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Dear crime writer,

Do you have a private eye character operating in the Irish State? If so, since the start of this month your fictional character will require an equally fictional Private Investigator Licence, from the fictional equivalent of the very real-life Private Security Authority (PSA).

Your character will have to either

  • Toe the line, pay up and get licensed, or
  • Flout the new regs and risk prosecution
  • (Or your fictional universe can simply ignore this latest minor but inconvenient slice of reality and pretend the regulations don’t exist)

Private eye characters who operate without a licence are open to a (fictional) fine of up to €3,000 or up to 12 months in the (fictional) clink or both on summary conviction. A conviction on indictment can lead to a jail term of up to five years. Heavy stuff indeed, even if it is all fiction. There are also various other offences if you mess with the PSA in the course of its work.

It’s also an offence for – wait for it – other characters to engage/employ your unlicensed PI character.

The PSA already regulates contractors involved in cash-in-transit, event security, door supervision and security guards. Yep, bouncers in real-life Ireland are supposed to be licensed – or at least their employers are. Your characters will also need a licence if they install burglar alarms, CCTV or certain other security equipment. But you knew all that already, right?

Meanwhile your private eye also has to keep an eye on the office of the Data Protection Commissioner. It has been clamping down on private investigators in recent years, prosecuting for unlawful access to personal information held on State databases (such as in Government Departments), and on customer databases (such as insurance companies, credit unions, utility providers). And proper order too.

But back to those new rules from the PSA that came into force on 1 November 2015. Apologies in advance for any legalese and bureaucratic jargon; it goes with the territory…

How do you define a private eye?

The earlier legislation defines a private investigator as

a person who for remuneration conducts investigations into matters on behalf of a client and includes a person who
(a) obtains or furnishes information in relation to the personal character, actions or occupation of a person or to the character or kind of business in which a person is engaged, or
(b) searches for missing persons

The definition has been broadened along the way to include “a person who obtains or furnishes information in relation to the loss or damage of property”. (Our legislators avoid simple words like “gets” and “gives” when there are longer ones with more syllables such as “obtains” and “furnishes”.)

In short, this definition covers most of your typical fictional cases, from stray spouses and fraudulent slip-and-fall claims to “the gripping search for a stolen stash of Nazi gold bullion in Mullingar, at a high-octane pace”.

PI characters must have a licence if they are sole traders, companies or partnerships. If they’re just employees of a licensed contractor they won’t need one.

The PSA also maintains a publicly accessible register of licensed PIs on its website. Bear that in mind if at some point in your tale your character needs to conceal the fact that he/she is a PI. A few mouse clicks and their cover could be blown.

Other characters

The new regulations may also affect members of your dramatis personae who are debt collectors, tracing agents, summons servers, loss assessors, loss adjusters and security consultants. But certain activities won’t require a licence:

  • Technical surveillance counter-measures or IT security
  • Workplace investigations done “with the consent or knowledge of the person under investigation and where the matters under investigation are subject to regulation under the enactments listed in Schedule 1 of the Workplace Relations Act 2015”
  • Store detectives “in the normal course of their duties who hold a valid PSA Security Guard (Static) licence”
  • Law searchers doing documentation searches
  • The professional activities of accountants, auditors, barristers, solicitors, journos and broadcasters (so Vincent Browne is exempt)
  • A character in your story who is simply “accessing publicly available information” (so googling your old school mates doesn’t count)

Although summons servers are generally exempt, they’ll still need a licence for certain investigative activities such as trying to “identify an address other than that stated on the summons”.

Similarly, the regulations cover loss assessors, loss adjustors and claims investigators for “investigations related to the credibility of the insured or witnesses”.

The application process

So your PI character has finally decided to stump up for one of these new licences. He or she will first have to pass a vetting process by the specialised Garda Central Vetting Unit (no, not a friendly Guard in the local barracks). The PSA warns that vetting times can range from four to eighteen weeks – that’s four and a half months, an eternity in some crime novels.

The licence application to the PSA must also include a certificate of compliance with “relevant operational standards”. This is Private Investigator Standard PSA42. It sets down requirements about tax and insurance compliance, premises suitability, compliance with legislation, operational control, recruitment procedures, training and screening of employees blah blah blah.

Oh, and don’t forget to submit your Tax Clearance Cert from the Revenue Commissioners. And your licence fee. If you have an annual turnover on the scale of my Moss Reid character (a one-man operation, despite what it says on his business card), the licence fee is €250. I haven’t a clue how much the PSA42 costs.

Finally, once your PI does get a licence, that’s not the end of it. He/she is not James Bond. The PSA has a range of sanctions at its disposal to ensure ongoing compliance. It can revoke a licence, suspend it for a specified period or let your character off with a stiff caution. So you can put away that Walther PPK right now – the PSA inspector would have your guts for garters.

For more information, check out the PSA website or Irishstatutebook.ie – look out for S.I. No.195 of 2015, and the Commencement Order S.I. No. 194 of 2015.

(Or you can simply make stuff up, in a completely makey uppy universe untramelled by pesky little things like application forms, licence fees, legislation and regulators.)

Minor footnote for grammar nuts (self included)

In all of the above I’ve kept to British/Irish rather than US spellings. Hence licence (noun), license (verb), licensed (adjective) and so on.

Believe it or not, though, I found a typo in section 7 of the official statutory instrument. It refers to “categories of licenses”. And that’s the letter of – er – the lore.