Dáil Éireann - Volume 620 - 31 May, 2006
Private Members’ Business. - Courts (Register of Sentences) Bill 2006: Second Stage (Resumed).
Question again proposed: “That the Bill be now read a Second Time.”
Mr. Ardagh Mr. Ardagh
Mr. Ardagh: I wish to share time with Deputies Peter Power, O’Connor, Curran and Hoctor.
I thank Deputy Jim O’Keeffe for bringing this Bill before the House. It gives us an opportunity to study the work the Courts Service board is doing in providing information on sentencing and the management information systems it has in place, particularly the criminal case management system, which is relevant to the Bill.
No one can really argue with the principles which underlie Deputy O’Keeffe’s Bill. It is not, however, the best way to achieve his objectives because the Courts Service board has the necessary capacity and has started work on the measures envisaged by the Bill. Everyone agrees that it is a good idea to have a comprehensive register of sentences so that sentencing norms can be assessed. Everyone can agree that it is a good idea to do something which introduces greater transparency to the sentencing process within the criminal justice system. For these reasons we must be careful that whatever we do in the sentencing area achieves these objectives.
As the Minister of State at the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform, Deputy Brian Lenihan, said last night, we can all agree that few aspects of our criminal justice system generate as much controversy as the sentences handed down by our courts. We all know cases where the man in the street believes the sentence to be too lenient or, occasionally, too harsh. All Deputies have received letters from constituents complaining about court sentences. It is an issue that attracts comment on an ongoing basis.
It is clear, however, that moves are afoot to address the sentencing issues raised tonight by the Opposition. I especially welcome the setting up of a high level steering committee by the Courts Service board to plan for and provide a system of information on sentencing. This will provide some systemic form of information as a reference point for judges. This system will be easily integrated into the information systems the Courts Service board operates efficiently, particularly the criminal case management system.
 I am aware that the steering committee has reviewed sentencing systems worldwide. This is a good approach because we should seek out best practice elsewhere, especially in countries with similar legal systems. I understand the committee has identified the sentencing regimes in Scotland and New South Wales as the most relevant to our situation. In this regard, New South Wales has a judicial commission whose major function is to assist the courts in achieving consistency of approach in the sentencing of offenders. The commission’s objectives in this area are to reduce unjustified disparities in sentences imposed by the courts, to improve sentencing efficiency generally and to reduce the number of appeals against sentences, thereby releasing valuable resources which can be redeployed to reduce court delays.
Mr. O’Shea Mr. O’Shea
Mr. O’Shea: The Deputy has one minute left.
Mr. Ardagh Mr. Ardagh
Mr. Ardagh: I have ten minutes.
Acting Chairman Acting Chairman
Acting Chairman: That is different from my information.
Mr. Ardagh Mr. Ardagh
Mr. Ardagh: The commission has two strategies for achieving its objective of sentencing consistency, namely, providing judicial officers with access to the sentencing information system — a computerised sentencing database — and undertaking and disseminating original research and statistical analysis on aspects of sentencing and other topics of assistance to sentencers.
I will deal with the Courts Service board and its information technology system, in particular the criminal case management system. It may be asked whether the Judiciary supports such a system, so I will read what the Chief Justice, Mr. John Murray, said: “The increasing demands made upon our legal system, whether manifested in the volume and level of complexity of proceedings initiated or in the expectations of the legal profession and litigating public, require that the service equip itself to discharge its functions by drawing upon the best management practices, availing of the latest technologies”.
The board has a criminal case management system, which had only been operational in Dublin and Limerick District Courts offices but was rolled out nationwide to 41 separate offices in 2005. The exercise represented the largest single implementation of a strategic business application in the history of the Irish courts system. The system can track the whole life cycle of a criminal or road traffic case, which means that an integrated electronic record is now available in respect of 95% of all criminal cases nationwide. That was not acknowledged in recent contributions to this debate.
The system will also enable the service to introduce an automated penalty points system to meet  its commitment to Government on the implementation of penalty points. It was necessary to ensure compatibility between the criminal case management system and the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government driver licensing system so that the details of penalty point convictions could be electronically transferred to the Department for further processing. In addition, as part of a pilot project commenced during the year, details of summons applications from the Garda Síochána are electronically received and details of hearing dates electronically allocated. The installation of the criminal case management system represents a major challenge for the service. It included the introduction of a significant business change programme, as well as the training of almost 300 staff. The exercise was completed on time and within a demanding six-month period.
It is necessary to integrate the system not just with the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government and the Garda PULSE system but also with the prison system and the probation service, and to have it fully on-line so that it is acceptable to all who require access to it.
It is very interesting to see some of the figures from the criminal case management system. Much of what the Bill proposes is already in place. The 2004 figures report 312,152 summary cases in the District Court. As I said, the two areas originally on the system were Dublin and Limerick. Some 24% of assault and public order offences in Dublin were dismissed, whereas in Limerick the figure was only 9%. In Dublin, of the total number of assault and public order cases dealt with, 702, or 10%, were dealt with by the poor box system. In Limerick none was dealt with by the poor box. I do not know whether the people of Dublin are more affluent than the people of Limerick but I doubt it. Some 32% of drug offences dealt with in Limerick resulted in fines, as against 14% of drug offences in Dublin, which suggests Limerick has more affluent drug offenders. Some 15% of drug offences in Dublin were dismissed, as against only 4% in Limerick.
Acting Chairman Acting Chairman
Acting Chairman: The Deputy’s ten minutes have elapsed.
Mr. Ardagh Mr. Ardagh
Mr. Ardagh: This shows that there already exists a very good information technology system in the Courts Service, which can be developed and expanded to take into account the concerns of all Members on sentencing. I ask the board of the Courts Service to take these views into account and continue its good work.
Mr. P. Power Mr. P. Power
Mr. P. Power: I thank Deputy Ardagh for sharing time but take issue with his comments on the relative affluence of Limerick when compared with Dublin. I would like to bring the Deputy to Limerick to show him the city’s affluence relative  to some of the places I have seen in Dublin. It would make a poor comparison.
Mr. F. McGrath Mr. F. McGrath
Mr. F. McGrath: The poor mouth.
Mr. P. Power Mr. P. Power
Mr. P. Power: Deputy Finian McGrath might like to visit Limerick as he would return more enlightened than he was last week when he made unfortunate comments to the media. That is, however, an issue for another day.
I compliment Deputy Jim O’Keeffe on bringing the Bill before the House. While I and the Deputy do not agree on whether it will achieve its intended objectives, the Bill gives Deputies an opportunity to discuss the wider issue of sentencing, an important concern, and send a message to the Judiciary outlining the Legislature's views on its sentencing policy. Fewer subjects generate greater emotion than sentencing. All Deputies will be aware from meetings with constituents that people respond emotionally to sentences handed down by the Judiciary without knowing some of the mitigating or underlying factors of the cases in question. People will always have an opinion on whether an individual received too severe or too lenient a sentence. This highlights that lack of consistency in sentencing has become a major problem, which is bringing the law, courts and Judiciary into disrepute.
The Bill also gives Deputies an opportunity to express our views on sentencing policy. The Judiciary has taken much too liberal an approach to sentencing. A person who, having taken alcohol, gets into a fight on a Saturday night and kicks another person in the head while lying on the ground should know before going out that such a crime will result in him or her spending a long period in custody. The House should send out a message that anyone who rapes or sexually assaults a woman, especially an under age girl, the issue which has dominated business this week, will spend an extraordinarily long time behind bars. Unfortunately, this is not the message being sent out by the Judiciary. If anything, this debate offers the House an opportunity to send this message to the Judiciary.
While I welcome Deputy Jim O’Keeffe’s initiative to deal with the underlying issues of transparency and consistency in sentencing, I understand a steering committee of the Courts Service is addressing these issues. Extensive research is being carried out nationally and internationally, including in Australia, New Zealand, the United States and England, to determine how the system can be made more consistent. Although the Bill strives to achieve greater consistency, it is probably premature to enact the legislation pending the outcome of the steering committee’s deliberations. We should await its report before re-examining Deputy Jim O’Keeffe’s proposals in light of its recommendations.
 Sentencing is a matter for the judge in the court and is, therefore, a subjective decision. The judge in each case must take all the circumstances into account. The information the Bill seeks to obtain from the Courts Service does not capture underlying factors such as background, motivation, previous history, provocation and so forth, none of which can be provided in the simple form sought in these proposals.
In an ideal world we would have a sentencing register, notwithstanding the substantial resources which would be required to compile it. However, the House should first await the outcome of the deliberations of the Courts Service’s steering committee before re-examining the Bill.
Mr. Curran Mr. Curran
Mr. Curran: I welcome the opportunity to speak on the Bill. Nobody will disagree with the concept and principles underlying the legislation and all Deputies will agree in principle that it is a good idea to have a comprehensive register of sentences which would allow sentencing norms to be assessed, and that a measure which introduces greater transparency to the sentencing process in the criminal justice system is welcome. It is for these reasons that we must be careful that any action we take in the area of sentencing achieves its objectives.
I support the steps being taken to remove some of the mystery of sentencing, as members of the public might regard it. Nevertheless, in approaching this issue, we must be careful to ensure we do not undermine fundamental principles which underpin our criminal justice system. While we all agree that more information on sentencing is required, the Bill as drafted presents certain problems. For instance, section 5(2) provides for the register to be updated weekly, but this requirement is not feasible because many sentences are subject to an appeal and, as such, months will elapse before certainty is established in particular cases. This example of a problem does not detract from the fact that the principles underlying the legislation are valid.
The traditional approach to sentencing is that the Oireachtas lays down the maximum penalty and a court, having considered all the circumstances of a case, may impose an appropriate penalty up to the maximum sentence. This approach reflects the doctrine of the separation of powers, with the Legislature laying down the possible punishment range and the courts deciding the punishment, taking into account all the circumstances of the case and the offender. While this system has served us well, like all systems it is not perfect. It is difficult to balance the rights of the accused and those of the victim in perfect harmony.
No one has suggested replacing the current system with one in which all sentencing is determined by pre-established mandatory sentences. As I noted last week, mandatory sentencing is already in place in some areas, notably under  section 5 of the Criminal Justice Act 1999 which relates to the misuse of drugs. A mandatory sentences of ten years’ imprisonment, save in exceptional and specific circumstances, is in force for the possession of substantial quantities of drugs for the purpose of unlawful sale or supply where the value of the drugs exceeds €13,000. Unfortunately, many people share my view that this provision has not been properly enforced by the Judiciary. Until recent years, mandatory sentences were imposed in only 6% of these types of cases, a figure which has since increased to more than 20% but is still a minority of cases. Judges should resort to the exceptional circumstances provision in a minority of cases. We have a long way to go before the Judiciary has fully implemented the legislation on mandatory sentencing which we, as legislators and public representatives, believe to be appropriate.
I note the Criminal Justice Bill before the House provides for mandatory sentencing for the possession of illegal firearms and other offences. Mandatory sentencing has little effect if it is the exception rather than the rule. The experience to date with this form of sentencing is that it has not delivered on the expectations of Members when they passed the relevant legislation.
I welcome the initiative by the board of the Courts Service to establish a sentencing committee. It would be premature to move on this issue before it has concluded its deliberations. We can see then how best to advance this debate on the establishment of general sentencing information. I welcome the proposal and concur with its principle and concept, but the detail as laid out in this particular——
Mr. J. Breen Mr. J. Breen
Mr. J. Breen: Will the Deputy vote for it?
Mr. Curran Mr. Curran
Mr. Curran: I will not vote for it specifically because if we were to go through the content line by line and section by section, it is probably unenforceable and could not be implemented. The principle is good but the manner in which it is laid out in this Bill is unenforceable, impractical and unworkable.
Mr. O’Connor Mr. O’Connor
Mr. O’Connor: “Exhausted” is a good word for this week. Together with other colleagues, I welcome the opportunity to contribute briefly to this debate. I compliment Deputy Jim O’Keeffe, my esteemed colleague on the Joint Committee on Justice, Equality, Defence and Women’s Rights for his work in this area. I was not going to get involved in the banter that took place between my Limerick and Dublin colleagues earlier, but as a proud Dubliner I will always speak up for the Dublin viewpoint. As Deputy Power mentioned Limerick, I will refer to Tallaght for a second, but only because in any debate like this I would wish to state what has been achieved there. One of the things we are happy about in Tallaght is the restorative justice programme, which has a sister  programme in Tipperary. I am sure Deputy Hoctor will speak about that later. The Minister visited our community a couple of weeks ago for the annual report of the restorative justice programme in Tallaght, which is making huge progress. As Tallaght and Nenagh have shown the way, this programme can be rolled out in the rest of the country. That should be done.
I am sympathetic to the Bill’s intent but, like other colleagues, I believe we should await the outcome of the steering committee’s work before considering legislation. We need information on sentencing and I suspect that some of the controversy which erupts from to time to time may be defused if we have recourse to a proper sentencing database. As we are discovering, sentencing is a complex issue. Each case is different with variable factors to be taken into account. While no two cases are the same, that is not to say that judges cannot make mistakes or that sentencing may not be consistent. For all these reasons we need more information on this vital function of the courts.
I support the decision of the board of the Courts Service to establish a steering committee to plan for and provide a system of information on sentencing. I also welcome the committee’s decision to establish a pilot project in the Dublin Circuit Court. Information is needed if we are to consider the issue meaningfully. We need to get beyond headlines. Once we have information we can consider the rights and wrongs of mandatory sentencing or sentencing guidelines. The real question is whether we should have statutory sentencing guidelines.
As the Minister has stated, the complex question of sentencing policy was addressed at length by the Law Reform Commission, which specifically recommended against the introduction of statutory sentencing guidelines. The commission has stated that statutory guidelines would involve undue interference in the independence of the Judiciary. The decision on what kind of sentencing to impose is a judicial determination. Apart from exceptional circumstances, I am of the view that the Oireachtas should be cautious in prescribing mandatory sentencing. I generally concur with the thinking behind the recommendations on statutory guidelines. The point was made in the commission’s report that the more detailed the requirements of any statutory sentencing procedure, the more likely it was that mistakes would arise, leaving sentences open to challenge on technical grounds only.
Subsequently, the working group on the jurisdiction of the courts found that there was a need for some system of objective guidance on sentencing for judges at all levels. One option proposed by the working group would be to accommodate within the present system the more effective dissemination of decisions which are regarded as being authoritative in nature, particularly decisions of the Court of Criminal Appeal.  These benchmark cases would at the same time assist trial judges and enable the public to understand more clearly the principles behind sentencing decisions.
I was interested to hear that the Courts Service and the Supreme Court Judiciary are currently operating a pilot database of judgments of the Supreme Court and the Court of Criminal Appeal, which has been launched on the Courts Service website with High Court judgments.
I concur with the Minister in that we should await the outcome of the steering committee’s work. Future debate will be the richer for doing so. I look forward to voting for the Government amendment but I compliment Deputy O’Keeffe.
Ms Hoctor Ms Hoctor
Ms Hoctor: I am happy to have the opportunity to address the Private Members’ Bill before the House. With my colleagues, I thank and commend Deputy Jim O’Keeffe for bringing this issue before us. Like Deputy O’Connor, I am a firm believer in the system of restorative justice. At a later stage, Deputy O’Keeffe is to bring before the Joint Committee on Justice, Equality, Defence and Women’s Rights a report on the implementation of restorative justice in the Nenagh and Tallaght projects, as well as the experience abroad. When that report is made available we may have a different view of the Private Members’ proposal before us. While I can see merits in what Deputy O’Keeffe is attempting to do with this measure, I can also see difficulties, which have no doubt already been outlined by my colleagues.
A genuine effort has been made in the Bill to create a comprehensive register of sentences so that sentencing norms can be assessed. The measure also seeks to introduce greater transparency in the sentencing process. How we go about doing that is the key issue. Deputy O’Keeffe’s proposal would appear to be difficult to implement and would entail a major undertaking for the Courts Service. It would not be practical even to record sentencing patterns on a weekly basis, which the Bill recommends. The complexity of the process would be seen as a vast drain on staff and resources. The timing is also a difficult aspect because each case is different.
I commend the Deputy on what he is attempting to do but it would be difficult to implement in practical terms. The level of detail required with the labour intensity go far beyond what is needed. The proposal recommends that all details of previous sentences of offenders would be brought before the courts and that mitigating factors would be taken into consideration. All that data would have to be made available to the Courts Service staff who do not currently have it, although it is available to the Garda and the Irish Prison Service. It would bring about a big change in the level of staff and the nature of their work but how fruitful would that be at the end of the day? While we should seriously exam ine what is proposed, we must also be practical about it.
In some ways the proposal is premature and I am surprised the Deputy has brought it before the House in view of the work being undertaken by a steering committee established by the board of the Courts Service in October 2004. That steering committee was set up to plan and provide for a system of information on sentencing. The board’s initiative is designed to provide some systemic form of information as a reference point for judges. That work is under way and will soon be put into practice in the Dublin District Court for a six-week period, based on findings in New South Wales and Scotland. We have a lot to learn from other jurisdictions about the operation of justice, particularly the innovative steps that have been taken in Australia.
New South Wales has a judicial commission whose major function is to assist courts in achieving consistency of approach in the sentencing of offenders. The commission’s objectives in this area are to reduce unjustified disparities in sentences imposed by the courts, to improve sentencing efficiency generally and to reduce the number of appeals against sentences thereby releasing valuable resources which can be redeployed to reduce court delays. We should debate the issue of court delays on another occasion.
Mr. McHugh Mr. McHugh
Mr. McHugh: I wish to share time with Deputies Finian McGrath, Connolly, James Breen, Catherine Murphy, Cuffe and Ó Snodaigh.
Acting Chairman Acting Chairman
Acting Chairman: Is that agreed? Agreed.
Mr. McHugh Mr. McHugh
Mr. McHugh: I welcome the opportunity to contribute on the Bill. While I agree with the sentiments behind it, I question the practicalities of putting the structures in place in a manner which will be of benefit to the public at large. It is one thing to collect all the information in regard to sentencing to find whether Johnny got the same sentence as Mary for what seems to be the same offence. However, the reality is that without an expert analysis of each case, including an analysis of the evidence and mitigating factors taken into account by the presiding judge and without taking into account a plethora of issues, it will not be possible to make a judgment on whether there is uniformity in the sentences handed down by the various courts.
The Bill proposes a new scheme of recording sentences but, even within the existing regime, many improvements could be made, for example, the idea of remission as being a standard. The present situation allows a criminal being sentenced to jail to tell his associates on the outside when he will be set free, taking into account remission. The system should not be as simple as that. Criminals are so well aware now about procedures that they can play the system, keep their  noses clean and get out early to continue their life of crime.
Another issue which needs to be addressed is where a criminal who may be in jail for one offence may be brought before the courts for a different offence, receive another sentence and be allowed to serve it concurrently with the sentence received for the first offence. This effectively means there is no punishment for the second offence. The logic of the matter defies explanation. How can a person serve two jail sentences at the one time? With this farcical system in place, the message to the criminals is clear. They should commit as many offences as possible as close in time to each other as possible because they will serve only one sentence.
Mr. F. McGrath Mr. F. McGrath
Mr. F. McGrath: I find it ironic that we are discussing this Bill dealing with fundamental justice issues while the Government is floundering owing to the High Court’s decision yesterday to release a 41 year old man serving a sentence for having sex with an under age girl. That is a disgrace. Any justice system that does not support the victim is out of touch with the people and deserves to be challenged. Therefore, I challenge all involved in this debate. I challenge the Government, the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform, who should be sacked, the members of the legal establishment, who were paid thousands of euro of taxpayers’ money, and successive Governments. They have failed this child and our citizens. The original three-year sentence was a disgrace. I wonder at times what planet our Judiciary is living on. I raise these serious matters because I feel the voiceless are not heard. I will support the rally at the gates of Leinster House on Friday.
The purpose of the Bill is to create a comprehensive register of sentences so sentencing norms can be assessed, and to introduce greater transparency to the sentencing process within the criminal justice system. The Bill details the information that will be provided in the register, which will be a public document, with statutory right of access for certain categories of person and organisation. It also places a statutory duty on the Courts Service to maintain the register to a high standard. These are the main issues addressed in the Bill.
We must have laws. We must have a justice system that looks after its citizens in a fair and impartial manner and, in particular, protects and defends the rights of children from sexual abuse. Above all, our justice system must have the confidence and trust of our people. At present, it does not have that trust. It is important to listen to the voice of the people. I urge all Members to support a proper and effective justice system.
Mr. Connolly Mr. Connolly
Mr. Connolly: I welcome the Bill which seeks to establish a register of sentences and promote  greater consistency and transparency in the sentencing process. Consistency is a key issue. Inconsistencies in sentences have frequently been highlighted in the media with different outcomes for cases with similar characteristics. I recall a request from Limerick County Council in a situation where two people received sentences for manslaughter for three and five years, respectively, which is an example we should examine.
We see many instances where there appear to be inconsistencies in respect of the type of sentence applied by judges, whether in the District Court, Circuit Court or High Court. That aspect of the judicial system is in need of reform and the need for consistency in sentencing must be addressed, especially for minor offences at District Court level. The result of cases in the District Court often depends on the mood of the judge, with particular sentences being handed out in the morning while people are afraid to go into court in the afternoon. These cases involve the type of inconsistencies we must address.
Such minor cases often merit very harsh sentences from some judges while the same offences merit relatively lenient sentences from other judges. I know of cases where a judge will destroy a person for driving at speed, another judge will jail a person for drink driving and another will jail a person for avoiding tax. There are major differences which must be addressed.
The practice of imprisoning fine defaulters should be discontinued, with greater use being made of attachment of earnings or community service in response to defaulting. A judge in my constituency threatened to ask a defendant to stand in a local town with a note hanging from him stating he had committed a certain offence. The objective of that threat was that the defendant would not commit crime again. If that type of situation were considered, we would have less crime.
Mr. J. Breen Mr. J. Breen
Mr. J. Breen: The concept and principles behind the Bill are praiseworthy and I commend Deputy Jim O’Keeffe on the work he has put into its preparation. However, in practical terms, building and maintaining such a database would not be feasible and it would never be complete or up-to-date. Aside from the fact that the outcome of certain cases cannot be put on public record owing to the in camera rule, it would be impossible, first, to record all the factors produced in mitigation by the defence in every court case and, second, know every detail that contributed to a judge arriving at a sentence.
As others stated, a database of sex offenders is maintained in Harcourt Square, but this database is not up to date weekly and it could take anything up to a month before some court areas transmit necessary convictions to the unit responsible for maintaining the database. There is no realistic hope of the Courts Service comprehen sively updating such a database weekly or even monthly.
Another fear I have in regard to the existence of such a database is that it might become too easy for a judge who is having difficulty in reaching a fair sentence in a case to decide on a sentence based on another case in such a database when all the relevant factors in that case might not have been recorded in the database in the first place. A fear of not being consistent with his colleagues might overtake a fair hearing as the main deciding factor in sentencing.
Judgments which make first-time offenders think twice about their actions and deter them from re-offending could be lost under such a proposed system, especially in the District Court. I accept that any measure that improves sentencing standards and consistency across the Judiciary would be welcome but a better means of achieving that would be more regular training and information seminars for judges, with judges specialising in the various aspects of law sitting at every court level, unlike the present situation where the same District Court judge often hears family law cases, civil cases, licensing applications, road traffic offences, other criminal matters and small claims court cases.
I again commend Deputy Jim O’Keeffe on his preparation. I wish such innovative thinking could be found on the Government benches.
Mr. Browne Mr. Browne
Mr. Browne: That is a terrible attack.
Ms C. Murphy Ms C. Murphy
Ms C. Murphy: It is very difficult to focus on sentencing norms when there is a such a gaping hole in the legislation protecting our children. We have been told by the Taoiseach and Tánaiste in recent days that legislation exists to prosecute people for both sexual assault and rape. The reality is that no offence now exists for statutory rape. What makes this offence different in practical terms is that the question of consent is dispensed with. We now have a situation where the onus of proof is on the child to demonstrate she did not give consent. Should the law in regard to sexual assault or rape be applied instead of statutory rape, the child will be exposed to the full rigours of the legal system, as is the case——
Acting Chairman Acting Chairman
Acting Chairman: The Deputy should confine her comments to the Bill.
Ms C. Murphy Ms C. Murphy
Ms C. Murphy: I will move on to that. It is insulting to think people equate the two offences. There is a chasm in the laws protecting children from sexual predators.
I do not have many difficulties with the principle of the existence of a database. Not only would it be in the public interest, it would be helpful for those who must impose sentences to know the norms. There is no doubt that people convicted of serious offences are held in the prison system, which serves to protect the public against them.
 However, only recently the Inspector of Prisons and Places of Detention branded the Irish prison system a failure. He stated the training and educational programmes for young offenders in St. Patrick’s Institution have been closed and now there are none. I have no problem with people who commit crimes being punished but I question the value of putting young offenders in an institution where there is no possibility of rehabilitation. Not only is it bad for the offender but it offers no protection to the public in the longer term. There is clearly a need not just to register the sentences and make comparisons between them but to consider how crime and our prison population can be reduced in tandem. I presume the register will consider the impact of community service and other types of sanction. The object should be to make the country a safer place to live and there are many ways that can be achieved.
Mr. Cuffe Mr. Cuffe
Mr. Cuffe: The need for a Courts (Register of Sentences) Bill is brought into sharp focus today by the issue the nation is talking about, namely, the striking down by the Supreme Court of section 1(1) of the Criminal Law (Amendment) Act 1935 on statutory rape. When questioned here, the Taoiseach was unable to say how many people are in prison under the law that was ruled unconstitutional. He attempted to bluff his way out of an awkward question by saying the Irish Prison Service was checking records and warrants from the courts and hoped to have a clearer picture later in the day. The Irish Prison Service should be in a position to access this information in a matter of minutes if not seconds. In a crisis such as this it is simply not acceptable for a developed nation such as ours not to have such information to hand.
While the Bill is a general one it is brought into sharp focus by the events today and the events in the courts in recent days. It is simply not acceptable in the 21st century in a nation that prides itself on being an information society not to have this information to hand.
While I positively welcome the development it is important that the database which will contain quite detailed information will not reveal the name or personal details of the sentenced person. This is crucial to safeguard people’s privacy. This Bill would bring into being a body of information that would be an invaluable tool for members of the Judiciary, Members of the Oireachtas, researchers and others.
It brings into focus also the issue of consistency in sentencing because this has received attention. While the Government has said there is a great deal of consistency in sentencing we simply do not have the facts to hand. It makes a mockery of any attempt to get consistency in sentencing if we do not have the statistical information in front of us. I can think of a number of cases where the DPP is appealing the sentence handed down by  the judge on the basis of it being too lenient. Let us get the information out and proceed with the Bill.
I was outraged last evening that the Minister of State with responsibility for children, Deputy Brian Lenihan, remarked it would be extremely difficult for the Courts Service to collect and maintain the information required in this Bill. This information is crucial if we are to restore confidence and legitimacy to the courts process, to sentencing and belief in the justice system. There is an obligation on the Government to provide the Courts Service with the resources that would allow the Bill to see the light of day.
We need transparency and accessibility. This Bill provides one of the tools that will bring us forward in that regard. The Green Party strongly supports the Bill and hopes the Government will come to its senses and give it the support it needs.
Aengus Ó Snodaigh Aengus Ó Snodaigh
Aengus Ó Snodaigh: On an initial reading of the Title of the Bill, I thought it might be interesting and worthwhile but it went downhill after that. Sinn Féin is opposed to the Bill especially given the Fine Gael Party’s reasoning for it when introducing it last evening. It was stated it would provide greater transparency in sentencing. Most sentences are already pronounced in public. One cannot get more transparency than that. I wish that most of what the State does was as transparent.
All serious crime cases are fully reported in national and local media. If somebody wants to check whether, as Deputy Jim O’Keeffe said, “sentences are being imposed in a fair and rigorous manner”, or if a “perceived inconsistency” is occurring, they can do so easily. Just because there is a public reaction to perceived inconsistencies does not mean those perceptions are correct. Judges should base their sentences on a hearing of the case in front of them and the law, and not on potentially inaccurate and incomplete records of previous cases.
Deputy Jim O’Keeffe mentioned sentencing tariffs, in other words, minimum sentences. Where is the independence of the Judiciary when taking into account the circumstances? Let us not forget what Deputy Durkan said on this matter: “I mean no disrespect to the legal profession or to the Judiciary but the public is not interested in extenuating circumstances”. Why not leave sentencing to The Star or Sunday World for that matter? Section 4(2)(d) refers to any mitigating factors relied upon by the convicted person. There is no mention of what the judge says in sentencing the person or no mention of character witnesses or much else, which informs the judge in his or her sentencing. As stated last night, under Fine Gael, there would be no concurrent sentences. In terms of remission for prisoners, it proposes that the carrot and big stick approach be used. Going by the previous record of its Mini ster for Justice, Equality and Law Reform, that would be a very big stick.
What is to happen when a person has paid his or her debt to society? Is that person entitled to try to rebuild his or her life? This register would allow them to be victimised, discriminated against and targeted because access to Fine Gael’s proposed register would be near universal according to the list produced. Even if numbers were allocated to give some semblance of anonymity, a basic cross-referencing of newspaper reportage could identify the individual.
In Britain, last month, it emerged that more than 1,500 were listed as criminals despite their innocence and the effect that such a mistake had on their lives. They were blacklisted from jobs, harassed and barred from some premises. The proposed register is impractical and replicates much of what the Garda Síochána should already have on its PULSE system. If it does not record the results of cases it is prosecuting or bringing to court it is incompetent and needs to be dealt with. Obviously the existing material on the PULSE system should and could be checked in the case of claims being sought for child workers to ensure abusers do not end up working with children.
The proposed register is contrary to existing laws, for example, the in camera rule in cases of domestic violence and cases of juveniles. The Fine Gael Party’s time would be much better spent producing better Bills which would go some way to addressing the flaws in the judicial system rather than this type of carry on.
Mr. Connaughton Mr. Connaughton
Mr. Connaughton: I wish to share time with Deputy Enright. I congratulate my colleague, Deputy Jim O’Keeffe, on bringing this Bill to the House. That it comes before the House this week is unique.
This is a relatively small but important Bill. It is a useful step towards making sentencing transparent and understood by the public. Many members of the public cannot understand why one person convicted of a crime gets a certain sentence while in another part of the country a similar offence attracts either a higher or lower sentence. Many who do not have a legal training cannot understand that aspect.
The Bill could not be more straightforward or more easily understood and could be easily implemented. One could argue that if one were to ask the Government to do anything on a database, from the electronic voting machines to PPARS and so on, it could not do it. It has a very bad record so I hope that if it gets down to business on this, it will not make a hames of it like it did out of everything else. We have the technology to do it. Let nobody tell me that in a court in Cahirciveen or in Belmullet or Clifden, what happens there on a daily basis could not be inputted to a central computer through the Courts Service where all the information which we in Fine Gael believe should be on the register  could be stored. I cannot understand why that would not be possible, given the technology available to us.
It is vitally important that not only the public, but the Judiciary, senior counsel, people in the Courts Service and policy makers sing from the same hymn sheet. It has been mentioned in this House several times last night and tonight that the ultimate happened this week, and the Taoiseach, the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform and the Attorney General did not know how many sex offenders were jailed for statutory rape in Irish prisons. They did not know that in this House yesterday morning.
It is against that background that the register of which I speak would be immensely useful. What we want is a record, easily obtainable and accessed by all the people I have mentioned, particularly the injured parties. For instance, how many drug pushers have been convicted who have got more or less than the minimum sentence? If the record of the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform over the past two days is anything to go by, he would not be able to say, nor would anybody from the Minister down be able to supply that figure. Furthermore, with regard to drunken drivers who kill innocent people going about their normal duties, why does one judge seem to take one line and for some strange reason — we must all accept the judge is in possession of all the facts — a much more lenient sentence is handed down to another drunken driver in another part of the country? The public cannot understand that. This is what we are talking about.
Some of my colleagues seem to want to throw cold water on the Bill. They include some Independent Members and some Fianna Fáil Members. I carried out an in-depth survey in east Galway recently on matters relating to crime and people’s opinions on what the courts were doing. A total of 1,450 respondents answered 38 questions and went to the trouble of posting their replies, which were professionally evaluated. I have not got the time to read out all the questions, but one was whether respondents had confidence in the ability of the courts to combat crime. A total of 26% said “Yes” and 74% said “No”. Another question was whether our courts system is tackling repeat offenders — a big question. A total of 19% said “Yes” and 81% said “No”, an overwhelming majority. The survey also asked whether repeat offenders should serve their full sentences without remission, and 95% said “Yes” while 5% said “No”. Those answers came from ordinary people with ordinary lifestyles, and we should take notice of such information.
As Members of this House, we understand fully the separation of Executive powers from the judicial system. As an elected Member of this House, the last thing I want is interference in the judicial system. Everyone in this House shares that view. At the end of the day, however, the  laws made in this Chamber must be interpreted by the judges. That is what they are there for. I have no crow to pick with judges, good, bad or indifferent. As a body they are very professional and do the best they can. However, there is a large, growing body of opinion that suggests judges are sometimes too lenient. On a few occasions, the DPP has asked that another look be taken at a particular court decision.
Fine Gael policy, as enunciated by our spokesman on justice, equality and law reform, and by our leader, is that in so far as discretion is concerned — I am speaking of minimum sentences — the exact limits for judges involved with particular offences should be clearly outlined. However, if for possibly good reason a judge decides he or she will go above or below those limits, which were decided by this House, the judge should publicly state in open court why such a decision was taken. That is a reasonable suggestion, which many people would be happy to see implemented, and it is not interfering with the discretion of judges as such.
I want to talk of remission of sentences. As we know, someone sentenced to four years in jail and who keeps his or her nose clean, or not clean, is automatically released after three years. That is what remission means. Remission should be earned. I am among those people who have always believed that the rehabilitation aspect for prisoners should be taken seriously. We all know that if people are put into an environment where all are as bad as each other, so to speak, some emerge worse than when they entered. They learn all the tricks inside.
I know that many people in the Irish Prison Service genuinely believe that people should be given every opportunity to go straight. One can imagine what that could mean for the prisoner, his or her family and society, if through this system they are given the opportunity not to reoffend or at least in so far as is possible — I am not silly enough to believe it will happen every time. That matter should be taken more seriously by the Government. If someone takes a conscious decision when in custody not to become involved in the programme, I would leave that person in jail for the full term.
Ms Enright Ms Enright
Ms Enright: Deputy Connaughton ended on a very definite note.
I welcome the opportunity to speak on this Private Members’ Bill. The Bill published by Fine Gael and my colleague, Deputy Jim O’Keeffe, is timely and necessary. What we are doing in Fine Gael is addressing the need to create a comprehensive system whereby a register of all sentences handed down will be created. This will allow much greater ease of comparison by all involved in our criminal justice system and will be the definitive database.
This Bill will also allow people to assess the trends in sentencing policy and will help ensure greater consistency in sentencing by relying on real and factual information. No individual will  be singled out under Fine Gael’s proposal, which addresses a legitimate query raised by Deputy Cuffe. Rather, cases will be recorded by a case number. The information is already there but we are attempting to collate it in a single resource. Deputy Jim O’Keeffe has already dealt with the key provisions of the Bill and I do not propose to repeat what he said. I am not surprised at the comments of Deputy Ó Snodaigh. He appears to want the criminal justice system to rely only on media records of sentencing, saying they cover all cases. The media does not cover all cases.
I do not know what amount of time Deputy Ó Snodaigh and his colleagues have spent in the criminal justice system. In my previous career as a solicitor, I did a certain amount of court work. In many of those courts, the media was not present. Regardless of this, the media tends to choose the juicier story and whatever will sell a newspaper. Very often these can be the cases that have no bearing on the consistency of sentencing. Justice must be seen to be done. We, as legislators, have a duty to ensure that happens. No names would be used in the register. It is clear the Deputy does not understand the Bill.
The events of the past week show the need for the Fine Gael Party’s proposal. However, this measure is not reactive legislation but was discussed and debated at our Ard-Fheis earlier this month. Last week the Fine Gael leader, Deputy Kenny, asked the Taoiseach how many people were in prison under the law that the Supreme Court had declared unconstitutional. The Taoiseach could not answer the question. Instead he told the House the Prison Service was checking records and warrants and he hoped to have a clearer picture by lunchtime that day. The picture is still fuzzy. All I could imagine was prison service staff going through court ledgers, checking handwritten entries. I am sure, or at least I hope, that the system is not as archaic, although it does not appear to be far off that. There was no fast and easily accessible way of checking the records to answer a reasonable and straightforward question.
The purpose of the Bill is to establish a register of sentences that would allow information of this type to be readily available. Today the Tánaiste and Minister for Health and Children was unable to answer a question from Deputy Kenny about convictions under section 1(2) of the Act in question. Under our proposals, it would be possible for a Government to know how many people have been convicted of any given offence without delay at the touch of a button.
Such a register would also ensure that, as legislators, we know the precise number of people convicted of any given crime. It is especially important that, in tracking the incidence of sexual assaults against adults or children, as much information as possible is at our disposal. This will allow us to deal with these serious crimes  adequately and put in place the best possible protection for children and young people.
The Taoiseach told the Dáil yesterday, in response to questions on the issue of the release of the man known as Mr. A and the possible release of several other men:
All of this is to protect our children . . . It is all about protecting our young people so that they can move around freely and their parents can understand they are safe.
He then went on to say:
The Government and, I am sure, everybody else, want to protect our children and be seen to do so. We are satisfied that we have a strong body of law.
We do not have a strong body of law to protect children. Are we yet again reacting to a crisis, as we always seem to do on issues of child safety? Ireland does not offer the best possible protection. Child safety is not a priority until something happens. We have failed to learn the lesson from the past. Ireland’s child protection and vetting procedures seriously lag behind other jurisdictions, especially Northern Ireland.
There has been a protracted delay in extending vetting procedures to the education sector. While vetting is beginning for new teachers I have not seen any proposals to extend this vetting to those already in the teaching service or in any other capacity in our schools. The Fine Gael Party believes that staff or volunteers, either full or part-time, should be vetted before taking up positions where they would have substantial unsupervised access to children.
To make this happen, the central vetting unit should be expanded and extended, resourced properly and its services made available to charities and voluntary sporting and youth organisations. Under the Fine Gael proposals, staff in the Health Service Executive and organisations funded by it, teachers and other staff at schools, staff or volunteers at charities and voluntary sporting and youth organisations would be vetted if they have substantial unsupervised access to children and vulnerable adults.
In addition, the legislative framework in place to ensure the protection of children and young people has not been completed. There are serious gaps in place which the Government has failed to address. It has repeatedly promised to bring forward legislation to establish a register of persons considered unsafe to work with children. It is long overdue. Hand in hand with enhanced vetting, a register of persons considered unsafe to work with children must be a key aspect to our approach to child safety, yet there is still no sign of the legislation needed to establish such a register. It has been promised repeatedly and has appeared on the Government legislative programme time and again, yet no further details regarding this legislation or the register have been published.
 Other legislative recommendations, such as the amendment of both the Protections for Persons Reporting Child Abuse Act 1998 and the Sex Offenders Act 2001, respectively to include the reporting of abuse of vulnerable adults and offer a greater degree of protection to those with physical disabilities, have also failed to attract any priority from the Government. The extreme delays in bringing forward the necessary new and amending legislation are not acceptable. As the events of this week have shown, there can be no room for error or complacency in the matter of child protection. The abuse of children detailed in the Ferns Report and highlighted by the Commission to Inquire into Child Abuse is horrifying. The need for thorough vetting and for a register of persons considered unsafe to work with children is highlighted by one finding of the Ferns Report, which stated:
The Inquiry believes that the appointment as Chairman of the Board of Management of national schools . . . should be made with the utmost care and diligence. As will be obvious from the allegations set out in this Report, some priests appear to have abused their position as Managers of national schools in order to access children.
Candidates for school boards of management must also be subject to vetting.
Last year it was revealed that a convicted sex offender was employed as a bus driver for special needs children in the Laoighis-Offaly constituency. Clear gaps in our child safety procedures must be addressed. We urgently need legislation to establish a register of persons considered unsafe to work with children. The Government must prioritise this matter for the coming Dáil session.
It is important the Fine Gael Party’s proposals be adopted and that a register of sentences be put in place. At the same time, a register of persons considered unsafe to work with children must be established.
What is the status of Mr. A’s conviction? Will he remain on the register of sex offenders? What happens if he decides to try to have his conviction quashed? If Mr. A wants to get a job in a school tomorrow or work with children in any other paid or voluntary capacity, be it in a sports club or elsewhere, no one will be any the wiser about his previous behaviour. His sentence no longer stands. A High Court judge declared that he was unlawfully detained and he walked free.
There are people who do not have convictions but who are still a danger to children. When the Fine Gael Party published its proposals for vetting, both conviction and non-conviction, commonly called soft information, were included. After a debate in the Dáil in December 2003 on it and the lack of real action on this issue since then, I believe the Government is avoiding making a decision issue in case it upsets someone. Mr. A was convicted on a charge that did not exist in law and so he is free. He was originally convicted.  Will he be included on a sex offenders register? Either way the use of soft information would allow an employer to know about his history if he looks for employment. It would also allow a youth or sporting organisation the knowledge it needs not to employ him. I remind the House that Ian Huntley had no criminal convictions.
When speaking on the Fine Gael Private Members’ motion on vetting and child safety three years ago, the then Minister of State at the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform, Deputy O’Dea, told the House the best course of action was to wait for the outcome of the deliberations of a working group. It has long since reported but we are still waiting. He was speaking on the advice of the Attorney General that hard facts are disclosable but soft facts are not. That is why this register is needed and why the Government must take the issue of child safety seriously. It must face up to the issue of soft information with all of the safeguards the Fine Gael Party has suggested.
I ask the Government to accept Deputy Jim O’Keeffe’s Bill. It is always reluctant to accept any idea that is not its own but I hope it will learn from its mistakes. The Fine Gael Party’s proposals are sound and sensible. Their enactment will assist the criminal justice system and ensure greater consistency in sentencing.
Mr. B. O’Keeffe Mr. B. O’Keeffe
Mr. B. O’Keeffe: I thank Deputy Jim O’Keeffe for raising an interesting debate. The aim of the Bill is to shed more light on the issue of sentencing and provide a database which would be useful to the Judiciary and policy makers in the criminal justice area. We on this side of the House generally share this aim. The problem we see with the proposed Bill is that, first, it is anticipating an area of work on which an expert committee of the Courts Service is sitting and, second, many of its detailed proposals would be administratively difficult to implement or are impractical.
It is simply not enough to record new data about sentencing. If such data is to be useful, collection must be carefully planned. It must be decided what are the most salient issues on which information needs to be collected and how such information should be processed to produce useful data. I expect that the Courts Service committee examining this issue will address these matters and come forward with workable proposals.
Matters are not as simple as the Deputies on the other side of the House might suggest. Tens of thousands of cases pass through our courts every year. Many cases are appealed to higher courts resulting in sentences given in the original court being changed. All these issues must be addressed in compiling sentencing data. As pointed out by my colleague, the Minister of State, Deputy Brian Lenihan, the information required under this Bill would be very difficult for the Courts Service to collect and maintain. Even though the Courts Service has invested  heavily in modern information technology systems, its nationwide computer system, the criminal case tracking system, does not contain anything like the level of detail required in the Bill.
There is no doubt that sentencing is a complex matter and that many variable factors are taken into account in each case. To attempt to address this issue, the board of the Courts Service has established a steering committee to plan for and provide a system of information on sentencing. The high level membership of the committee, which is chaired by Mrs. Justice Susan Denham of the Supreme Court, shows the seriousness with which the Courts Service takes this issue.
The committee will establish a pilot project in the Circuit Court in Dublin which will collect and collate information on sentencing outcomes in cases on indictment in designated courts in accordance with criteria specified by the committee. It will be interesting to see if the committee recommends some type of sentencing information system for our courts in due course.
The Courts and Court Officers Act 1995 enables the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform to provide funds for judicial training courses arranged by the Judiciary and, in this regard, funds are made available to the Judicial Studies Institute which was established by the Chief Justice for the purposes of judicial training. A sum of €483,000 was made available for 2006 and I understand that the issue of sentencing has been examined by the institute in the context of its training programme.
Section 36 of the Courts (Supplemental Provisions) Act 1961 provides for meetings of District Court judges to discuss, inter alia, the avoidance of undue divergence in the exercise of the jurisdiction of the court and the general level of fines and penalties. While there is no similar statutory provision in the case of other courts, I understand they hold similar meetings.
As regards seeking consistency in sentencing generally, this is, I understand, a matter to which courts at all levels have given considerable attention over recent years. There is, in fact, a great deal of consistency in sentencing and discussions which arise concerning inconsistency relate to a relatively small proportion of cases, often inaccurately. Nonetheless, inconsistency arises from time to time and it is a problem which faces every legal system.
It is worth mentioning again that the complex question of sentencing policy was addressed at length by the Law Reform Commission. The commission specifically recommended against the introduction of statutory sentencing guidelines in a report published in 1996. On the commission’s recommendation against the introduction of statutory sentencing guidelines, it is fair to say  that statutory guidelines would involve an undue interference in the independence of the Judiciary.
The decision on what kind of sentence to impose is a judicial determination and, save only in exceptional circumstances, it is the Minister’s view that the Oireachtas should be cautious in prescribing mandatory sentences. After all, the point was made in the commission’s report that the more detailed the requirements of any statutory sentencing procedure, the more likely it was that mistakes would arise leaving sentences open to challenge on technical grounds only.
While the working group on the jurisdiction of the courts only touched on the issue of sentencing, it found that there was a need for some system of objective guidance for sentencing at all levels. One option proposed by the working group could be accommodated within the present system, namely, the more effective dissemination of decisions which are regarded as being authoritative in nature, especially decisions of the Court of Criminal Appeal. These benchmark cases would at the same time assist trial judges and enable the public to understand more clearly the principles behind sentencing decisions.
There have been attempts by Fine Gael to link the Private Members’ Bill to the issues arising from the recent decision of the Supreme Court on the Criminal Law Amendment Act 1935. This, I suggest, is merely political opportunism. These two issues have nothing to do with each other. It is disingenuous to link them. I have heard no arguments from the Opposition which would convince me that this Bill should not be opposed at this time.
Mr. Crawford Mr. Crawford
Mr. Crawford: I wish to share time with Deputy Jim O’Keeffe. I thank Deputy Jim O’Keeffe for bringing this Bill before the House. It is 12 months or more since I put a great deal of work into preparing for a television programme on the issue of sentencing in my constituency. Unfortunately, the individual responsible for the programme decided to opt out and took retirement, and it never was made. In that context, I am very aware that, in parts of Cavan and Monaghan, the sentencing for a long period was unbelievable.
The Minister of State, Deputy Batt O’Keeffe, stated that he cannot find anything in this Bill to justify it being brought in and he wants to oppose it. I listened to his argument and it is incredible that the information on this matter could not be put on a database. It is only within this Government that matters to do with computers seem to be impossible.
I am not a computer whizz kid but I deal with companies and organisations which use computers. If one wants to find out the position of a herd register of a farm, for example, all one need do is press a few buttons and one gets the results. One then knows whether an animal has been transferred legally through the system and if it  has not, one will soon be rightly told. That means the national herd may be traced daily.
When we changed over from the punt to the euro, the banks were able to make the transition the following morning and to bring up all our accounts on computer in a different currency. It did not matter whether we were in the USA, Germany or elsewhere, if we had money in our account all we had to do was put in a card, press the buttons and we got our money. I find it difficult to believe that this issue is too complicated to put on a database.
I remember speaking on another Bill about which I was extremely passionate, the Fines Bill, which promoted the attachment of fines to income and social welfare payments. We were assured in this House that the Bill was premature and that the matter would be dealt with shortly. Some years later members of the Garda Síochána are driving around collecting fines at a time when they are badly needed in the area of traffic control, to prevent robberies and so on. The collection of fines could easily be done either through the social welfare office or by deducting money from a person’s income. Such a system would save Garda time and guarantee that all fines are collected.
The purpose of this Bill is to try to bring about sentencing norms and establish trends in sentencing. There is a need for transparency in the system and for it to be seen to be just. I recall a time when those who were in court knew they would avoid a harsher sentence by paying a fine to a charity. It got to the stage where some of these ruffians asked gardaí for a loan to pay to the charity. That is not a joke, it is a fact. It was not until there was a change of judge that some of these people began to learn manners. There is an absolute need for transparency and assurance that justice will prevail.
As verdicts are not kept on file in a transparent manner, if a person reoffends, he or she can come before another court, as has been the case many times in my area and the Garda does not have any means of ensuring the judge is aware that certain individuals are hardened criminals. That is not the way we should run our justice system. I urge the Minister of State to reconsider the unbelievable comments he made to the effect that what we seek to do is not possible and allow the Bill to go through this House as some small means of trying to improve the justice system.
Mr. J. O’Keeffe Mr. J. O’Keeffe
Mr. J. O’Keeffe: I thank all Members who contributed to this debate, even those who opposed my Bill. I find it incredible that anyone could oppose what appears to me, as somebody who has practised law for many years and who has been in this House for many years, the most sensible approach one could adopt to obtain consistency in sentencing. I have looked at the situation in other countries and, whether one  talks about sentencing information systems or registers of sentences, information is available to judges. Before they apply sentences they can find out what kind of sentence was applied in similar types of cases. Surely that makes the most basic sense.
My colleague, Deputy Crawford, stated that if he wants information about his cows he can press buttons and find out the information. Surely if a judge is carrying out his or her constitutional duty and may be imposing a heavy sentence of imprisonment, the least we can do is provide him or her with a database whereby he or she can check the kinds of sentences applied to similar types of offences in recent years. It is as simple as that.
I was struck by the remarks of the Minister of State, Deputy Brian Lenihan, who in last night’s debate appeared to accept the Bill. He could not say with a straight face that the Bill did not make sense but he said it is premature. I do not know on what basis he considers it premature because recent events confirm it is utterly timely.
The Minister of State, Deputy Batt O’Keeffe, stated there is no linkage with current events. The link simply is that the Taoiseach, on being asked in the House by the Fine Gael leader, Deputy Kenny, how many cases were affected by the Supreme Court decision, could not say. Even as late as this morning, Deputy Kenny asked the Tánaiste, Deputy Harney, for similar information in regard to how many prisoners were sentenced under sections 111 and 112 of the 1935 Act and she could not say.
It sounds incredible in this day and age, in this allegedly technologically advanced country, that this kind of information would not be available to the senior Ministers in the Government. The information is not available to judges or to the members of the Cabinet who make weighty decisions as to the legislation they should bring forward — perhaps they could give us a consultation agenda instead of specific proposals, but that is another issue. Neither is the information available to the Members of this House, to those of us who genuinely want to see an improvement in our laws and criminal justice system. On that basis it is incredible that this Bill is not welcomed with open arms by the Government.
The purpose of the Bill is fairly clear. It is non-contentious and non-controversial. Its purpose is to create a comprehensive register of sentences so that sentencing norms can be assessed. Who could oppose that? A secondary purpose is to introduce greater transparency to the sentencing process within the criminal justice system. Who could oppose that? The Constitution rightly provides that justice shall be administered in public, except in a limited number of specially defined cases. We should have greater transparency.
The purpose of the Bill is not opposed. The Government approach is to agree “that there is a need for more data on sentencing, both for use  by the Judiciary themselves ... and for the purposes of public oversight”. That was stated by the Minister of State, Deputy Brian Lenihan, in the House last night. In that case, how can the Government justify opposing the Bill?
I accept that issues arise in terms of the amount of detail outlined at this initial stage but I am open to amending the Bill on Committee Stage so that the extensive detail I have outlined can be modified. I put in the kettle, the pot and the lot in terms of the data that should be included, but I accept that one would not, perhaps, begin on that basis. I wish to have the essential principle established, that we should have a register and that we should commence work on it. The detail can be worked out on Committee Stage if one accepts the basic need for a register and that the Bill would provide the legislative framework for such a register.
The Government’s approach is that the implementation of this measure “would present significant logistical and resource problems”. I accept that. There are no free lunches in this world. If one wants something, one must pay for it. I want a good system that will enable judges to do their job better. It is not fair that judges are criticised. Some judges who work hard and try to do the best they can are then excoriated in the press because they have strayed from what is perceived to be the norm in terms of a sentence they have passed.
They do not have access to the information so they must rely on their memory, judgment and knowledge. It has been alleged that we are deny ing them this knowledge. My party and our Opposition colleagues want judges to have access to this information but this Government apparently does not. This remark may be slightly unfair. The Government is acting like St. Augustine in that it wants to make this information available but not just yet. It wants to be pure in respect of this issue but not just yet. When will we take the necessary steps? It is all very well for the Minister to tell me about committees, reports and other matters but this Government is nearing the end of its tenure. Does the Government favour putting in place a basic tool or instrument which would be of assistance in and improve the administration of justice and allow the public to see, with full transparency, the kind of sentences which are passed.
This information should also be available to the media. The media sometimes makes legitimate and justified criticisms because judges do not possess this information but it sometimes makes half-cocked criticisms about sentences. We would introduce a totally open system which would not involve publishing the names of offenders. The register would simply contain case numbers which would enable offenders’ identities to be protected after they had served their sentences. I am amazed that judges, the courts, the public, the media, this House and the Government are not allowed the benefit of such a register. I appeal to the Government for the last time to accept the Bill. I am prepared to deal with legitimate practical aspects of it on Committee Stage but the way to deal with them is to accept Second Stage.
The Dáil divided: Tá, 52; Níl, 62.
Dáil Éireann 620 Private Members’ Business. Courts (Register of Sentences) Bill 2006: Second Stage (Resumed).