. Moreover, monetary compensation simply does not arise. There is no provision for this and no justification for it on such removal.
The factual information sought from Judge Brian Curtin is to be furnished not later than 9.30 a.m. on Tuesday, 4 May. It is in everyone's interest that this issue is resolved one way or the other within a short space of time.
If we are to restore the damage caused to public confidence as a result of this event, clear and transparent answers must be given. In similar circumstances in other jurisdictions heads would roll and resignations would follow. In that context, will the Taoiseach undertake to publish the reports he will receive from the Director of Public Prosecutions and the Garda Commissioner? Failure to publish them will result in only further public dismay.
Can the Taoiseach tell the House, if prior to his appointment, the Judicial Appointments Advisory Board or any member of Government, was aware of any concerns about Brian Curtin's behaviour, conduct or activities, which would give rise to concerns about his suitability for appointment in the first instance?
Can the Taoiseach tell the House why the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform and the Government have not yet delivered on a commitment in the programme for Government to legislate for the misbehaviour of members of the Judiciary.
I would have to take advice with regard to the DPP's report — the DPP is independent of this House — and the Garda Commissioner's report. Whatever about publishing the full reports, I think it would be best if the substance of what they state was made public. If the House has to deal with this issue in any case, it must have the facts. In so far as I can publish them or make their contents known in some form, I will certainly do that.
As regards the Deputy's second question, the answer is not to my knowledge. I do not think any matters regarding Brian Curtin were relayed, certainly to the best of my knowledge. I would have to do a detailed check to answer that question fully.
In regard to the Deputy's third question, as he knows, there was a Bill some years ago that should have brought about a constitutional change but that did not happen. I think it was subsequently proved that perhaps all that is required to deal with the matter is the introduction of legislation or a change to Standing Orders. That matter is still under examination and work is in preparation on it in the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform. I do not think there is a difficulty in dealing with the matter raised in the Deputy's third question.
I, too, will observe the Ceann Comhairle's request for restraint, but I would like to record that it ought to apply universally, which has not been the case to date and certainly was not the case when roles were reversed in this House. I remember times when a letter going missing was enough to send the Opposition spokesman for justice at the time on a rampage that would have made Richard Harris's role in "The Field" look understated. That was a habitual performance at the time. However, now we are all to be restrained and to put a great deal of clear water between the Government and an event that has caused a collapse in public confidence along the lines suggested by Deputy Kenny.
I did not hear the Taoiseach's reply to the question about whether any reservations had been expressed at the time of the appointment of this particular member of the Bench. I did not hear him comment on that. I did not hear him say whether the then Minister for Justice had any role in advancing his preferment at that time. I did not hear the Taoiseach say whether he is happy with the procedures in place for the appointment of members of the Judiciary. Most particularly of all, I have not heard the Taoiseach say why the judicial conduct and ethics Bill, promised in the programme for Government in 2002, promised for publication again in 2003 and now promised for publication in 2004, has not been before the House.
The Taoiseach did not have any difficulty in devoting most of the time of the House in the past six weeks to a measure on electronic voting, the urgency of which escapes me. He now has managed to tie up the time of the House all this week on a Bill on citizenship, purely for short-term advantage. How come time can be made available in the House for these matters and the Minister, Deputy McDowell, can find time to bring forward legislation on these matters but not on a matter such as judicial misconduct, of which this House has been seized previously? What are the priorities here? I would be obliged if the Taoiseach could answer those questions.
The answer the Deputy did not hear me give to a question asked by Deputy Kenny was that I was not aware of any issue around Mr. Curtin before he was appointed. I would have to do an in-depth check to find out if there was any, but I think that would have been noticed or seen. I do not have any doubts about the existing procedures. Like any procedures, it is hard to detect everything but we have substantially changed the process of the appointment of members of the Judiciary. In the normal course of events, it seems to work very well, as it is only on a very rare occasion that any difficulties whatsoever arise. This type of situation rarely arises.
I have already said the legislation that will be necessary or the necessary changes to Standing Orders in terms of a requirement of that earlier Bill are being dealt with in the Department Justice, Equality and Law Reform. I could say to the Deputy that if we had agreed the amending legislation a few years ago, we could have dispensed with this issue.
Is this my fault too?
No, the Deputy was not involved in it at the time, as he will recall. We could have dealt with it at that stage. It is an outstanding issue. The Bill is still in existence but if the matter can be dealt with under Standing Orders it may not be necessary. That is a matter to which we will return. If it is necessary, we would have to enact it. I am advised it may not be and that a change in Standing Orders may suffice.
We have many arguments about the handling of various events by the Judiciary. I contend this is a separate and serious matter which does not involve, as in some instances I recall, an argument about a file or a letter. The Ceann Comhairle made the point that the House would be the arbitrator of justice, which, thankfully, does not happen in respect of many cases. That is why this is different to other matters.
The procedure the House would have to adopt and follow on this matter has been outlined to me. However, we must ensure there is due process, fairness and equity in anything we do. That is why we are proceeding on the basis I outlined.
I agree with the Taoiseach that this is a very serious matter and does not involve a file or a letter going missing. That is the point I was making. I merely commented that I have seen the House in uproar about a letter going missing. I hope the Taoiseach appreciates that we are not adopting a similarly opportunistic role in this instance.
Is the Taoiseach saying he now believes that the judicial conduct and ethics Bill is not necessary and that a mere change in Standing Orders will suffice? Is he saying this matter will or is likely to come before the House? Why did the Taoiseach explicitly state there will be no monetary compensation? I am surprised he was so absolute about that matter. Is he saying that if an offer of resignation is made, there would be no question of compensation being paid for loss of office?
Will the Taoiseach clarify the point about the judicial conduct and ethics Bill? My understanding was that the combination of parties which have been in Government since 1997 were sufficiently persuaded in 2001 to include the Bill in the programme for Government and to pledge its introduction in the most recent schedule of legislation published.
The Bill was to provide for effective remedies for complaints about judicial misbehaviour, including lay participation in the investigation of complaints. It arose on foot of discussions we had in 2001. I have stated on the record previously that the Department was considering the provisions that might be included in the Bill, taking into account work done by the Constitution Review Group, the Oireachtas Joint Committee on the Constitution and the Chief Justice's committee on judicial ethics. In some of those discussions it was stated that legislative measures might not perhaps be necessary. I am not stating this is definitely the case but it was pointed out that the matter might be dealt with by a change in Standing Orders. As the Deputy is aware, the difficulty in 2001 was that there was no right of reply and people could not be represented. That matter must be dealt with and the House must decide on the procedures to be followed in the event of this happening. Under Article 35.4.1°, a motion for impeachment would ultimately come before the House.
I must confess I do not have a clue what that means.
I will explain what it means. If the House were to deal with a case of impeachment, it would be obliged to decide on the procedures to be followed. It may not require legislation to do so, the House might be required to agree the procedure and to deal with the matter by Standing Order.
In entirely accept that. The question I asked was whether the Bill was still going to be advanced?
The Bill is still being advanced. It was proposed, in what was the then Twenty-second Amendment of the Constitution Bill, that provision would be made by law for the establishment of a body to investigate, or cause to be investigated, whether persons, while holding the office of judge, engaged in conduct constituting misbehaviour or were affected by incapacity and to make and publish findings and recommendations. Those heads were set out at the time in legislation. That Bill was published in 2001. However, since then we have taken account of some other matters, namely, the reports of the Constitution Review Group, the Oireachtas Joint Committee on the Constitution and the Chief Justice's committee on judicial ethics. If it is required, that legislation, updated with the findings and recommendations of those three reports, will be introduced.
Did Deputy O'Donoghue have a role in the preferment?
The Deputy's final question related to compensation. What I stated earlier is the Government's view on the matter.
I also wish to observe the Ceann Comhairle's ruling. I will, therefore, deal with a matter which may involve recognition of court proceedings but it is a separate matter from that raised by Deputies Kenny and Rabbitte.
A columnist inThe Irish Times today described the lack of compliance with planning law in Ireland as a sick joke. This observation follows last Monday’s “Prime Time” programme, comments by the Ombudsman today about the reluctance of local authorities to pursue infringements of planning law — I cite, in particular, illegal dumping — the lack of action when I brought to the House’s attention allegations of a bribe of €50,000 being made in respect of a proposal for a dump in east Galway and the lack of action in respect of the illegal shipping of waste by local authorities to the Far East via Belgium. An article in The Sunday Business Post recently referred to the fact that a waste company will, in Wicklow Circuit Court this summer, face charges of allegedly dumping without a licence in ways which caused damage to the environment. This company was partly responsible for allegedly creating the largest illegal dump to be discovered in this country to date. The article went on to state that a key defendant in the case has made a donation to Fianna Fáil for €6,000 in the form of a cheque.
If we are to be genuine in discussing standards in public office in the House, will the Taoiseach indicate whether it is Fianna Fáil policy to accept donations from generous people who are before the courts? Is it the case that it would be unthinkable to accept a donation such as that to which I refer and that Fianna Fáil should return the cheque forthwith, pending the outcome of the court case?
The Government put in place the Office of Environmental Enforcement to enhance environmental compliance through the enforcement of EPA licences and by an enhanced supervisory role in respect of local authorities. That work is legislated for and is focused heavily on the area of waste.
We provided substantial resources to both the Environmental Protection Agency and the local authorities to enforce it. The legislation, powers and enforcement are in place and the Government position is that it should be enforced without fear or favour to any individual, company or issue. I have no information on individual donations and am not answerable to the House on that. The legislation and the EPA's powers and controls should be fully implemented.
With the greatest respect, I did not ask the Taoiseach about the legislation. I asked whether it is appropriate for Fianna Fáil to receive a donation made by somebody who is before the courts, particularly given that the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government is amending legislation and policy to lift restrictions on people operating dumps to accept waste from within their own regions? Is it not the case that, unless this cheque for €6,000 is returned, not only is Fianna Fáil accused of taking money from somebody who is seeking to lessen the legal punishment, it can also be accused of suiting the policy it is putting in place to the large waste hauliers who will obviously benefit from the relaxation of guidelines restricting dumps to accepting waste within their areas? Is it not also the case that this is not a matter for the EPA or anybody else but for the Taoiseach to set a standard and to state whether it is acceptable for Fianna Fáil to accept €6,000 from somebody before the courts over infringement of planning and illegal dumping?
I answered the Deputy already. I have no details on the issue of who got subscriptions from what for any party.
The Taoiseach could obtain them easily enough.
Neither am I answerable in the House for Fianna Fáil. I have no information on the matter so I cannot give an answer.
The Taoiseach does not want to know.
There is stringent legislation. I do not think it is true, as the Deputy may be implying, that the Minister is easing or amending legislation to suit somebody. No Government would do that. We have tough laws and powers to strengthen the legislation and we are doing that. Deputy Sargent must acknowledge that the reason some of those dumps existed was because we had hardly any laws, no regulations and no enforceability. We now have the EPA, tough laws and the resources, and that is why the issues are being dealt with.
There is no enforcement in the area.
Fianna Fáil is giving a mixed message
There is no mixed message. There is stringent legislation and powers and it is for the organisations to implement them.
The greatest mixed message came from the Green Party.