Penalty points report from 2007 was ignored, says author

Claim some gardaí made ‘hometown decisions’ in deciding on whether to cancel points

 File image of a speed  camera mounted on the Stillorgan Road in Dublin. Former chief superintendent John O’Brien has said the biggest issues he identified in the penalty points system were problems in serving summonses to motorists who ignored initial demands to pay fines and take their  points. Photograph: Cyril Byrne/The Irish Times

File image of a speed camera mounted on the Stillorgan Road in Dublin. Former chief superintendent John O’Brien has said the biggest issues he identified in the penalty points system were problems in serving summonses to motorists who ignored initial demands to pay fines and take their points. Photograph: Cyril Byrne/The Irish Times

Fri, Mar 14, 2014, 06:34

The former head of the Garda Traffic Corps who went on to work for the Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission, John O’Brien, has said a report he compiled for the commission in 2007 identified a lot of the now contentious issues with the fixed charged notice system - but was never acted upon.

He suggested some Garda members made “hometown decisions” when deciding whether to cancel penalty points. But he agreed with the view of the chief inspector of the Garda Inspectorate, Bob Olsen, who said while many points should not have been cancelled, the actions did not amount to corruption.

Former chief superintendent O’Brien said the biggest issues he identified were problems in serving summonses to motorists who ignored initial demands to pay fines and take their penalty points.

“They key failure was that the District Court system and the Garda’s summons-serving system was totally overwhelmed by the volume of summons requests that went into it from non-payers,” he said of those motorists who ignored requests to pay fines and whose cases proceeded to the courts as a consequence.

‘Overworked system’

“It results in an overworked District Courts system as it was then, and I’m sure it hasn’t changed greatly,” said Mr O’Brien.

“It just didn’t simply didn’t have the capacity to do it. I remember the president of the District Court saying to me then, ‘Look, we simply don’t have the quota of judges to handle this’.

“In other countries this is done as an administrative process - the non-payers. It’s not done as part of the normal criminal justice system.”

The Garda Inspectorate report into the fixed charge notice system and the cancellation of penalty points under it noted some 70 per cent of all cases resulted in motorists paying their fines for road traffic infringements and accepting penalty points without the matter going to the courts.

The inspectorate agreed with the findings of a Garda inquiry conducted under Assistant Commissioner John O’Mahoney that under 5 per cent of all cases saw points cancelled.

There remained 25 per cent of cases that were not concluded for a variety of reasons.

One of these was that 52 per cent of the summonses issued in respect of 178,500 cases in 2012 and 2013 were never served.

And even in those cases where summonses were served and the cases went to court, if motorists did not bring their drivers’ licences with them their penalty points could not be added.

There was a system of following up those drivers to tag on the points. The inspectorate said some 60 per cent of motorists who ended up before the courts did not bring their licences and so escaped incurring penalty points.

Mr O’Brien said all of these issues were explored in his 2007 report and recommendations were made to combat the deficiencies.

“It was totally shelved; it was never discussed, never debated,” he said of his report.

“And I think that’s a pity. Not because I did it but because I think it absolutely covers the areas that have surfaced seven years later.

“Essentially, what I said in the report was that there was a very good IT system in place. It was handling and processing something like 400,000 to 500,000 transactions a year, and that’s a complicated system.

“But the key issue in that report was that the worst offenders, ie the people who are in most need of being dealt with under the system - by ignoring the system they could simply avoid all kinds of penalties. It went away if you did nothing about it, for the vast majority it went away.

“In my recommendations and Gsoc’s recommendations we made some very pertinent recommendations that would have allowed the system, which was operating well on a technical level but losing significant offenders, to be rectified there and then.

“It was presented by Gsoc to the Department of Justice. It was never published, it was never debated. I don’t believe Gsoc got a single comment from anybody on the report, I certainly didn’t. And effectively it was shelved.

“And until the Comptroller & Auditor General’s fourth report, the one that gave focus to this in May of last year... the thing had absolutely laid fallow for that period of time. And that isn’t to anyone’s credit.”

He said on retiring from the Garda he went to work as a special adviser to Gsoc for two years. It was during his time there that the commission asked him to carry out the penalty points review and draw up a report as an inquiry in the public interest.

He said it had been most likely requested in the first instance by the minister for justice of the day, who he believed to be Dermot Ahern.

He said he analysed best practice and identified systemic failures which he itemised in his report at the conclusion of his work over a nine-month period.

He interviewed all the key stakeholders during the period, including the president of the District Court and gardaí. He also examined the Garda’s fixed charge office in Thurles.

“All of the information was there. And while it sounds a little like sour grapes at the end of this to say nothing was done, purely in terms of the interests of the country, it was a serious omission. And it resulted in the problems, or at least some of the problems, that remain unrectified today.”

He said Garda procedures around the penalty points system and the termination of points should be clearly set out in a public document that was “human rights proofed” to ensure everybody was treated equally.

“I don’t want to minimise the issue in terms of the corruption allegations and so on because they are very serious. But I think the [inspectorate] report speaks for itself in terms of its analysis of what went wrong.”

He did not believe the fixed charged notice system was in chaos.

“If individuals interpreted it using hometown decisions, that is clearly bad for them and it’s bad for the Guards. It’s bad for confidence within An Garda Síochána and it’s bad for public confidence in the system.

“But I don’t believe that this is manifestly falling apart at the seams. I think there were significant deficiencies that are highlighted in the inspectorate’s report and remain to be rectified. And I think that’s a clear issue.”