Thursday 19 September 2019

'Unacceptable failures' laid bare over botched convictions, breath tests

Acting Garda Commissioner Dónall Ó Cualáin
Acting Garda Commissioner Dónall Ó Cualáin
Cormac McQuinn

Cormac McQuinn

Motorists may have been wrongly sent to prison, almost €1m has been repaid to drivers issued fines in error, and at one point Garda breath test figures were "out of kilter" by six million.

The extent of the ongoing crisis over the botched operation of the fixed-charge processing system (FCPS) - and the separate scandal over 1.4 million bogus breath tests - was laid bare as the Oireachtas Justice Committee quizzed senior Garda officers.

Acting Garda Commissioner Dónall Ó Cualáin reiterated the force's apology for the "unacceptable failures" in relation to both issues. He said the need for change is recognised in the force and that improvements are being made as part of a major programme of reforms.

Assistant Commissioner Michael Finn revealed that repaying fines in the cases of 14,500 wrongful traffic convictions due to the issues with the FCPS has cost almost €1m to date. Gardaí have contacted around 8,500 affected motorists so far.

He also said 119 solicitors have been in contact about more serious consequences faced by their clients after they were wrongly hit with a fixed-charge notice (FCN).

"I can say that no person went to prison directly as a result of one single ... FCN-type offence," Mr Finn said. "Anybody who was in court and subsequently ended up in prison was there for a multitude of other issues of which an FCN might have been one of the offences."

However, Mr Finn also said: "It is possible that persons who opted not to pay the fine did end up inside prison and we are working with the court services and the individual solicitors to identify those cases."

He said the State may face civil actions in any such cases and that gardaí will approach any court cases "openly, honestly and fairly". Garda management also confirmed to TDs and senators that no member has faced disciplinary action over the bogus breath tests recorded.

Mr Ó Cualáin said any member of any rank found to have acted wrongfully on the issue would be held accountable.

Fine Gael TD Colm Brophy said the Garda Representative Association (GRA) - the organisation for rank-and-file members - has accused management of being to blame for the inflated figures.

"There is no evidence to suggest anybody at management level was asking their members to falsify records," Mr Ó Cualáin (inset) said.

Mr Brophy also said it was not really credible that a "proper management structure" could believe the level of breath test activity was taking place, suggesting "there couldn't have been enough hours in the day" for all the tests to be done.

He said the public was being asked to believe that management was either "so inept" it couldn't work out what was happening, or "the gardaí were actively colluding together to do this".

Mr Ó Cualáin said management would have been focused on the number of checkpoints, not the number of breath tests happening at each of them. Cutbacks and vacancies in the senior ranks during the recession were blamed for supervision issues.

Assistant Commissioner Michael O'Sullivan said that recording issues arose with how some gardaí called in checkpoint test figures to the Garda Information Services Centre (GISC). He said there were "two conflicting manuals in existence" - one used by front-line gardaí and the other used by the call centre - and there were disagreements on the number of tests that should be recorded on the Pulse computer system.

"At one stage the figures were six million out of kilter," he said, adding that this particular issue was quickly corrected.

Irish Independent

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