Drink-drivers escape conviction regardless of how data is read

Analysis: Many cases fall by wayside before proceeding to a hearing or are struck out

 Reporting results: The Courts Service has said the internationally accepted method for measuring conviction rates is to base the figures only on cases that proceed to full hearing before the courts – this results in a conviction rate of 86 per cent. Photograph: Frank Miller

Reporting results: The Courts Service has said the internationally accepted method for measuring conviction rates is to base the figures only on cases that proceed to full hearing before the courts – this results in a conviction rate of 86 per cent. Photograph: Frank Miller

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In October of last year, The Irish Times reported that between January 2013 and May 2015, more than 20,000 people were due to appear before District Courts nationwide to face drink-driving charges. Of those, 8,391, or 40 per cent, were convicted.

The figures were based on data, provided by the Department of Justice to TD Tommy Broughan, listing the numbers of summonses and the numbers of convictions for drink- driving by county.

The paper also carried an editorial criticising the low number of convictions. It suggested that “many judges have come to regard themselves as Catholic bishops once did – as independent powers within their court areas”. It called for the establishment of a judicial council to oversee judgments and standardise rulings.

The following week, the Courts Service said the correct conviction rate for drink driving was 86 per cent. It said the 40 per cent rate was wrong and “due to the extrapolation of conviction rates from the wrong set of figures”.

It looked at 11,237 cases over the same two-and-a-half-year period; only those cases that had been fully heard before a court.

It excluded all of the cases that were struck out by the judge because the prosecuting garda did not appear in court. It excluded cases in which summonses were issued and not served, cases that were not yet finalised, and others that never proceeded to full prosecution for numerous reasons.

No figures

While acknowledging its exclusions, the Courts Service did not provide figures on how many excluded cases fell into each category.

Minister for Transport Paschal Donohoe also criticised the 40 per cent figure and fully endorsed the one produced by the Courts Service.

“The reality is that approximately 86 per cent of drink- driving cases which go to court result in convictions,” he told the Dáil in November.

The Courts Service has said the internationally accepted method for measuring conviction rates is to base the figures only on cases that proceed to full hearing before the courts.

This results in a conviction rate of 86 per cent, a rate that practitioners and Government can be comfortable with, one that effectively allows ministers to declare that there is “nothing to see here”.

However, it hides the reality of the cases that fall by the wayside before they proceed to hearing and helps mask all of those summonses that were never followed up or were struck out by a judge before the case could be heard.

Twice since The Irish Times’ initial report, judges have come out to criticise the media.

Justice undermined

In November, President of the District Court Judge Rosemary Horgan, said the 40 per cent figure was inaccurate and unbalanced and undermined the system of justice.

“The media can influence what the public think as well as reflecting public opinion,” she said. “It is very concerning, therefore, if public confidence in the justice system is undermined through any inaccurate or unbalanced reporting or editorial comment.”

District Court Judge Elizabeth McGrath this week added her concerns about the reporting of the 40 per cent figure in October.

“There may be persons who are still under this misapprehension, and through complacency or cynicism, will consider getting back behind the wheel of a car with alcohol taken, thus undermining road safety,” she said.

But it is not media reporting that results in people escaping drink driving convictions. And producing figures that only focus on cases that go to full hearing results in the impression that these figures are an accurate reflection of what happens when a person tests positive for drink-driving.

This does not help honest public debate or confidence in the judicial system.

It is the flaws in the system that should be the focus of attention. Because, no matter what way the figures are spun, it is obvious our system is falling down. We are not convicting enough drink-drivers.

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