Constitutional challenge to safety belt legislation fails in Supreme Court

The Supreme Court has dismissed an appeal against an order of the High Court which refused an applicant leave to judicially review legislation relating to the requirement that drivers wear safety belts, and the related punishments for breaches of those laws.

The appeal concerned a number of convictions of and other pending prosecutions against Eddie Kershaw for driving a mechanically propelled vehicle without a safety belt.

Mr Kershaw argued that he did not wear his safety belt because he needed to be able to get out of his car quick enough to defend himself against abusive gardaí or get away from them.

He therefore sought to mount a constitutional challenge to the relevant pieces of legislation which criminalise such conduct and which provide for mandatory disqualification on the accumulation of twelve penalty points, on the grounds that such provisions interfere with his right to life and his right to bodily integrity, and to a lesser extent his right to liberty.

He sought a declaration that section 3 of the Road Traffic Act 2002 and Article 6(2) of the the Road Traffic (Construction, Equipment and Use of Vehicles) (Amendment) (No. 3) Regulations 1991 (S.I. No. 359/1991)  are unconstitutional and contrary to the European Convention on Human Rights, orders of prohibition preventing prosecutions against him, an order quashing previous convictions, and a declaration that natural law is the supreme law under the Irish Constitution and that the natural law provisions of the Constitution are superior to the positive law provisions therein.

Although originally granted leave, this was overturned by the High Court, when Hedigan J. found that there was no possibility whatsoever that the applicant could succeed in the core argument grounding his case, namely, that he should be exempted from the requirement to wear a seatbelt “…because of his need to escape quickly when stopped by the Gardaí. Nobody, in my view, could succeed upon the basis of such a bizarre proposition”.

The applicant appealed to the Supreme Court, arguing that his proposition was not bizarre, and pointing to the fact that drivers of taxis used to be exempt from wearing a safety belt, which he submitted was in order to allow them to defend themselves or escape dangerous situations.

He also argued that there had been various errors of laws and fact in the High Court’s decision, and that he was entitled to seek judicial review, and also entitled to seek damages from the state for the acts of certain members of the Garda, and in light of what he considered an inexcusable delay in relation to his case.

The respondents, Ireland and the Attorney General, supported the High Court decision, and argued that elements of the applicant’s case were scandalous in the legal sense of the word, and contained abusive remarks about gardaí.

The Supreme Court observed that it would not express any view on the merits of the applicant’s allegations against the gardaí.

It noted that the applicant was a serial repeat offender, and had a number of convictions for driving without a safety belt.

Turning to the judicial review process, it noted that an important feature of the judicial review procedure is the requirement to obtain leave, which acts as a type of filter mechanism against wholly unmeritorious claims.

To obtain leave, an applicant must establish a stateable ground or arguable case.

It was noted that while such applications are normally heard ex parte, they could be reviewed on the application of the respondent (Voluntary Purchasing Groups Inc. v. Insurco Ltd  2 I.L.R.M. 145).

In Toma Adam & Ors v. Minister for Finance  3 I.R. 53, the Supreme Court confirmed that both the High Court and, on appeal, the Supreme Court itself have an inherent jurisdiction to set aside an Order granting leave which had been obtained on an ex parte basis.

The Court in the present case added that this jurisdiction raised no concern regarding access to justice, and that a distinction must be made between restrictions which directly affect the right at the access point in the first instance, and decisions made thereafter which may affect the conduct of the litigation.

The Court then turned to what it termed ‘the elephant in the room’, namely the applicant’s wish to make arguments regarding the positioning of natural law in the constitutional framework.

The Court noted that in addition to being unable to raise the issue due to it having been rejected, such an argument was futile as the rights in natural law that he sought to rely on were unquestionably within the Constitution of Ireland, and there was no benefit in relying on natural law as distinct.

In response to the applicant’s argument that he had been irremediably prejudiced by the delays which have occurred, the Court found that he had secured a stay on the execution of the convictions against him until the judicial review proceedings were complete.

Therefore “there is available to him a means, which he has availed of, by which any injustice can be remedied, if so found to exist.”

Turning to the basis for the applicant’s argument, that he should be exempted from the requirement to wear a seatbelt is that he needs to be able to escape quickly if stopped and assaulted by abusive gardaí, the Court found that he could not rely on the exemption formerly granted to taxi drivers as being in any way comparable or analogous to his argument.

The Court found that it could not believe that there was any basis on which the applicant could sustain an argument “that the extra couple of seconds it would take him to remove his seatbelt if faced with a threat of assault from outside his vehicle justifies his exemption from a law which is in place for his own safety and the protection of the public.”

“Moreover, there is absolutely no reality to the idea that this argument could ground a general challenge to the constitutionality of the impugned pieces of legislation, be it the requirement to wear a seat belt under Article 6(2) of the 1991 Regulations or the operation of the penalty points scheme under section 3 of the Road Traffic Act 2002. Both, of course, enjoy the presumption of constitutionality, which cannot be impugned on the basis advanced.”

While the Court did not deny that there have been incidences of police misconduct and harassment in the past, and that the applicant had had numerous encounters with the gardaí, the Court did not believe that there was any credibility to the argument that the requirement to wear a seatbelt has or could in any way endanger his life or violate his right to bodily integrity, by virtue of any anticipated assault by abusive gardaí or otherwise.

Thus, the Court concluded that the requirement that Mr Kershaw must legally wear a seatbelt is not a breach of his constitutional rights.

  • by Rachel Killean for Irish Legal News