Limerick West): Before proceeding to deal with the details of the Bill I should like to give the House the background to it. This Bill was introduced in Dáil Éireann by my immediate predecessor during the life of the previous Dáil but was not taken beyond First Stage. The Government, on taking office, decided that the Bill should be adopted and sought and obtained Dáil approval for its restoration to the Order Paper of that House. As Senators will be aware, all Stages of the Bill have since been passed by the Dáil and I am now bringing it before this House to seek approval of the measure here.
The purpose of the Bill is to introduce certain reforms and updating into the existing code of military law as contained in the Defence Acts. The Principal Act — the Defence Act, 1954 — was enacted by the Oireachtas more than 30 years ago and the need for revision has become evident over the years since that Act became law. In general, the existing legislation has stood the test of time but, inevitably, legislative provisions which were designed to meet the circumstances of a particular time will require amendment and will not remain adequate for the needs of more than 30 years later.
A number of substantial amendments to the 1954 Act have been made in the intervening years. In 1960 there was amending legislation which provided for overseas service with the United Nations on peacekeeping missions.
The last major reform in the field of military law was introduced by the Courts Martial Appeals Act, 1983. That Act provided for the establishment of a special court to hear appeals against the findings and sentences of courts martial by persons convicted of offences against military law. Free legal aid was also provided for, at court martial hearings and hearings by the appeal court, on conditions similar to those applicable to the grant of free legal aid in the civil criminal courts.
The Bill now before the House is the outcome of a further review of military law which has been under way for some time. Section 1 deals with interpretation. Section 2 updates the level of maximum fines which may be imposed by the District Court for a variety of offences in relation to military affairs and service property; generally speaking such offences would be committed by persons not subject to military law and would be tried in the District Court. Examples of such offences are inducing a member of the Defence Forces to desert and trespassing on military property. Sections 3 and 4 provide for increases in the levels of the maximum fines which may be imposed at summary trials and by courts martial for offences against military law and in the maximum amounts which an offender may be ordered to pay by way of compensation where compensation is appropriate. They also provide for the linking of those maximum amounts to the daily rate of pay of the offender as defined in section 1.
Because of the decline in the value of money over the years, the maximum financial penalties prescribed in the 1954 Act are now of nominal impact only and have little if any deterrent effect. This, I understand, has given rise to a situation in which military tribunals have, for some time, been faced with difficulty in imposing appropriate punishments. The revised penalties proposed are aimed at easing this difficulty. I would like to stress, however, that the actual penalties to be imposed will be at the discretion of the relevant tribunal within the prescribed maxima.
Section 4 also provides for — (i) the introduction of a new punishment of reduction in rank for commissioned officers. This punishment already exists for non-commissioned officers and in the case of officers will provide courts martial and the appeal court with an alternative penalty in appropriate cases. It will bridge the existing gap between the very severe punishment of dismissal and the lesser punishment of forfeiture of seniority; (ii) an alteration in the order of the punishments which may be imposed on men of the Defence Forces so as to make "detention" a lesser punishment than "discharge" or "discharge with ignominy"; and (iii) modification of the existing very harsh consequential penalty of disqualification for State employment which is suffered by persons dismissed or discharged with ignominy from the Defence Forces. In future there would be a time limit of seven years in so far as civil employment is concerned and the Government would have power to lift this part of the disqualification at any time.
These amendments are designed to modify the severity of existing punishments. In the first two instances it is proposed, in appropriate cases, to provide alternatives for dismissal or discharge and the third instance represents a relaxation of the present very severe and inflexible provision.
Section 5 provides for the creation of a new offence against military law, namely that of being under the disabling influence of any drug or volatile substance. The section includes a provision that it will be a defence to a charge to prove that the drug or substance was prescribed by a medical doctor or was used in good faith for medical reasons. The need for providing for the offence arises from the fact that military personnel are armed, are liable for duty at all times and must be capable of undertaking such duty at any time. Military personnel are, of course, at present amenable to the ordinary criminal law in relation to drug abuse and will remain so.
Sections 6, 7, 9 and 14 deal with different safety aspects of the flying and navigation of service aircraft. The new powers being sought are particularly relevant to the operation of the sophisticated aircraft and helicopters now available to the Air Corps and to the increased incidence of civilian passengers being carried in military aircraft.
Section 6 provides express power for the captain of a service aircraft to take appropriate measures in relation to nonmilitary passengers who may jeopardise the safety of the aircraft or of other passengers or property on board the aircraft. The section reflects powers already in existence in relation to the safety of civilian aircraft.
Section 7 provides power to lop, cut or remove any tree or shrub on land in the vicinity of a military aerodrome which obstructs the safe take-off or landing of aircraft. It will be necessary to give not less than 21 days' notice of such intention to the occupier of the land concerned who will be entitled to undertake the work himself if he so wishes, and be paid his reasonable expenses for so doing. Power already exists in the Defence Act, 1954, to prohibit the erection of other possible hazards to aircraft, for example, buildings or aerials, in the vicinity of a military aerodrome.
Section 9 provides for the extension of the existing powers to erect and maintain signalling apparatus on lands or buildings in the vicinity of a military aerodrome so as to enable such apparatus, if required for air navigation purposes, to be placed on land or buildings in the vicinity of any military post, not necessarily an aerodrome. This requirement relates mainly to the use of helicopters which land and take off nowadays at various military barracks.
Section 14 provides for the expansion of the existing powers to make regulations in relation to the flying of service aircraft and for the certification and maintenance of such aircraft and aircraft material.
Section 8 provides for the production of documents by civilians who are witnesses before military tribunals.
Section 10 restricts the protection from imprisonment for debt which has in the past had an adverse effect on the credit-rating of non-commissioned service personnel seeking facilities from banks and other financial institutions. The protection against imprisonment for nonpayment of debt which section 107 of the Defence Act, 1954, gives at present to non-commissioned personnel and to reservists on permanent service is unrestricted. In future in the case of non-commissioned personnel of the Permanent Defence Force it will apply only while they are on active service. It will continue to apply to reservists called out on permanent service.
Section 12 regularises the procedure for the prosecution of civilian witnesses before courts martial who are charged with contempt. The provisions of the Defence Act which now apply require to be brought into line with the provisions of the relevant civil law.
Section 13 increases the penalty for wearing, without the Minister's permission, any uniform of the Defence Forces, including any distinctive part of a uniform.
The remaining provisons in the Bill are self-explanatory. We will go into these during the Committee Stage and I will be happy to reply to any points raised on Second Stage.
In the Dáil on Committee Stage of the Bill, I undertook to examine further in consultation with the Attorney General an amendment which was proposed at short notice. I had not an opportunity of looking into the legal aspect of it. The purpose of that amendment was to facilitate certain court proofs in the case of members of the Permanent Defence Force serving overseas with an armed international United Nations force. Having examined the proposal in consultation with the law officers I decided to accept the amendment as desirable and I propose that on Committee Stage it be included in the Bill. I commend the Bill to the House.