Sunday 25 September 2016

State is taking a big risk by failing in its legal duty

Published 21/10/2015 | 02:30

Convictions matter and it is insane that we would jeopardise all of the great work to date to save lives because of administrative obstacles
Convictions matter and it is insane that we would jeopardise all of the great work to date to save lives because of administrative obstacles

The headline statistic is certainly striking: only four out of 10 drink-driving prosecutions in the last two years have resulted in a conviction.

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But the reticence of the Department of Justice to drill down and explain the apparent 40pc conviction rate for drink-driving in recent years is also striking, and perhaps means those figures should be treated with caution.

The figures assert that out of more than 20,000 people due before our district courts for drink-driving between January 2013 and May 2015, only 6,709 were convicted.

What the figures, supplied via a parliamentary question, do not detail is whether or not this 20,000 strong cohort of prosecutions have concluded; what percentage of cases were struck out or withdrawn or how many have been adjourned.

Having spent more time than I would prefer in District Courts covering road traffic offences, I think we should err on the safe side when it comes to bald statistics. The statistics are surprising as many drink-driving convictions are uncontested and secured by way of a guilty plea. And the recent ruling in respect of language certificates aside, it has been difficult for drink-drivers to avoid prosecution since the introduction of dedicated breathalyser equipment.

The system for administering road traffic prosecutions is, however, a mess and it's not all down to the ingenuity of lawyers. Indeed, the key lesson I have gleaned from covering road traffic offences in general - and drink-driving prosecutions in particular - is that it is the cases that are properly prepared and properly heard that result in convictions.

Gardaí, with so many demands on their time, in the main do their best to attend for court duty. But if they do not turn up to give evidence in a prosecution, is it any wonder it cannot proceed?

Gardaí can on occasion seem blindsided in the witness box by defence lawyers asking questions about their procedures, but that's nothing that adequate training about the road traffic laws they enforce could not meet.

We hear much about loopholes - ambiguities or inadequacies in the law - when it comes to our road traffic offences.

But sometimes when we say the word loophole, what we really mean is that the State has failed to discharge its legal duty, leaving prosecutions it has taken legally vulnerable.

Last June it was revealed that more than 5,000 motorists facing speeding charges have their cases struck out because summons are not served by gardaí. This was not a loophole, this was the State (which has massive powers under our Road Traffic legislation) failing to discharge its legal duty.

There is a pattern in road-traffic offences which typically involves the State failing to discharge its legal duties or failing to correct a potential problem in a timely fashion.

The consolidation of our road-traffic offences would be a huge benefit, but it is no panacea to improve conviction rates. That would require serious investment and a root and branch review of the administration of these offences, of proper ICT systems, of systems - such as the gardaí, courts and Road Safety Authority - speaking to each other.

Convictions matter and it is insane that we would jeopardise all of the great work to date to save lives because of administrative obstacles.

Irish Independent

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