Go to court!

As mentioned previously, most people unlucky enough to find themselves summonsed to court will find themselves before one of the State’s District Courts. If you get a summons, make sure to attend court on the date specified. Failure to do so, even when told the charge will be withdrawn, can sometimes have serious consequences.

A summons is essentially a written order requiring the attendance of an accused in court at a particular time. Despite common popular opinion, it is relatively rare to “get off on a technicality”by finding some irregularity in a summons. In general, minor errors don’t matter: the purpose of the document is to have you show up in court to answer the charge.

Sometimes, however, a driver might not have committed any offence but is convicted in absentia due to human or computer error. For example: a driver is stopped for a minor offence, such as driving while holding a mobile phone. (S)he receives a fixed charge penalty notice and pays the fine. On the day the driver was stopped, the Garda also asked to see the driver’s insurance certificate (even though a valid insurance disc was displayed on the windowscreen). The driver didn’t have this certificate in the car so the Garda asks him/her to nominate a local Garda station at which it will be produced within 10 days. A few days later, the driver visits that station and produces the certificate. Everything is in order.

Months later, the driver is served with a summons for driving without insurance and for failure to produce a driving certificate at a Garda station. The driver contacts the Garda concerned in protest and is told that there must have been an error of some nature but that everything will be fine on re-production of the certificate. The driver dutifully visits the station a second time, produces the insurance certificate and is told, again, that everything is in order. The Garda who orginally stopped the driver tells them that they are free to go and that there is no need to attend court as the summonses will be withdrawn.

Further weeks pass and the driver, flicking through the pages of their local newspapers, is astonished to read that they have been fined hundreds of euros and have been disqualified from driving. Or worse, they receive a notice of the fine and disqualification in the post.

At this point, the driver might be forgiven for feeling trapped in a Kafkaesque conundrum. (S)he will now have to apply to the District Court for permission to appeal the conviction to the Circuit Court and will have to pay a deposit (a recognisance) for the appeal. The driver will also generally have to bear his/her own costs (including solicitor costs) relating to the appeal. To add insult to injury, if more than two weeks have passed since the original conviction the driver will remain disqualified from driving until the appeal is complete.

You might think you should be entitled to re-visit the District Court judge and have the conviction undone. Not so: a case can only be re-listed before the District Court if the defendant did not receive the summons. The fact that a member of the Gardaí told the accused that there was no need to attend court does unserve the summons.

The moral of the story? If you have received a summons to go to court, make sure you go to court. Even if you have been told that the case will not go ahead or will be withdrawn, attend on the day of the court to ensure that this is done or, at least, have a solicitor or family member attend on your behalf.