More than a quarter of bench warrants issued by the courts last year remain outstanding, partly due to the impact of the coronavirus pandemic.
Bench warrants are issued by judges when a suspect fails to turn up for a court date. They authorise a garda to arrest a person on sight and bring them before the court.
While it is normal for a proportion of warrants to remain outstanding at the end of a year, this proportion was unusually high in 2020 due to increased operational pressures on the Garda.
In 2020, judges issued 15,682 warrants, according to figures from the Department of Justice. By the end of the year, 4,346 remained outstanding or just under 28 per cent.
In contrast, of the 38,834 bench warrants issued in 2019, just 5,999 or 15 per cent remained outstanding at the end of that year.
Gardaí have continued to execute warrants during the pandemic “as expeditiously as possible, giving priority to the execution of warrants relating to serious crimes”, Minister for Justice Helen McEntee said in response to a recent parliamentary question.
However, difficulties is executing warrants “are a long-standing issue for many police services around the world; notably relating to persons actively seeking to evade detection, and where limited identification information might be available to support enforcement”, she said.
Ms McEntee said the pandemic and the associated restrictions “have of course added to these long-standing difficulties”.
The figures show there are currently 32,144 bench warrants outstanding in total from previous years, with some dating back decades. It is understood many of these are, in practice, unenforceable as the suspect is deceased. In other cases the suspects are already in prison on other matters.
Many suspects have multiple bench warrants issued against them.
Almost 28,000 of the outstanding warrants are more than a year old. Of these, 22,000 are more than two years old.
In Dublin North Central, one bench warrant dates back to February 14th, 1969. In Dublin West Division, gardaí have been trying to enforce a bench warrant for 34 years.
Independent TD Richard O’Donoghue has called for a special Garda taskforce to be established in every county to clear the 32,000 outstanding warrants.
“We haven’t got enough in our garda force, we haven’t enough of a targeted police force, and these figures are going to be higher due to Covid-19, because all of our garda resources have been put into manning roads and Covid patrols,” he said.
“The only way we can deal with this issue is a Garda taskforce, and every county should have [one] to deal with the issue, set up specifically to deal with especially the more serious warrants involving hardened criminals that are not appearing in the courts, not turning up, and are not being dealt with properly.
“It’s taking years upon years for people to be brought in front of the courts for serious crimes, but for minor offences, such as a speeding ticket or parking tickets, or whatever, they’re been put through the courts, and the more challenging cases that are putting communities at risk are not getting the priority that they need, and the reason being that we don’t have a large enough garda force.”
Dublin North Central currently has the highest number of outstanding bench warrants (5,811) among the 28 Garda divisions.
The highest outside Dublin was in Cork city where there are 1,015 outstanding warrants. The lowest is Cork West where there are 169.