More than 70,000 drivers disqualified since 2012 who have failed to surrender their licences cannot be pursued by the courts due to a legal loophole, the Irish Examiner can reveal.
Despite it being a criminal act and subject to conviction, because of this lacuna in the law, gardaí are not prosecuting such people. Because of gaping holes in the law, disqualified drivers are allowed to circumvent the order which has been made by the court.
“If one does not produce one’s driver’s licence, the penalty points cannot be recorded,” the Courts Service has confirmed.
It has also been revealed that because of a change in the law to stop people going to jail for the non-payment of fines in 2016, 90,000 fines are now outstanding, at a loss of €27m to the taxpayer. The revelations have led the chairman of the Dáil’s spending watchdog to launch a blistering attack on the Department of Justice and the Courts Service over the scandal, which he described as a “total shambles”.
Seán Fleming, chairman of the public accounts committee (PAC), writing in today’s Irish Examiner, said public confidence in the administration of justice has “taken a hammering” because just one in 10 licences due for disqualification have actually been surrendered to the court.
“If I was a criminal, I would say that the system is broken and let us ignore it,” said Mr Fleming. “Something is radically wrong here. In all my time as PAC chairman, I have never seen such confusion and people not knowing what is going on with regard to who is in or out of court, with people and gardaí being here and there.”
Another member of the PAC, Fine Gael’s Peter Burke, said the situation is now at “crisis point”.
It has emerged that, because of the way the legislation was shaped, it has created a lacuna where, if the person does not attend, the judge has no power other than to issue the bench warrant and for the gardaí to bring the person to court, which drains other resources of the State and is therefore not done.
The matters were raised during a hearing of the PAC last Thursday. Mr Burke said the rate at which drivers were refusing to surrender their licences represented a major crisis for the justice system.
“When one considers that 7% of fatal accidents have been caused by disqualified drivers, there is a number of fatalities that have been driven by this,” said Mr Burke.
In relation to the 90,000 fines, it turns out that the Courts Service intends only issuing 10,000 of those in January, with no timeline for the 80,000 thereafter. Under the law, when the fine is imposed, a person has options to pay.
If a person pays a first instalment, the instalment procedure kicks in, or a person can choose to pay it all in one go.
In the event that a person does not pay, a fines notice issues from the Courts Service. That must be served and a person would be obliged to attend before a district court judge on a particular day to have the enforcement side of things dealt with.
“If a person does not attend that hearing, the remedies available to the judge do not kick in” because of the legal loopholes, and therefore the fines are not enforced.
Mr Fleming says that the blame for the debacle must lie primarily at the door of the Department of Justice.
“From where I see it, the Department of Justice is substantially responsible for this debacle, but the Courts Service are the ones in the firing line saying they can’t cope,” he said. “Ultimately, when the two matters are taken together, public confidence in the Courts Service took a hammering on Thursday, and its administration in this matter.”
The Courts Service said it is operating as best it can within the legislation as currently prescribed, but said the “system does create difficulties”.