Leinster House, Dublin 2.
Further to her meeting with Garda Commissioner Noirin O’Sullivan yesterday.
Justice Minister Frances Fitzgerald made a statement about the latest Garda controversies including the near one million breathalyser tests that gardaí claimed they carried out, but didn’t, and the 14,700 wrongful convictions for motoring offences.
During her statement, Ms Fitzgerald said “the scale and detail of these issues became apparent last week at the Garda press conference but I want to say I’m determined that all of the facts will emerge”.
She also said:
“An anonymous complaint was made to the Road Safety Authority in April 2014, outlining a number of issues which included the operation of mandatory alcohol testing, MAT, checkpoints. This complaint was referred to An Garda Síochána by the then Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport.”
“An Garda Síochána indicated in a detailed letter to my Department in May 2014 that it had looked into the claims regarding MAT checkpoints and was satisfied that correct procedures were in place to account for MAT checkpoints that ultimately did go ahead. Every MAT checkpoint, as we know, must be authorised by an inspector.”
“In June of last year my Department was made aware that some discrepancies had been identified in respect of MAT and that An Garda Síochána was commencing a national audit. An Garda Síochána indicated in June 2016 that no issues stemmed from this audit with regard to the performance of MAT checkpoints or prosecutions arising from same. It also set out the new procedures it had already introduced to facilitate the accurate recording of breath tests and outlined that an IT solution had been developed and would be implemented towards the end of 2016.
“Following this preliminary notification to my Department last year, updates were sought from An Garda Síochána by officials in my Department on a regular basis as to the progress of the audit that was then taking place. An Garda Síochána indicated in February 2017 that it was anticipated that the national audit would be finalised in the second quarter of 2017. Although that audit has not yet been finalised, An Garda Síochána announced figures at its press conference relating to the discrepancy between the number of test conducted at MAT checkpoints as per its own records compared with the records held by the Medical Bureau of Road Safety.”
“No indication was given as to the scale of this issue at the time of the June 2016 letter and indeed, it is clear from what the Commissioner told me yesterday and from her public statements, that it was not known at that time to Garda management either. It was in order to assess the scale of the problem that the national audit of MAT was launched. I did not become aware of the huge discrepancy in the breath test figures until it was revealed at last week’s Garda press conference.
“Regarding the issue of fixed charge notices, my Department was informed in June 2016 of an error relating to summonses having been incorrectly issued to persons who should have received a fixed charge notice for the offence of not having a valid national car test, NCT, certificate, which became a fixed charge offence in December 2014. An Garda Síochána indicated that following on from those initial findings, further inquiries were being carried out relating to all summonses issued for other fixed charge offences.”
“Colleagues should note that a press statement was issued that day by An Garda Síochána about this issue. In that statement, An Garda Síochána confirmed that it had commenced a review of prosecutions relating to all fixed charge offences. The letter set out the remedial actions already taken by An Garda Síochána at that stage, which included withdrawing prosecutions in any affected cases and putting in place a short-term IT solution within four weeks while a longer-term IT solution was being developed.”
“Following the preliminary notifications of these problems to my Department last year, updates were sought on a regular basis as to the progress of the review taking place into the fixed charge processing system issues covering the period referred to in the letter from An Garda Síochána, from 1 January 2014 to 27 May 2016. The results of this review were communicated to my Department in a letter received on 14 March 2017.”
“The letter indicated that a total of 1,781 cases had been identified where persons had been convicted in situations where they had been incorrectly summonsed to court, either without first having been issued a fixed charge notice or having been issued and paid a fixed charge notice. The letter also set out – this is important – that consultation remained ongoing with the Director of Public Prosecutions, DPP, with whose office there had been ongoing consultation and the Courts Service in regard to commencing the process of setting aside the convictions in the courts. That engagement with the DPP is ongoing.”
“An Garda Síochána also advised in that letter, received recently on 14 March, that the DPP had indicated that the review should be extended to include cases before 2014 and that this process was now under way. That, of course, is why the audit was meant to be ongoing until June of this year. That was to be when I was to expect the final report. That is when I had been advised I would get the final report.”
“I became aware of the figure of some 14,700 cases where a conviction took place after an incorrect procedure when An Garda Síochána made that information public last week. It is matter of great regret to me, as I know it is to everyone in this House, that anyone should be summoned to court inadvertently, with all of the consequences that follow for individuals. It is absolutely critical now that these mistakes be resolved and that the necessary remedial actions be taken.”
“As for the fixed charge penalty notice, FCPN, at my meeting with the Commissioner yesterday she assured me that arrangements are being put in place in regard to the persons affected. All of these cases will be appealed by An Garda Síochána to ensure the courts set aside these convictions, as they have to. All fines will, of course, be reimbursed and penalties will be removed, and all of those affected will be contacted directly by An Garda Síochána. Individual letters will be sent to all the people concerned and they will begin to be issued on 3 April.”
“The Commissioner also outlined to me the IT and operational solutions that have been put in place to ensure that these practices would cease. In fact, at the ministerial meeting yesterday, which was scheduled ahead of all of this emerging, both the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, Deputy Ross, and I were assured by both Professor Cusack and all the other people present that the new procedures were in place, that we could be confident about the new procedures and that there are changes being made to the machines, using GPS and further information, so the kind of mistake associated with the technical attributes of the devices can never happen again.”
“In the case of mandatory alcohol tests, An Garda Síochána initially put in place new paper-based recording and verification processes and, in November 2016, a new specific data-recording IT upgrade was installed on the Garda PULSE system.”
“The net effect of the new IT upgrade was that personnel now have to record the serial number of the device used for each breath test plus the meter reading before and after the checkpoint was concluded. This, apparently, was not being done before. It is clearly only one of the explanations for this situation. Data from the device are now used to verify the total number of breath tests conducted at each checkpoint.”
“The focus now, however, has to be on what is being done to get to the full truth of what transpired and the accountability that must be brought to bear. Clearly, there is a need for an investigation to hold responsible those people, at all levels of the Garda organisation, who allowed such large discrepancies in the breath-testing figures to arise.”
After making her statement, Ms Fitzgerald fielded questions from different politicians, including Fianna Fáil’s justice spokesman Jim O’Callaghan.
Jim O’Callaghan: “The Minister said in her statement that she became aware of the scale of the number of convictions only this month, when she was notified of it. When did she become aware in general that there were issues in respect of wrongful convictions arising from this matter?”
Frances Fitzgerald: “The answer to that is the letter that I received in June 2016 from, the department received it actually, from Michael Twomey, outlining that they were concerned about some issues. There was no figure mentioned so I was not aware of the 14,700 and I don’t believe that the gardai, at that point, were aware of it because that was an earlier stage. The audit wasn’t completed and they had put some procedures in place to make sure though, that they would not be further, there would not be further problems. But they hadn’t done a national audit at that point. So they weren’t sure about the figures. And it was only when they had the press conference last week that they did a national audit, that involved well over 100,000 and that then got to a point where it was the figure of 14,700 was arrived at. So they hadn’t done the full national audit at that point. Is my understanding. Is that right? [to assistant on her right].”
O’Callaghan: “I’m taking from your answer that you were aware from June 2016 that there was an issue in respect of wrongful convictions that had been obtained against persons in our district courts?”
Fitzgerald: “Thank you [to assistant]. Yes, at that point, in the letter, they did of course, because they also put some solutions in place in relation to what had happened to different individuals, it was clear that they were concerned that there would be a number but they had no idea, from my understanding that there were 14,700 at that point. But they were concerned that some people would have been taken to court, summoned to court who should not have been summoned to court. And that some solutions had been put in place. They were obviously linking with the DPP and all of the relevant bodies. But that a full audit needed to be done and the figure of 14,700 emerged at the press conference just last week.”
O’Callaghan: “Tanaiste, if you were aware in June 2016 that individuals had been wrongly convicted before our courts, you were Minister for Justice at that time. What did you do about it then?”
Fitzgerald: “At that point what was being done was that the full scale of this issue was being examined to see precisely what the implications of it were. I was aware that action had been taken so that no further such mistakes could be made and I was awaiting the results of the full audit and my department was in contact with An Garda Siochana on a regular basis to ensure we would get the full audit.”
O’Callaghan: “I just want to ask you another question and, before I ask you the other question, I want to just preface it by stating that, as Minister for Justice, you’ve been aware for nine months that there were wrongful convictions that took place before our district court, and, in my submission, you did nothing about it.”
“I want to now ask you about the issues in terms of breath test figures. We know that the Medical Bureau of Road Safety raised this discrepancy with An Garda Siochana in July 2014. We know that the gardai conducted a review in the southern region in 2015. We know that they extended it out to the whole country in 2016 and we know that in November 2016, they introduced a new IT system in order to overcome the problem. I want to ask you two questions. First of all, when did you become aware of these problems with the breath test figures and, secondly, are you satisfied with the fact that An Garda Siochana, to this date, have not been able to explain to the Irish people why it is that 937,000 breath tests were falsely recorded on the PULSE system.”
Fitzgerald: “I have put it on the public record that I received a letter in June 2016 outlining that some issues had arisen and actually they were examining what they needed to do and that they were doing a full audit, that it would be completed in the second quarter of this year. That was the information that I had. And my department continued to be in contact with the gardai…”
Transcript of statement via Oireachtas.ie