Garda Síochána in dock over penalty points abuses

 

Controversy over the penalty points system has some way to run. A damning report by the Garda Inspectorate discovered widespread abuse of the fixed charge processing system by senior gardai, but the agency was specifically excluded from make findings of corruption. The Government has accepted its 37 reform recommendations. But a parallel investigation by the Garda Siochána Ombudsman Commission (GSOC) which may call for disciplinary action is likely to reopen the issue.

What was particularly disheartening about recent events was the determination by Minister for Justice Alan Shatter and Garda Commissioner Martin Callinan to defend a dysfunctional system and pretend that all was well. Blame must also lie with senior officials in Justice who, as far back as 2009, received an extremely critical GSOC report on a malfunctioning administrative process. Denials and cover-ups contributed to the deplorable treatment of whistle-blower Sergeant Maurice McCabe whose courage and commitment to equality before the law helped to expose systemic abuse.

The role of Garda inspectors and superintendents who broke rules by cancelling penalty points may be a small part of a bigger problem. Failure by lower-ranking gardai to serve summonses for motoring offences – causing cases to collapse in court – involved a greater number of people and subsequent loss of revenue. Five per cent of fixed penalty points and penalties were cancelled on appeal in recent years. But the number of summons not served has been rising steadily and it exceeded 90,000, or 52 per cent of the total, for the years 2011 and 2012. The cost to the exchequer was €7 million.

The commisioner told the Committee of Public Accounts that district superintendents were responsible for overseeing the service of court summonses. There had been, he said, “no evidence of deliberate non-serving by gardai” and disciplinary action was not required. Those assurances provide little comfort in view of the inspectorate’s report that “no consistent quality management existed, at any level, which would have detected and rectified problems”. The processing system was found to be wasteful and inefficient, lacking proper management and audits. Consistent and widespread breaches of policy flowed from an absence of effective management oversight.

Administrative change, new technology and a centralisation of processing have been recommended by the inspectorate to address specific failures. On the other hand, what can be done about a managerial system that appears to be inefficient and resents attempts to ensure proper oversight and accountability? Reforms introduced following the Morris tribunal have been diluted in recent years. If public confidence in the fairness and accountability of the Garda is to be maintained, then the roles of the inspectorate and the GSOC should be promoted.