What’s the story with those wrongful motoring convictions?
The latest Garda debacle will be costly to fix and damaging to the credibility of the force
Motorists who had already paid their fine under a fixed charge notice (FCN) were wrongly summonsed, and 14,700 of them were convicted in court and paid a second fine. Photograph: Alan Betson
The Garda announced on Thursday that 14,700 motorists had been wrongly convicted of various offences. How did this happen?
Motorists who are accused of certain offences can pay a fine under the fixed charge notice (FCN) system. Payment of the fine in this way is usually the end of the matter.
Those who don’t pay the fine in response to the notice are summonsed to appear in court, where they usually face a larger fine if convicted.
This week the Garda disclosed that since 2006, 146,865 summonses have been wrongly issued to people who had already paid a fine as a result of the fixed charge notice.
Furthermore, 14,700 of these people had been convicted in court and paid a second fine.
Why didn’t they just tell the court they’d already paid the fine?
We can’t be sure. Presumably in some cases people did just that. Many may have ignored the summons and not turned up in court. Those who paid the court fines may have done so because they were confused.
Solicitors who work in the district courts say it is very common for people to be confused and intimidated when they are involved in proceedings, especially if they do not have legal representation.
It is likely over the coming months that we’ll learn a bit more by way of explanation because gardaí are going to trace the people who were wrongly convicted, and many of them are likely to attend court to see their convictions overturned.
What penalties were imposed on the motorists who were convicted?
People received fines of a few hundred euro. However, many of the offences, such as dangerous overtaking, speeding, or not displaying an NCT certificate, also lead to penalty points being applied to driving licences.
Would those motorists have suffered knock-on consequences, such as higher insurance premiums?
Probably. Drivers are obliged to inform their insurers when penalty points are put on their licence and this usually leads to their premiums being increased. Penalty points last for three years. The rise in insurance premiums could be a few hundred euro per year for three years.
Insurance companies are expecting people to look for the return of the extra money they paid for insurance, once the improper convictions have been overturned.
How did the issue come to light?
Last April when a motorist who had paid a fixed charge notice fine for failure to display an NCT certificate was summonsed to come to court and explained what had happened.This led to a Garda review that found 1,130 such cases. A wider review, encompassing all offences under the fixed charge notice system, found 146,865 motorists had been summonsed when they had already paid a fine under the FCN scheme.
How long has the problem being going on for?
Since the fixed charge system was introduced in 2006. The Garda says it has now been fixed. But the force has given very little other information by way of explanation. It seems the problem was caused by faulty IT practices or systems, but no details are available so far.
What happens now?
People are likely to look for their money back. They may want the court fine repaid, and they may also want any increase in insurance costs to be repaid.
One of the matters that has yet to be cleared up is how the penalty points aspect of the whole debacle worked, given that penalty points can be assigned at the fixed charge notice stage and also on conviction in court.
It is usual that more points are assigned for an offence when it goes to court stage than at the fixed charge notice stage. In some instances, this could have tipped people over the 12 points threshold, causing them to lose their licence. For some this might have had implications for their employment.
It is expected there will be claims against the State. The Garda has said that among those who have been notified of the problem is the State Claims Agency. The insurance industry says it is awaiting more information from the Garda.
What might be the final cost of the debacle?
If each case cost an average of €500 to resolve, that would be €7.3 million. If the average cost was €1,000, it would be €14.6 million. The precise figures won’t be known for some time.
What other costs might there be?
It’s another huge blow to the credibility of the Garda force and its senior management, including Garda Commissioner Nóirín O’Sullivan.
Tánaiste and Minister for Justice and Equality Frances Fitzgerald has described the scale of what occurred as appalling and staggering.
Fianna Fáil justice spokesman Jim O’Sullivan said his confidence in the commissioner will not be assured unless an adequate explanation is given for how the error occurred.