Urgent reform and investment needed for road traffic law enforcement

Law Society calls on Government to tear up and start again on road traffic laws, urgently invest in District Court.

  • Law Society welcomes Minister’s assurances on a District Court review, but warns that superficial, short-term ‘fixes’ are not enough to improve the system
  • Road Traffic Acts in Ireland are “needlessly complex and confusing” and need urgent consolidation and simplification
  • Consequences of District Court issues extending to other areas of the justice system, including family law cases

Mr Ken Murphy, Director General of the Law Society of Ireland, used an appearance on RTE’s Claire Byrne Live on Monday night to call on the Irish Government to tear up the Road Traffic Acts and start again, during a segment that also highlighted the current state of the District Courts system – a system that is not coping with current levels of demand and is eroding public confidence in the justice system.

“There is consensus within the legal profession that Road Traffic legislation is needlessly complex and confusing, as they were described by the late Supreme Court judge, Justice Adrian Hardiman. There are 22 different Acts on the books that deal with road traffic laws, with hundreds of other tangentially-related pieces of legislation that require consideration when judges are adjudicating on road law violations,” said Mr Murphy.

“David Staunton, the barrister and author of the book “Drunken Driving”, has argued that we need to tear up the current system and start again. That is a conclusion that our profession would support.”

“Such needless complexity in legislation undermines public confidence in the justice system. Too often we read about meritless technicalities being the basis for dismissal of very serious cases. Such loopholes need to be closed off in the public interest.”

“We are calling on Government to prioritise a new Road Transport Act which would allow for the prosecution of road traffic crimes, such as drunken driving, far more effectively, and with an aim of creating a more efficient and timely system.”

“While we welcome the Minister for Justice and Equality’s assurances in the Dáil this week regarding a review of these issues, we need more than quick fixes. The Law Society stands ready to support the Government in a fundamental redesign of Road Traffic legislation. Many of our 10,000 members have regular, first-hand experience of using the District Court system, so can offer expertise and support for improvements.”

Needless complexity

Noted legal expert Robert Pierse, from Pierse Fitzgibbon Solicitors, who has authored the book ‘Road Traffic Law: The 1961-2011 Road Traffic Acts’ outlined the urgent need for at least a consolidating act in the March 2017 edition of the Law Society Gazette.

In addition to his views outlined in the article, Mr Pierse added thoughts on immediate steps that could be taken to resolve issues:

  1. “There should be a Consolidating Act passed immediately to gather all the Acts together in various parts.”
  2. “There should be a Committee to reform the whole Act in view of emerging disruptive threats from self-driving cars, companies like Uber, and lastly Brexit. We have to ensure consistency across the whole of the island of Ireland.”
  3. “Contemporaneously all the relevant Regulations should be consolidated, as they are – in my view - in a greater mess than the Act. There are about 400 of them. Nobody seems to know what exactly is the law, what is in, what is out. It is a needlessly complex system.”

Unintended victims of an overwhelmed system

The District Courts in Ireland deal with around 285,000 criminal cases annually – already a heavy workload across the 23 defined districts, and with the number of District Court judges unchanged for a decade. However, Mr Murphy points out that this is only part of the problem, and highlighted a number of unintended consequences of a system under strain.

“District Courts may deal with many thousands of criminal cases, but they are additionally responsible for family law, child protection, civil law and licensing cases too. This is an extraordinary level of expectation on one tier of our justice system, and is leading to enormous inefficiencies in the system,” said Mr Murphy.

“One of our key concerns is the knock-on impact of District Court facilities, case-load increases, and unacceptable delays on family and child law cases. Family breakdown, child custody and protection of minors – these are some of the most difficult and sensitive court proceedings that exist.”

“District Courts are not only dealing with scheduling backlogs, but they also lack adequate facilities, such as consultation rooms. As a result, you have the situation of quite personal and emotional discussions being had between a solicitor and his/her client in corridors or outside courthouses.”

Recommendations for Government

A recent submission by the Law Society in response to the Courts Service’s Strategic Plan development outlined a list of recommendations for the courts system in Ireland, aimed at improving efficiency and effectiveness of the service. Of the recommendations outlined, a number relates directly to the District Court level.

“The Law Society believes there are a number of priority areas to address in order to resolve these issues at District Court level. At the macro level:

  • Increase the number of judges, in particular specialist judges, appoint additional registrars to create greater capacity, reduce delays and increase efficiencies.
  • Invest in specialised family law courts, and facilities within District Courts.
  • Create a new consolidated and simplified Road Traffic Act that brings together the many existing Acts, and creates a more streamlined and fit-for-purpose system reflective of Ireland in the 21st century.

Recommendations on a more operational level include:

  • The need for cases at District Court level, in particular, to be listed at both 10.30am and 2.30pm to avoid overcrowding in courtrooms, attendant health and safety issues and ensure an environment where cases can be dealt with efficiently.
  • Courtroom security is increasingly becoming an issue, as there has been a rise in the number of assaults on practitioners and personnel in courtrooms. Overcrowding due to list management contributes to this worrying trend.
  • In respect of criminal matters, practitioners have expressed the need for a fixed time allocated for special weekend sittings whereby they are notified in advance if a Judge assigned to the relevant District is not sitting on any particular dates. This is to ensure motions, applications and indeed remands are not put into dates when the Judge is not sitting where the Judge may have seisin of the matter.”

For more information, download the submission to the Courts Service Strategy Statement

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