Last December, Judge Patrick Durcan, a man not shy about articulating his frustration at loopholes in the penalty points system, sat in Ennis District Court, dealing with traffic offences.
“This courtroom is stinking of dishonesty and is stinking of perjury today,” he declared, as he handled the cases of 15 people who had said that they had never received fixed charge notices (FCNs) by post for speeding offences.
If drivers pay the fine on receiving a notice they incur penalty points but the case goes no further. But if they do not pay, a summons is issued and the matter is escalated to a court hearing.
The judge was clearly sick of what he saw as guilty motorists coming into his court claiming they never received their notices, knowing that case would have to be struck out because “the system” had not given them a fair chance.
To one motorist who said she received her notice, Judge Durcan said she was honest and "wasn't contaminated by the dozens of people who have perjured themselves in court today".
After another motorist pleaded guilty and told the judge he did indeed receive his notice, Judge Durcan told the man: “I hope you have a good shower after leaving this court room today,” a reference to the ‘stink’ from the “perjurers”.
Judge Durcan continued: “The postal system can’t be as bad as people are making it out to be where they are telling me they didn’t receive the notices.”
Of the 25 speeding cases struck out that day, 15 involved motorists swearing under oath in court that they did not receive the notice in the post.
But now there is an even more appalling vista. Based on the disclosures about inflated breath testing numbers and wrongful convictions, it was the system, perhaps, that cheated that day; not the other way around.
Nationally, the Garda has admitted that 147,000 people were wrongly summoned to court over alleged notice offences and that 10 per cent of them were convicted.
Some of the drivers had received a notice and paid the fine. The matter should have stopped there but because of both IT errors and human errors – with gardaí processing the cases incorrectly – a summons was sent.
In other cases, when notices should have been sent to the drivers in the first instance and a summons should have followed only if the fine was not paid. But because of errors – IT and human – the notice system was bypassed and a summons sent as the first step.
What seems incredible now is that given all of the publicity for years about drivers going to court and insisting they had never received a notice; nobody in Garda management thought to examine some of the cases, if only to be sure.
Every case covered in the media – both regional and national – represented an opportunity to catch the problem: the decisions happened in open court and were reported in newspapers for years.
Hauled before the courts
The blunders were unfair to those wrongly hauled before the courts and they have undermined the workings of the courts and public confidence in the Garda, many of whom do an excellent job.
Separately, the fact the Garda claimed to have carried out two million breath tests between 2012 and 2016, but had, in fact, only carried out one million has far-reaching implications, even if nobody was wrongly convicted.
It means everything we knew about drink-driving in Ireland - how prevalent it is and how stringently we police it – is a ball of smoke.
For example, international figures up to 2015 showed that Ireland’s breath testing system was the weakest among 12 European countries that used random breath testing.
The Estonians are the most active; carrying out 677 breath tests for every 1,000 inhabitants. Ireland and Romania held the last two places; Romania carried out 72 tests; Ireland one less for every 1,000 inhabitants.
But now we know that the Irish testing data was inflated by 100 per cent, the real rate of testing was 35½ tests per 1,000 in habitants in Ireland. Ireland is Europe’s laggard, and by a long margin.
Ireland carries out breath tests on a third of the motorists that would happen if they were driving on Swedish road. For every Garda test the Estonians do 19; the Poles carry out 13; the Finns do eight.