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Criminal Procedure Bill 2021: Report and Final Stages (Continued)

Thursday, 11 March 2021

Dáil Éireann Debate
Vol. 1005 No. 2

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(Speaker Continuing)

[Deputy Martin Kenny: Information on Martin Kenny Zoom on Martin Kenny] We will be pressing the amendment.

Deputy Pa Daly: Information on Pa Daly Zoom on Pa Daly I concur with the comments of Deputy Martin Kenny on our amendment.

Another amendment, in the name of Deputy Pringle, calls for a review of the operation of this Bill within three years of its enactment. The Bill introduces procedures that will facilitate the trial of white-collar criminal cases and anything that will facilitate, strengthen and encourage more cases against white-collar defendants will be welcome. I used to work in the criminal courts and often saw the charges with which some people in court were faced. For example, a person was charged with stealing an apple tart. A homeless man was charged with stealing a packet of ham from Tesco. Others, mostly young fellows, were charged with having in their possession a fraction of a gram of cannabis. All of those people had potential careers destroyed because of a criminal conviction, while other cases involving financial irregularities of up to millions of pounds and euro were never brought to court. It is time for the revelry enjoyed by people with vested interests to come to an end.

I congratulate the powerful lobby of the insurance industry on the successful campaign it has waged to convince nearly everybody in the country that the high cost of premiums is due to whiplash cases. No sooner had the judges left their Zoom meeting on Saturday morning than the insurance lobby was out again, stating that premiums will not come down this year. That is unfortunate but not unexpected because we have heard the same thing for the past 30 or 40 years, including when juries were eliminated and senior council removed from civil cases and the cost of premiums continued to increase. Even when the amount of claims went down by 45% and the cost of claims per policy went down by 9%, premiums over the past ten years rose by 35%. When, in the middle of the pandemic, the amount of claims collapsed, everyone in this House and everyone in the country with an insurance policy knows that the refunds they were given amounted to €20 or €30. It is time for leadership, not salesmanship, as someone once famously said, with regard to our attitudes towards these powerful vested interest groups in the insurance industry. We must take them on. Their revelry is over and we should be doing everything we can to facilitate more cases being taken against these powerful lobbies.

Minister for Justice (Deputy Helen McEntee): Information on Helen McEntee Zoom on Helen McEntee I apologise for not being here at the start of the debate; the previous Bill moved faster than I expected. I thank the Deputies for putting forward this amendment. This legislation is being introduced for a number of reasons, the first being to create greater efficiencies, particularly for jury trials. It is to create greater efficiencies in the swearing in of juries and the process and challenges that entails. It is to ensure, as recommended in the Hamilton report, greater efficiencies for trials around economic crime, fraud and corruption. The Bill is also specifically designed to support victims and vulnerable persons who are going through sexual assault and rape trials, as was clearly recommended in the O'Malley report. That report sets out a number of things that we want to do and, clearly, part of that is contained in the Department's implementation plan, Supporting a Victim's Journey. The intention is to make sure that we do everything to support the victim or vulnerable person as he or she goes through this process. That is what the legislation is for.

I fully appreciate and welcome the spirit in which this particular amendment is intended but, unfortunately, I have difficulties with how it would operate in practice. This amendment would effectively mean that where the defence has not dealt with an application under section 3 of the Criminal Law (Rape) Act at a preliminary hearing, there would be only two circumstances in which the court could permit this particular issue to be raised. The first would be to benefit the expeditious and efficient conduct of proceedings, in other words, to make the running of a case more efficient in procedural terms. The second would be to help to avoid disruption to the jury and witness. The issue here is a very serious one because there may be valid circumstances in which it is simply not foreseeable at the preliminary stage that an application such as this would be needed. An example that I mentioned on Committee Stage is where new information that was not foreseen or known by either side comes to light in the course of a trial. That is only one example. One needs to be able to take into account the overall general interests of justice but also the emerging evidence piece. A court's hands would be tied by the imposition of restrictive reasons and we need to allow flexibility.

Having said that, there is a clear obligation to raise matters as early as possible in a trial process, as is set out in section 6(17) of the Bill. The whole intention of the preliminary trial hearing is that these issues are raised as early as possible. I have engaged with the Attorney General and the Director of Public Prosecutions on this matter and believe that we cannot risk compromising the right of the accused person to a fair trial. I fully accept the spirit in which this amendment is being made. The intention is that all of these issues would be raised at a preliminary trial hearing. I think that to be so restrictive as to the reasons it could potentially be accepted later on in the trial does not take into account the fact that things happen and new evidence emerges. That can often happen later on in a trial and, in the interests of justice, an application may need to be accepted at that time. I am sympathetic to the Deputies' position on this matter but those are the reasons I cannot accept the amendment.

Deputy Brendan Howlin: Information on Brendan Howlin Zoom on Brendan Howlin Most people in the House would be supportive of the intentions of the movers of this amendment. We were all deeply concerned at trials in the past, both here and in our neighbouring jurisdiction, where issues were raised at trial that most of us would regard as entirely extraneous and unacceptable to be raised in the conduct of a trial.

This particular legislation deals with trying to streamline the procedures of trials in order that as many technical and legal issues as possible can be resolved in advance of a jury being sworn in and the trial proper taking place. The intention is to streamline the entire process and avoid a situation where jurors are sworn in and are left waiting days on end for legal argument to be made while they are cocooned in a jury room. The rules that apply to that process must, obviously, be fair. I am mindful of enacting any legislation that, in the unfolding of events, has an effect that we did not intend. We will rectify one such defect when we turn to the Children (Amendment) Bill later today. That Bill proposes to amend the Children Act 2001, which was being interpreted in a way that was never intended by the Oireachtas to the effect that it is not possible to identify the dead victims of crime who are children. We are going to put that right. None of us involved in the enactment of that legislation in 2000 foresaw that interpretation could be made although, in plain English, it patently was possible.

My only concern about the amendment certainly does not relate to the intention behind it but applies to its outworking. If issues arise or information is made available in a future trial that was not available in the preliminary discussions and would have a real impact on the conduct and outcome of the trial, and interfere with fair procedures, we would not want any inhibition in law to an application being made at that stage. For that reason, I am minded to listen carefully to the argument made by the Minister. She might address the core intent of the movers of the amendment, which is to ensure that the issues which we regard as unacceptable cannot be raised in preliminary hearings either.

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