Saturday 25 January 2020

Fiasco raises questions over basic competence of Garda top brass

RSA: latest scandal damages public faith in the Garda force. Photo: Collins
RSA: latest scandal damages public faith in the Garda force. Photo: Collins

Paul Melia

In April 2016, a motorist appeared in court accused of failing to hold a valid NCT certificate for their vehicle. It subsequently transpired they had already paid a fine arising from the offence, and had three penalty points imposed on their licence.

What has emerged is that the driver should never have received a court summons. The offence should have been dealt with through the fixed-charge notice (FCN) system, where after being stopped by a garda and found to have committed an offence, a letter would follow to their home address. The fine - in this case €60 - could be paid by post, over the phone or through the post office network, and the penalty points automatically imposed on their licence.

The case sparked a review of prosecutions mounted by gardaí in relation to all penalty point offences. It has now emerged that in almost 14,700 cases, an FCN was never issued, and instead people were incorrectly ordered to appear in court.

In some cases, an FCN was issued and a summons later followed. In other cases, only a summons arrived through the letterbox.

In 14,700 cases, individuals were hit with a court fine.

Read more: 'It raises serious questions of integrity' - Police watchdog condemn gardaí as over 14,500 traffic convictions to be quashed over error

In 1,130 cases, motorists paid both the FCN and the court fine. All these motorists will have their convictions quashed, and money refunded.

Most drivers were prosecuted for failing to display tax and insurance, offences which may not have a direct impact on road safety. However, the Road Safety Authority correctly points out that this latest penalty points scandal does "damage the public's faith" in the ability of An Garda Síochána to effectively enforce traffic laws.

Some 10.5 million FCNs have been issued over the last decade, and in 1pc of these cases a court summons was issued in error. In the vast bulk of these cases, gardaí say 96pc, the motorist was facing a number of charges and would have been required to go to court to answer at least one. In 5,860 cases, motorists could have avoided attending.

The Garda IT system had no failsafe in place to prevent a summons being incorrectly issued. This has since been rectified. But what is perhaps more serious is that it has also emerged that over a five-year period since 2011, the number of drink-driving tests which gardaí claim to have conducted has been hugely exaggerated.

The force claimed to have conducted almost two million roadside breath tests, but data held by the Medical Bureau of Road Safety - which provides and calibrates the breathalyser machines - showed that just over one million were administered. The difference is a staggering 937,212.

A review of testing in the southern region began in 2015, which was extended nationally last year. It reveals that gardaí were not correctly recording the number of tests being conducted, nor the serial number of the machine being used. Anyone caught with a positive roadside test is obliged to undergo a re-test at a station, so drunk motorists were still caught, but the fiasco has resulted in all data on roadside breath tests being removed from the Garda website as it cannot be trusted.

While systems failures are being cited as a reason for the error, gardaí have admitted that it is reasonable for people to conclude that the numbers were being made up. This just two years after the CSO declined to publish crime figures, citing their unreliability.

What both issues come down to is a failure of management to properly administer. When it comes to policing, it is a particularly serious offence, and further erodes public trust in an institution which has already taken a hammering.

Irish Independent

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