Bringing the law into disrepute when it comes to processing cases of drink driving

Consistency of rulings should be ensured by way of legislative reform and creation of an effective Judicial Council

 

The fact that fewer than half of all drink driving prosecutions end in a District Court conviction and only one-fifth of those offenders have the judgement entered on their licences represent a serious failure of the criminal justice system. Conviction and endorsement rates in adjoining jurisdictions are more than double the Irish level. This outcome undermines the work of the Garda Síochána in testing drivers for alcohol and substance abuse and initiating prosecutions. It also brings the law into disrepute.

A breakdown of regions with the highest level of prosecution failures would suggest the attitudes of District Justices and their willingness to entertain arcane legal arguments are major contributory factors. Why should County Kerry have a 29 per cent conviction rate while County Offaly returns a rate of 68 per cent? A judicial defence based on local cultural norms is not acceptable in a society that has approved tough legislation and set its face against drink driving.

Chief Justice Susan Denham asked the Government to establish a Judicial Council as a matter of urgency because ‘inappropriate conduct’ by judges was affecting the administration of justice. She may not have had the treatment of drink driving cases in mind when making those comments but they would certainly have been relevant. Because of the separation of powers under the Constitution and the absence of normal disciplinary procedures, many judges have come to regard themselves as Catholic bishops once did - as independent powers within their court areas. The need for a Judicial Council to oversee their judgements and standardise their rulings would represent an important advance. A review of the relevant legislation confirmed yesterday by the Department of Justice is welcome.

Bad or inappropriate judgments are only part of the problem. A culture of challenge is endemic in the system. This means road traffic legislation is among the most tested with those accused of drink driving, in particular, seeking to exploit all loopholes in a cumbersome prosecution process. There are administrative and resource related shortcomings too in ensuring gardaí are present in court when required to give evidence.

A persistent failure to record successful prosecutions on driving licences – to facilitate the subsequent identification of disqualified drivers – is largely an administrative matter. But it too demands immediate attention.

Two years ago, the Government attempted to ignore two Garda whistleblowers when they drew attention to widespread abuse by senior officers in the quashing of penalty points for motoring offences. The controversy brought the resignations of a Garda Commissioner and a Minister for Justice. These revelations emphasise the need for change that goes beyond the establishment of a community-based Garda Authority; a strengthening of the Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission and an enhanced role for the Garda Inspectorate. Specifically, they require the immediate establishment of an effective Judicial Council.

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