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New law and 'admin solutions' needed before asylum seekers can get driving licences, dept says

Some legal experts have said that new legislation is not required, rather a different interpretation of the current law.

Sample driving licences and forms
Sample driving licences and forms
Image: Leah Farrell/RollingNews.ie

THE DEPARTMENT OF Transport has said that new legislation and “technical solutions” will need to be put in place before asylum seekers can apply for driving licences.

Last week two asylum seekers who were refused permission to exchange their foreign driving licences for Irish licences succeeded in a High Court challenge.

The Road Safety Authority (RSA) had claimed the two people were required to produce evidence that they were “normally resident” in Ireland, but had not done so.

However, the judge found in favour of the asylum seekers.

In his judgement on Friday, Mr Justice Mark Heslin said: “The applicants’ presence in this State has, at all material times, been, as a matter of fact, lawful. Their permission to remain may well be on very strict terms and for a specific purpose but it is nonetheless lawful.

“Thus, it is not unlawful and, to the extent that it is urged on the court, I feel obliged to reject the proposition that someone who, in fact, resides in this State month after month and with permission so to do and who complies with all conditions of that permission should not be considered, for the purposes of exchanging their driving licence, lawfully resident in the context of the legislative scheme at issue in the present proceedings.”

Mr Justice Heslin added that he was “entirely satisfied that the applicants are entitled to declaratory relief that the 2006 Regulations do not require them to establish any further right of residence than they currently have”.

The ruling was hailed as a major victory for asylum seekers and resulted in calls for the Department of Transport to swiftly rectify the situation.

The Journal understands that a number of similar legal challenges could be taken in the near future, but these cases may all be settled if the Government doesn’t appeal last week’s ruling.

Some legal experts have said that new legislation is not required in order for asylum seekers to be granted driving licences, rather a different interpretation of the Road Traffic Regulations (Licensing of Drivers) Regulations 2006 on foot of the ruling.

However, a spokesperson for the department told The Journal that new legislation and administrative solutions are required. A related Bill is due to be introduced in the Dáil this week.

The spokesperson said the department “is currently considering” the implications of last Friday’s ruling.

They said: “As set out in the Programme for Government, the Government is acting to improve conditions for people in the International Protection Programme, including access to the driving licence system. However, a number of legal, administrative and technical issues need to be resolved to achieve this.

“Provisions in the Road Traffic and Roads Bill 2021, to be introduced at Committee Stage, will provide legal clarity for such applications. The Bill is scheduled for introduction to the Dáil this week.

“Secondary legislation, as well as administrative solutions, will also be required. While the legislative process is in train, work is continuing on the administrative and technical solutions needed. It is not possible at this point to give a definitive date for completion of these measures, but they are being progressed as quickly as possible.”

A spokesperson for the RSA said the organisation “will carefully consider the judgement in the coming days”.

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“We are also liaising with the Department of Transport and the Chief State Solicitors Office in relation to the decision and are not in a position to make a comment at the moment,” they added.

‘No lawful basis’

The legal challenge was led by solicitor Stephen Kirwan of KOD Lyons. Speaking to The Journal today, Kirwan said he and his colleagues “welcome the judgment of Mr Justice Heslin which has brought clarity to the area and confirmed that there is no lawful basis as things stand for the RSA’s refusal to process applications for driving licenses from asylum seekers”.

“We look forward to confirmation that this practice will now end and that the processing of applications will now be expedited without delay,” he added.

Speaking after the ruling last week, Sinéad Gibney, chief commissioner of the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission (IHREC), said: “A driving licence isn’t just a plastic document, it’s a tool for finding and getting to work, for bringing children to school and childcare, for visiting your friends and generally being part of society.

“It’s something many of us take for granted but in our work with asylum seekers on the issue over the past four years, we’ve seen the toll that being denied one has on people’s day to day lives.

“This High Court ruling marks a significant moment for asylum seekers in Ireland, as it confirms that they are ‘normally resident’ and entitled to apply for driving licences.

“Despite commitments made by the government, these individuals and families have been left for too long, often in remote rural settings with limited public transport, their work, educational and social opportunities stifled. We hope that they will now be able to get on with their lives, and to pursue such opportunities without further interference.”

About the author:

Órla Ryan

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