Fines and driving licences are not being collected, and the situation is only going to get worse until the Department of Justice takes action, writes Seán Fleming.
Last Thursday, the public accounts committee (PAC) heard evidence from the Courts Service about its role in overseeing the administration of justice in Ireland.
While I, as chairman of the PAC, know they do very good work in many areas, in two very important areas, what we heard from the Courts Service was, in truth, a total shambles. The first issue related to the extremely worrying non-collection of fines issued by the courts, which now stands at 90,000 uncollected fines, at a loss to the exchequer of €27m.
The second issue, probably even more serious, was the revelation that fewer than one in three people who are disqualified from driving actually surrender their licence, with the rest remaining at large, able to evade prosecution due to a lacuna in the laws.
As Angela Denning of the Courts Service pointed out, there are aspects of the legislation with a lacuna which allows people 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, she said.
Put simply, I was shocked — extremely shocked — by what we heard. It was clear to me, and all looking in, that key elements of the work of the Courts Service are in a shambles. Let me repeat — it is not the whole place, but elements of it are in disarray.
Going back to the first issue, the 90,000 outstanding fines totalling €27m arise because of a recent change in the law which was introduced to stop people being jailed for the non-payment of fines.
However, this law change now requires the judge to open the case, have the case, and then order the payment of the fine essentially from the person who didn’t pay it the first time. The judge must have a hearing and ask the person to be brought to court — but in many cases, the person simply does not show up.
The Courts Service said it is going to get about 10,000 of the 90,000 outstanding fines issued early next year. That means there are 80,000 fines that they are not going to be able to issue in the short term and they are not even going to follow up.
When we asked why don’t you do it, they said the system couldn’t cope. So we now have an admission from the Courts Service that if they were to follow up on fines issued, it would effectively collapse the system.
So clearly there’s a backlog here that nobody seems to be addressing, and there’s no notion of addressing it anytime soon. Really, the Department of Justice has to come in on this.
We might end up at the end of the day with a situation where a large portion of these fines just go by the wayside. And then that’s not fair to the people who do pay.
It is very simple. Some 80% of people pay, but for the 20% that don’t pay, there is more than a 50% chance of nothing happening if you don’t pay. So, if that message gets out, the question will be: ‘Why should the 80% pay?’
And that’s my main concern. Even if new legislation is brought forward, it may not solve the problem of the 80,000 fines which are not being collected, and this number is only increasing. From where I see it, the Department of Justice is substantially responsible for this debacle, but the Courts Service is the one in the firing line, saying they can’t cope.
In relation to the second issue — the ‘phoney’ driving licence issue, as I call it — it was deeply concerning that you have the Courts Service, the gardaí, and the Road Safety Authority all producing separate figures as to the level of licence surrenders.
We heard that the RSA has issued figures showing that over a six-year period only 12% of drivers who were convicted and required to hand in their licence actually did so. The Courts Service, using a different metric, puts the figure as closer to a third.
Either way, it is highly alarming that this going on. I have seen it in open court where the courts were handing out endorsements on licenses that didn’t exist as the driver in some cases didn’t have a licence to start with. They’re issuing an endorsement on phantom licenses because of weaknesses in the system.
In addition to this, only very few Garda vehicles have the ability to check the status of the licences, so offenders are able to even get through checkpoints on licences which should have been handed up. It is very worrying, so the system is not joined up and unless you join it up, people are going to lose confidence while the State agencies involved are passing the buck between themselves.
Ultimately, when the two matters were taken together, public confidence in the Courts Service took a hammering on Thursday and its administration in this matter. The message we heard at the committee is that most people hand in their driver’s licence and many do not pay fines.
The Courts Service does not know who does or does not, or whether they have their licences in court or not. Some of them do not show up. The Courts Service does not know whether they were even licensed drivers to begin with. If I was a criminal, I would say that the system is broken and let us ignore it.
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.
The PAC will examine this and will be producing a report on this in due course — but Thursday was a bad day for the administration of justice in this country.
Seán Fleming is a Fianna Fáil TD for Laois and is the chairman of the public accounts committee