Dáil Éireann - Volume 497 - 26 November, 1998

Ceisteanna—Questions. Priority Questions. - Courts Statistics.

1. Mr. Higgins (Mayo) asked the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform the arrangements, if any, in place for processing and co-ordinating courts statistics; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [25266/98]

Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform (Mr. O'Donoghue): The position regarding the collection and collation of courts statistics is as follows. Court statistics are compiled on the basis of the legal year which runs from 1 August to 31 July. District Court and Circuit Court offices forward periodical statistical returns to my Department in respect of each legal year giving details of the number and type of cases dealt with by the court in the period under review. These returns are collated by officials in my Department to provide information on the volume and type of cases dealt with by the courts in each legal year. Material from these returns is forwarded to the CSO for inclusion in its statistical abstract.

The superior court offices also forward statistics at the end of each legal year via the Department for inclusion in the CSO statistical abstract.

[783] It is acknowledged that the level, detail, accuracy and timely nature of statistics currently available in the courts is far from satisfactory. However, this is largely due to the fact that court statistics are, in the main, still collated manually, which severely restricts the level and detail of statistics which can be compiled within the resources available. Legislative changes, especially in the area of family law, have also increased the demand for more relevant and detailed statistical information from the courts.

Efforts have been made by court offices to produce the more detailed statistics required. In 1996 all statistical return forms were redesigned for this purpose. However, it is accepted by all parties involved in the collating and compiling of court statistics that the accuracy of these statistics cannot be guaranteed.

On assuming office, I immediately recognised the only way in which relevant, accurate and timely court statistics could be produced was by expanding the use of information technology in the courts and the provision of dedicated computer systems for the courts. To this end I provided an additional £2.5 million for expenditure on information technology for the courts in 1998, thereby increasing the IT expenditure for the courts in 1998 to £3.7 million. Earlier this year, my Department tendered via the EU journal for computer systems for the courts and today I will be announcing the award of the contract for the provision and the development of computer systems for the courts. These systems will run in every court in the land. They will include criminal and civil case tracking, financial management and accounts systems, production of statistics, management information and document management systems.

The expansion of information technology into the courts and the development of dedicated court systems will revolutionise the type and the level of detail of statistics available on the courts and is the first real step taken by any Minister to resolve the old age problem of the court statistics. The new computer system will not only provide statistics on the number and type of cases dealt with by the courts and the type of orders made in any format and for any period required, but will also enhance the management information sought by this Department for future planning and policy making.

Additional Information

The first phase of the computer system will be installed by end June 1999 and it is hoped to have the entire project completed by mid 2000.

I expect the development of a sophisticated and effective IT-based court data system as outlined will be reinforced by the establishment of the new independent court service. Under the Court Service Act, 1998, the new court service will be required to adopt a strategic approach to managing its services and this is expected to include putting in place a comprehensive information [784] function to underpin statutory and management requirements. I will ask the board of the new service to have particular regard to the recommendations of the working group on a courts commission concerning statistical and other information needs for the new service.

Mr. Higgins (Mayo): I am pleased the question has brought forward the Minister's announcement. The Minister's acknowledgement that the figures up to now cannot be guaranteed is a frightening indictment in relation to court statistics which are a vital component in a criminal justice system. The absence of accurate court statistics has caused public disquiet and anger at inconsistent court sentencing. This was graphically illustrated a number of weeks ago when in one week a bag snatching drug addict had her sentence reduced from nine years to six years, a Garda convicted of drink driving in a hit and run case, in which a young man was killed, had a six month sentence suspended and a farmer who kept an animal which strayed onto his lands was sentenced to two months and will lose £20,000 in agricultural grants.

Is the Minister aware such inconsistency is doing irreparable damage to the reputation of the courts and public confidence in the courts? Is he aware that in recent months a judge awarded £3,000 for a 2 per cent Army deafness claim while in the same week another judge awarded £30,000 to a claimant who suffered the same level of deafness? Is the Minister aware that such gross inconsistency is turning our courts into a legal lottery? Will he agree he has an obligation to set down non-statutory guidelines to ensure consistency in sentencing and to restore public confidence in the system?

Mr. O'Donoghue: From the Opposition benches I continuously made the point that it was difficult for anybody to know precisely what was going on in the courts in the absence of relevant details. On assuming office I moved to ensure we would have adequate information technology in the courts. In this context, the establishment of the new court service will mean that the function of the day to day management of the courts will be transferred from the Department to that board. That board will continue with the technological advances being made with regard to the collation and collection of court data. I would be loath to delve into the circumstances of any one case with regard to the issue of sentencing. A court hearing a case, more often than not, has a far better idea of what sentence should be imposed than any outside commentator. I accept that on occasion there appears to have been inconsistency in sentencing, but sentencing is a reserved function of the Judiciary.

Only on very rare occasions has the Oireachtas intervened to impose mandatory sentencing on the courts. One such occasion was when the death penalty was abolished for capital murder and a 40 year sentence was provided for by the Oireachtas [785] in its place. The most recent example is the legislation before the House which is nearing completion, whereby an individual convicted of dealing in drugs with a street value of £10,000 or more will obtain the mandatory or minimum sentence from the courts of ten years. The only other instance I can think of off-hand is the crime of murder where a life term is mandatory. In general terms that is the position and I trust it is of some assistance to the Deputy.