I recently discussed the issue of perjury with Minister of State Deputy Stanton in the Seanad under a Commencement Matter.
Full Debate available below:
Cuirim fáilte roimh an Aire Stáit. I welcome the opportunity to address the Minister of State at the Department of Justice and Equality on an issue that is very important to me and to many people, particularly those who have small businesses who have been hurt by it.
It might come as a shock to people who are unfamiliar with the court and legal system that every person who stands up and swears or affirms an oath before a judge does so with no real reality of facing criminal prosecution if they are later to be have been found deliberately telling lies. Anyone with a cursory knowledge of how the court system operates knows that every week there are many people swearing an oath and telling lies before the court.
Contrary to popular belief it is not just the person who is relaying the event or speaking about his or her injuries who is telling lies under oath. It is also well-heeled people, big corporations and sometimes people in banking and institutions who present affidavits to say that they are repossessing houses, quite frankly without those affidavits being properly checked to be foolproof and without any repercussions. It is a very significant issue.
In spite of this day-to-day practical reality of court life in both our criminal and civil court systems, including in some cases where judges have gone so far as identifying facts that could give rise to a perjury investigation, according to figures supplied to me by the Central Statistics Office, CSO, there are few or no recorded instances of perjury taking place. I have a figure supplied by the Garda Síochána to the CSO for the past ten years. There have been only 31 recorded instances of perjury, with not a single incident of perjury recorded in the past year, by way of example.
Does anybody seriously believe that in the past decade there were just 31 instances of perjury in Irish courts? Most decent people, if asked to swear an oath before a court, recognise the symbolic significance of what they are about to say in court before a judge, but with so many proceedings going on through our court system on affidavit with no oral evidence whatsoever, I question how seriously this oath is taken in the absence of a threat of legal prosecution.
I am sure the Minister of State will remind me that perjury is a common law criminal offence in Ireland, which is true, but the statistics speak for themselves. Not a single incidence of perjury was recorded last year. My view, and this view is shared by the Irish Small and Medium Enterprise Association, ISME, and also by many solicitors and barristers in the legal profession, is that the only way in which we can signal to the public and to the Garda Síochána that this is a real criminal offence in Ireland with real consequences is to make perjury a statutory criminal offence. I welcome the statement delivered by the Department of Justice and Equality at the beginning of August that the question of introducing perjury legislation is under review.
I look forward to hearing an update on the outcome of the review.
Minister of State at the Department of Justice and Equality (Deputy David Stanton)
I thank the Senator for raising this important matter in the House today on behalf of the Minister for Justice and Equality, Deputy Charles Flanagan, who, unfortunately, cannot be here today.
Perjury, as the Senator has pointed out, is already established as a common law offence in Ireland and there have been prosecutions of this offence. There are specific offences which have been created in circumstances which would amount to perjury, such as the specific offence in section 18 of the Commissions of Investigation Act 2004 of giving false evidence to a commission, and section 3 of the Tribunal of Inquiry (Evidence) (Amendment) Act 1979. Section 25 of the Civil Liability and Courts Act 2004 makes it an offence to give false or misleading evidence in personal injury actions. If convicted of this offence on indictment, a person can be sentenced to imprisonment for up to ten years or a fine of up to €100,000 or both.
From representations received recently by the Minister for Justice and Equality, this would seem to be the type of circumstance which is of particular concern. In response to these representations, the Minister, Deputy Flanagan, has asked officials to examine the case for legislating for a statutory offence of perjury, in consultation with relevant authorities.
Separately, it is understood that the matter of perjury and whether the Government should consider legislating for a statutory offence is being examined by a working group chaired by the Minister of State at the Department of Finance, Deputy Michael D’Arcy. This group is examining the cost of insurance and identifying what measures can be introduced to help reduce these costs for consumers and businesses.
It is understood that the group reported its first phase of work and is now considering legally related matters. These matters include the examination of, among other things, the personal injuries court process and, in particular, the effectiveness of the Civil Liability and Courts Act 2004. It is understood that the trigger for this has been the working group’s consultations with stakeholders where examples of fraudulent and exaggerated claims have been outlined, including how the impact of such behaviour has had a damaging effect on businesses.
As part of this review, it is understood that consideration is being given to finding ways of more effectively applying a number of provisions, including section 25 of the Civil Liability and Courts Act 2004 which, as stated, creates an offence for giving false or misleading evidence or giving false or misleading instructions to a solicitor or expert, and section 26 of the same Act which requires a court to dismiss any personal injuries action in which the plaintiff gives or causes to be given false or misleading evidence or swears a false or misleading affidavit. This working group was attended by relevant stakeholders. It is understood it is still deliberating these matters. At this stage, it would be premature to anticipate its findings, but I can assure the Senator, on behalf of the Minister for Justice and Equality, that the analysis in the report, once published, will be considered in the Department’s examination of the need to legislate to make perjury a statutory criminal offence.
Senator Pádraig Ó Céidigh
I appreciate the Minister of State’s feedback and active engagement in the consideration of whether to put perjury on the Statute Book, similar to what was done in the UK in 1911. We are a little behind the curve on that.
The Civil Liability and Courts Act 2004, to which the Minister of State referred twice, does not tackle the issue from the perspective of an individual citizen or a business. It deals with personal injuries, which is a very narrow category. The Minister of State mentioned section 25, which applies only to false evidence adduced in court. It does not apply to false claims submitted to the Personal Injuries Assessment Board. It is far too narrow in scope and I urge the Minister of State to consider broadening it out to cover many more areas. We have done some research on the area. There has only been one prosecution under the Act since 2004. It does not appear to be very effective.
The criminal justice (corruption) Bill from 2012 is still undergoing legislative scrutiny and has not been enacted into law. We do not have a definition of what constitutes perjury in this country, which makes it difficult for courts and judges to assess whether perjury has taken place. I appreciate the Minister of State coming to the House and stating what he has, but I urge him to do a lot more work.
Deputy David Stanton
I thank the Senator for raising this matter and giving me the opportunity to show the attention it is already receiving. I listened carefully to what the Senator has said and will convey it to the Minister for Justice and Equality, asking him to take note of what the Senator has said. It is a very important issue.
As outlined, there is already a common law offence of perjury which can be availed of now. In addition, there are already specific provisions in relevant legislation where the matter of giving false information could impact significantly on the outcome of proceedings. An expert group is also considering how such instances can impact daily on the public and businesses and is specifically looking at the matter from a legal perspective. I will ensure it gets notification of the concerns raised by the Senator.
The Minister, Deputy Flanagan, has also asked me to assure the Seanad that this matter is receiving attention. He is committed to keeping under review the matter of whether the Government should legislate to make perjury a statutory criminal offence. In this regard, it would be important that this group is offered the opportunity to complete its deliberations in order that an informed and considered decision is taken by Government on any measure, including any possible legislative measures to ensure that they are necessary, targeted appropriately and acted on.
I again thank the Senator most sincerely for raising this important matter and encourage him to keep it under review.