A Mayo county councillor has called on the judicial system to review its practice of approving free legal aid to drug dealers, often caught with drugs to the value of €10,000 and over.
Councillor Michael Burke made his comments at the joint policing committee meeting on Monday where he described as ‘crazy’ the situation whereby drug dealers can turn up in court and apply for free legal aid. He was supported by Cllr Damian Ryan who said drug dealers were driving up to court in high powered cars and Jeeps, yet they have no visible income and they are granted legal aid. He said a similar problem existed with social housing where occupants were driving new cars but they couldn’t afford to house themselves. Cllr Ryan said the local authority was stamping this out.
Superintendent Willie Keaveney said Cllr Burke had some good ideas on the issue and suggested that a recommendation should be forwarded from the committee.
According to Mayo Deputy John O’Mahony €759,000 was spent on legal aid in Mayo in the past three years. While Dep O’Mahony was not questioning the validity of the claims by the solicitors, he believes that a significant portion of the defendants who benefit from the system would be in a position to pay for their own defence.
In a statement Dep O’Mahony said: “I read over the summer months where Judge Mary Devins described the Legal Aid system as one of the most abused systems in Ireland. I’m inclined to agree with her and my criticism is not of the legal profession but of the ease with which it appears that people with criminal records can avail of it.
“I’m thinking particularly of the criminal who has previous convictions for something like drug offences but he claims in court that he can’t afford to pay for a solicitor. Yet, in many cases, the same person can pay large sums of money for drugs. There’s an anomaly there and it needs to be corrected.
“Not for a minute am I saying that the system should be scrapped as without it many, many, people would go unrepresented in court. My main concern is that it’s being abused by some people and I think it’s time it was reviewed. After all, we’re talking about huge sums of money here, with practically an equal division between the Circuit Court and District Court here in Mayo,” he said.
Cllr Seamus Weir said it was the drug dealer who needed to be tackled. He said an earlier proposal to raise the price of alcohol could push young people to drugs.
Cllr Joe Mellett said a presentation by gardaí to publicans in Swinford was extremely beneficial and led to him apprehending two people using cocaine in his pub shortly afterwards. He asked that the same presentation be extended to all publicans in the county as it would do a lot in educating them about drugs.
If sellers don’t have buyers they will go out of business was the point made by Cllr Austin Francis O’Malley, who said children should also be educated in schools to the dangers of drugs. He said if they realised the damage which could be done by drugs they might steer clear. “The seed has to be shown at a very young age,” added Cllr O’Malley.
Swinford Garda Superintendent Ronan Galligan suggested that community groups needed to be formed, offering safety in numbers, to help tackle anti-social behaviour. These groups would meet with community police and would have confidence in standing up against this type of behaviour collectively.
Community forum member Mary Wrafter agreed. She said people living in communities needed to say stop. “People are terrified. They don’t want to confront these type of people. But we have to change that culture. The onus is on us as parents and community representatives to work with the gardaí,” she added.
Director of services John Coll said he would work with the gardaí to determine how best to establish these community networks. He said it was an initiative that could be rolled out by the County Development Board over the next couple of months.