Motorists getting ‘wrong message’ from courts, says Shane Ross
‘Judges should be given guidelines in terms of sentences. They take too much discretion’
Minister for Transport Shane Ross: “It is completely unacceptable that gardaí, by virtue of being gardaí, should not be subject to discipline when they are distorting figures.” Photograph: Dara Mac Donaill
District Court judges should be given guidelines for dealing with road traffic cases to address wide variances in sentencing, according to Minister for Transport Shane Ross.
He believes significantly different sentencing patterns for the same offence in different courts, highlighted most recently by an RTÉ Investigates programme, sends out “the wrong message” to motorists.
Mr Ross cited the ongoing use of the Court Poor Box – even though the High Court ruled in 2014 that it could not be used for road traffic cases – and a lack of consistency around how drink-driving and dangerous-driving cases are dealt with as areas of concern.
“I think judges should be given guidelines in terms of sentences. I think they take too much discretion,” Mr Ross said, adding he could not understand why so many road traffic cases are struck out, particularly in relation to drink-driving.
“I think drivers go to court and take their luck. They are probably saying ‘there is no consistency’ and feel they may get away with it. They may not.”
Mr Ross has discussed his frustrations over sentencing with Minister for Justice Charlie Flanagan and hopes the issue will be addressed in the pending Judicial Council Bill.
Another area of inconsistency is how conviction data is compiled.
Figures provided by the Courts Service to Independent TD Tommy Broughan suggested only 48 per cent of drink-driving cases that came before a District Court resulted in a conviction when strike-outs and other uncompleted cases were included.
However, Mr Ross said he was inclined to take the Court Service position which was that the drink-driving conviction rate is 85 per cent, based on completed cases only and excluding all cases struck out or where summonses were not served.
“It depends which figures you take. The numbers struck out make a hell of a difference. I am told the Courts Service is operating to international norms in terms of how they compile their figures,” the Minister told The Irish Times.
Consolidation of laws
The controversy has given new impetus to a plan to consolidate all road traffic Acts due to concern the myriad laws allow ample avenues for cases to be struck out.
“Consolidation might help because of the difficulties of so many apparently unconnected drink-drive laws.”
“I am going to talk to Charlie Flanagan about it and we are going to get our officials moving but we don’t have the resources for it. Consolidation is a three-year job.”
One possible solution to the resource issue is outsourcing the project to a private law firm.
“I am looking at the option of outsourcing this project. There are quite a view legal people around who would be capable of drafting the legislation.”
What happens to road safety cases in the courts is at the end of an enforcement chain which includes new legislation, road safety awareness campaigns and enforcement.
Mr Ross said after a disturbing spike to 185 in the number of people killed on the roads in 2016, last year saw a sharp reduction, to 158, in part, he said, due to improved enforcement.
“The road deaths are terrible, but better than they were, that is encouraging. But it is not good enough and we have a chasm to jump if we are to meet the 2020 target of 124 or less road deaths annually.
“Whether that target is met will depend to a large degree on the levels of enforcement mustered by gardaí this year and in 2019.”
While Mr Ross praised gardaí for their efforts in 2017 in contributing to the fall in fatalities, he disagrees with how Acting Garda Commissioner Donall Ó Cualáin is handling the fallout from the inflated breath tests debacle.
Mr Ó Cualáin told the Policing Authority late last year no action would be taken against members of the force because no criminal behaviour had been identified. To seek to discipline officers over the inflated data would take too much time and money, he said.
Mr Ross said this approach was wrong and that “time and resources required to fully investigate this matter is a price worth paying”.
“It is completely unacceptable that gardaí, by virtue of being gardaí, should not be subject to discipline when they are distorting figures. It is just so important to public safety.” He said the inflated breath-tests were “wrong and unacceptable” and the scale was huge.
“There is a compelling case for making sure gardaí are disciplined when they breach their discipline otherwise public confidence in the gardaí is undermined. That is my view.”
The Minister also said his view on the Road Safety Authority had changed. “I came in with a sceptical view of the RSA, I felt all State agencies were somewhat complacent.
“In the last year they have stepped up a grade and got a sense of urgency that they did not have before. They have done an excellent job in terms of road safety campaigning.”
Aside from a renewed focus on speeding, Mr Ross hopes to conclude the preparatory work early this year on new penalties for unaccompanied learner drivers. This will see the owners of the vehicle prosecuted for allowing it to be used by the inexperienced driver.