The Law Reform Commission’s Consultation Paper on Search Warrants and Bench Warrants will be launched by Mr Justice Nicholas Kearns, President of the High Court, at the Commission’s offices at 6pm this evening. The Consultation Paper forms part of the Commission’s Third Programme of Law Reform 2008-2014. In the Consultation Paper, the Commission makes 35 provisional recommendations which are intended to improve the efficiency of the law in this area.
Background and main recommendations
Every year, thousands of search warrants are issued, primarily in the District Court. Commonly used situations involve warrants to search premises and seize material in connection with suspected theft or drugs offences. The Consultation Paper points out that there are over 100 separate Acts and almost 200 Ministerial Regulations that authorise the Garda Síochána to apply to the District Court for search warrants. Many of these contain different rules about applying for, issuing and executing search warrants. The Commission provisionally recommends that these 100-plus separate Acts should be replaced by a single generally-applicable framework Search Warrants Act, which would contain standard rules on applying for, issuing and executing them.
The Consultation Paper also points out that other sector-specific Acts may need to be retained, because they contain important points of detail that could not be dealt with in a framework Act. For example, the Companies (Amendment) Act 2009 amended the powers of the Office of the Director of Corporate Enforcement (ODCE) to search premises in connection with specific offences, for example, in connection with the ODCE investigations into Anglo-Irish Bank. These warrants are issued by the High Court.
Bench warrants are usually issued by the District Court after a person has failed to appear in court. In 2008, over 26,000 bench warrants were issued by the District Court. About 20,000 of these involved: theft, public order offences, drink driving and other road traffic offences, drugs offences and criminal damage. Over 21,000 of the total had been either executed or cancelled by the end of the year. The Commission provisionally recommends reforms that could reduce the number of bench warrants being issued and improve the efficiency of the enforcement system for those that are needed.
Among the other specific recommendations in the Consultation Paper are:
- Single application form for search warrant: the Commission provisionally recommends that a standard search warrant application form be put in place;
- Electronic applications: what form an electronic process for applying for search warrants should take;
- Time limits for search warrants: whether there should be greater consistency as to the time period for which search warrants are valid (the Commission considers that a categorisation approach may be needed for different search warrants than a single validity period)
- Reasonable force as standard: the Commission provisionally recommends that a single standard of “reasonable force” be implemented in respect of the use of force, where necessary, when executing a search warrant.
- Copies of search warrants: the Commission provisionally recommends that the proposed Search Warrants Act should require that a copy of the search warrant be given to an owner or occupier.
- Seizure of material: the Commission provisionally recommends that material reasonably believed to be evidence of or relating to an offence, where the search warrant does not refer to that material, could be seized.
- Legal professional privilege: the Commission provisionally recommends that it should be clearly set out that legal professional privilege applies to material found under any search warrant.
- Bench warrants: whether summonses for criminal offences could be served by registered post and not by standard letterbox delivery; and whether some indictable offences could be dealt with in a summary manner. These changes could reduce the number of bench warrants issued for non-appearance.
Consultation Paper on Search Warrants and Bench Warrants