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Second Stage speech
8 February 2017
Frances Fitzgerald TD
Tánaiste and Minister for Justice and Equality
A Cheann Comhairle
I move that the Bill be read a second time.
I am very pleased to present this Bill to the House. It is a relatively short Bill which focusses specifically on commitments on bail in the Programme for Government.
The Programme for Government commits to the preparation and fast-tracking of legislation aimed at:
· providing for stricter bail terms for repeat serious offenders;
· strengthening Garda powers to deal with breaches of bail;
· increasing the use of curfews; and
· introducing electronic tagging for those on bail where requested by Gardaí.
These are important objectives which I believe should command support in this House, which will increase protection for the public and victims of crime, but which can be achieved while also respecting the rights of those facing criminal charges.
They form part of a wider programme of criminal law reform which includes, for example, the Criminal Justice (Burglary of Dwellings) Act 2015 and the Victims of Crime Bill published in recent weeks.
In that regard, could I also inform Members of the House that it is my intention to seek Government approval to a legislative proposal to allow An Garda Síochána, on a statutory basis, to detain intoxicated persons in Garda stations where they are considered a danger to themselves or others.
The Government is backing up this legislative reform with substantial and sustained investment in Garda resources.
A recovering economy is enabling us to invest in An Garda Síochána again and significantly increase Garda numbers. By 2021 the Garda workforce should comprise a total of 21,000 personnel; to include 15,000 Garda members, 2,000 Garda Reserve members and 4,000 civilians. We are investing €330 million, including €205 million under the capital plan, in Garda ICT infrastructure between 2016 and 2021.
Operation Thor, launched in November 2015, has led to a sharp decline in the rate of burglary crime, with the most recent CSO crime figures showing a decrease of 31% in burglary for the twelve months ending 30 September 2016. In addition to the big drop in burglary there have been welcome reductions in other categories of property crime, including Theft, down 14.6% and Robbery down 11.1%. Overall, nine out of the fourteen crime categories in the CSO classification showed a decrease.
Let me turn to the provisions of the Bill and outline what is proposed.
Section 2 of the Bill expands the factors which a court may take into account in refusing bail where this is reasonably considered necessary to prevent the commission of a serious offence by that person. Currently one of those factors is any previous convictions of the accused.
Section 2 specifically provides that a court may take into account the extent to which the number and frequency of any previous convictions of the accused person for serious offences indicate persistent serious offending by the accused. It also enables a court to take into account the nature and likelihood of any danger to the life or personal safety of any person or danger to the community that may be presented by the release on bail of a person charged with an offence punishable by 10 years’ imprisonment or more - in other words a very serious offence. The decision to refuse bail will of course always be a matter for the court. However, these additional factors which the court may take into account will constitute significantly strengthened guidance from the legislature on the factors relevant to decisions on the granting or refusal of bail.
Section 3 of the Bill expands the number of conditions which may be set by a court in granting bail. A court has general discretion to attach conditions to bail, but section 6 of the Bail Act 1997 also lists specific conditions that may be set, such as having to reside in a particular place, to report to a Garda station, to surrender a passport, to refrain from going to certain places and to refrain from having contact with certain people. Three new specific conditions are being added to this list by section 3, namely:
· to refrain from direct or indirect contact with the victim of the alleged offence or any member of his or her family;
· to refrain from driving a vehicle where the person is charged with a serious driving offence; and
· to observe a night-time curfew, whereby the person on bail could be required to stay in a specified place between 9 o’clock each night and 6 o’clock the following morning.
Section 3 of the Bill also provides for the arrest without warrant of a person on bail in carefully defined circumstances which respect the constitutional rights of persons facing criminal charges. Of course Gardaí already have, under section 6 of the Bail Act 1997, a power to arrest a person on bail who is about to contravene a condition of bail, but only on a warrant of arrest issued by the court. There are legal constraints on the extent to which the law on arresting a person on bail can be extended beyond this. Section 3 therefore contains a limited but important power of arrest without warrant of a person on bail who is contravening a condition of bail and where the arresting Garda considers arrest necessary to prevent harm to, interference with or intimidation of the victim of the alleged offence, a witness to the alleged offence, or any person with whom the person on bail is not permitted to contact as a condition of bail.
Section 4 deals with electronic monitoring. The Bail Act 1997 was amended in 2007 to permit a court granting bail to make it a condition of bail that the person’s movements are monitored electronically. This provision has not been brought into force, largely because of concerns over how best to operate a system of electronic monitoring in a way that is sustainable and targeted. Section 4 therefore amends the existing uncommenced provision by linking electronic monitoring to an application by the prosecution.
The objective is to ensure as far as possible that electronic monitoring is used in bail cases on a consistent and sustainable basis, and that it is focussed on those cases where it will prove most effective. In this regard I should say that, in parallel with the passage of this Bill, a working group has been established to identify how best this provision might be operated, including the categories of offences or offenders most suitable for electronic monitoring and the making of contractual arrangements for the provision of the service.
Section 5 introduces an important new provision as regards the evidence which a court may hear when deciding on an application for bail. It will enable a court, on application by a Garda, to hear evidence from the victim of the alleged offence as to the likelihood of direct, indirect or attempted interference by the accused with the victim or a member of the victim’s family, and as to the nature and seriousness of any danger to any person that may be presented by the release of the accused on bail. The section also provides that such evidence, where the victim is a child under 14 or a person with a mental disorder, may be given on the victim’s behalf by another person such as a parent or guardian or a family member.
Finally, section 6 of the Bill requires a court to give reasons for its decision to grant or refuse bail or to impose conditions of bail. The objective of this provision is to promote the greatest possible transparency in the hearing of bail applications, and the greatest possible understanding of decisions of court.
A Cheann Comhairle, these are clear and focussed provisions which will enhance the powers of courts in deciding whether to grant bail, and which will improve the legitimate control which courts may exercise over those who are granted bail. They will enhance the protection of victims of crime and those at risk of crime, while respecting the rights of those accused of crime. They strike the right balance in improving the law on bail, and I believe they should enjoy support right across this House.
I very much look forward to listening to the views and comments of everyone taking part in this debate.