Michael Clifford: False convictions action must be questioned

The problems around the false convictions of 14,700 people on fixed charge notices may be bigger than is being admitted by An Garda Síochána, writes Michael Clifford.

Michael Clifford: False convictions action must be questioned

The problems around the false convictions of 14,700 people on fixed charge notices may be a lot bigger than is being admitted by An Garda Síochána.

Today, the Irish Examiner reveals the details of the case of a man in Co Cork who was incarcerated on foot of a false prosecution. He served time in prison and subsequently emigrated as he had received a five-year driving ban.

Then, last August, he received a letter from Assistant Commissioner Michael Finn setting out that “correct procedures were not followed” in his conviction.

A question arises as to whether an admission about a procedural fault suffices to address a wrongful incarceration.

The other question that arises is how many others spent time in jail because correct procedures were not followed.

On Monday, this newspaper reported on a case being pursued by Killarney solicitor Padraig O’Connell, in which a woman was sent to Limerick Prison for failing to pay a fine. She suffered the ignominy of being taken from her home by gardaí, in front of all her neighbours, and spending a few hours in prison.

Now, in the standard letter dispatched to 14,700 people, she has been told that “correct procedures were not followed”.

The case reported on in today’s paper also gives rise to the spectre of people having emigrated as a result of having their licences revoked on a false premise.

It should also be noted that those who may have wished to emigrate during the recession could have found their routes to doing so severely restricted if they were recorded as having a conviction.

When this matter first surfaced last March, An Garda Síochána issued a statement setting out how it proposed to rectify the matter.

“We will be writing to all of the people affected and explaining what happened and how we propose to rectify the situation. Any fines imposed will be reimbursed and all records involved will be corrected.”

A template letter was subsequently issued. This applied to those who may have wrongfully had a few penalty points imposed on their licence, to those who were hit with a hefty fine, to anybody who was incarcerated as a result of the cock-up.

The letter includes a consent form which recipients are asked to sign in order to allow An Garda Síochána appeal the case to the Circuit Court.

“Subject to your consent An Garda Síochána will commence a process of appealing the conviction on your behalf. If you so consent please complete the enclosed form and return it in the prepaid self-addressed envelope provided.”

The letter ends with an apology from Assistant Commissioner Michael Finn, who is overseeing the whole process.

“I would like to take the opportunity to apologise for any inconvenience caused and we will do everything possible to redress this issue as quickly and efficiently as possible,” he says.

No provision is made for cases where the sanction imposed as a result of the cock-up was severe. Instead, everybody is asked to stand back and let the gardaí rectify the matter, which, presumably would be done with as little fuss as possible.

This softy-softly approach is also reflected in the recently published internal garda report into the matter.

The report sets out how those affected were “dealt with by way of summons and ultimately by the courts which resulted in approximately 14,700 persons receiving convictions and court-imposed penalties including the imposition of penalty points on persons who should correctly have received a Fixed Charge Notice for those offences”.

There is no mention of sanctions more punitive than the imposition of penalty points. Yet it is now emerging that there could be an as yet indeterminable number of people who have a major grievance as a result of their conviction.

The approach of the force to rectifying the matter has to be called into question. As one solicitor put it: “The attitude seems to be ‘play ball with us and we’ll sort this thing out for you’. But what is involved in that? Are they just trying to get the thing done without really looking at what the consequences were?”

One thing that can’t be sorted out is the turning back of the clock on a spell in prison and all that flows from that. There is also an issue around those who were falsely convicted and found themselves exceeding the 12 penalty points limit and having their licences endorsed. And then there are those who found their insurance premiums hiked as a result of the conviction.

How exactly these people are to be compensated has not been addressed in any form by An Garda Síochána or the State. There is no reference to any of this in the internal report beyond an acknowledgement of the “imposition of penalty points”.

In Monday’s report, solicitor Padraig O’Connell that none of his clients have signed the consent forms, presumably on his advice. He has sought legal opinion, and he told reporter Anne Lucey: “I have told the Garda Headquarters in the Phoenix Park that I am suing the State, pursuing a claim for damages in the appropriate cases to include exemplary damages.”

Should he or other solicitors pursue actions against the State, it is likely to be costly and long drawn out.

The usual route taken in instances like this has been for a test case to clear a path through the legal system. Everybody, including the State sits tight until a result is forthcoming. And, if such a case is successful, action is finally taken to address the wrongs perpetrated.

Perhaps a more judicious approach would be to examine in detail at an early stage whether or not there may be legitimate claims on the public purse for compensation. It would demonstrate a pro-active approach which would in the long term be more cost-effective, and, if compensation is likely to be an issue, less stressful on those who were wronged.

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