Summonses may lapse over hitch in appointment of court clerk

 

SUMMONSES, including some relating to drinking and driving, may lapse because of a hitch in the appointment of a court clerk in Co Mayo, the Dail was told.

The Fianna Fail spokesman on justice, Mr John O'Donoghue, said a district court clerk who went on a career break in Ballina was replaced by a civil servant who was previously working in the Department of the Environment in the town. Her appointment was never sanctioned by the Minister, as was required under the Court Officers Act.

In an adjournment debate, he said that cynics might say that a Minister who allowed the Special Criminal Court to be improperly constituted for several months would consider the failure to properly assign a district court clerk to be "a trivial matter". It was, however, serious because court clerks issued the summonses which were required in all criminal proceedings.

The matter came before the court at Ballina on Tuesday this week when the judge suggested striking out all the summonses so they could be reissued within time limits. Other summonses, however, were now out of time. The Garda superintendent at the court insisted the matter be proved and it was adjourned until January 14th.

Liberty was given to issue a witness summons against a principal officer at the Department of Justice directing that he attend the court and bring all the documents relating to the appointment of the new district court clerk.

It was quite possible that a large number of other summonses had yet to come to light. "Nobody knows how many summonses will be out of time and therefore will be incapable of being reissued. It is also impossible to say what else the civil servant may have done in the mistaken belief that she was a validly appointed and defined district court clerk."

It seemed the Minister had learned nothing from the Special Criminal Court fiasco. This ineptitude was wholly unacceptable in a Department as sensitive as Justice. "Sadly, further blunders of this kind are inevitable for as long as Minister Owen presides over this shambles," said Mr O'Donoghue.

The Minister of State for Education, Mr Bernard Allen (for the Minister for Justice) said the appointment of a court clerk was effected by the issue of a document from the personnel division of the Department. The omission to issue the necessary document to the chief clerk in Ballina on this occasion was due to an error on the part of an executive officer in the personnel division. The document did not require the signature of the Minister. Although the clerk was not formally appointed, her signature had appeared on a number of summonses.

The officials concerned, the chief clerk in Ballina and the executive officer in the Department had been asked to furnish nations for the lapse that occurred.

The Chief State Solicitor had been asked for advice about the legal implications. A number of cases at Ballina District Court had been adjourned until January. On legal advice the Garda authorities decided to make fresh applications for summonses for all cases, where the issue of summonses was still within the time permitted by law.

A check of Departmental files had shown that on many occasions over the years - before the appointment of the present Minister - the formal document appointing officials to act as district court clerk frequently took place several years after the officers acted in that capacity. The documents of appointment in these cases were backdated following advice received from the Attorney General.

Mr Allen said his advice was that, as the recent cases which had been referred to were now subjudice, it would not be appropriate to comment at this point on the possible legal aspects of the issues which had arisen.