Seanad Éireann - Volume 110 - 19 December, 1985

Courts Bill, 1985: Committee and Final Stages.

SECTION 1.

Question proposed: “That section 1 stand part of the Bill”.

Mr. E. Ryan: This is a rather mysterious wording indicating, that it shall cease to have effect after a certain date. Perhaps the Minister could give us more information as to why the section was worded in this way and whether there was any particular purpose in appointing a judge for a short period like that and whether there was a particular function for him. I would also like to have an assurance from the Minister that when this judge is appointed he will have the necessary facilities, because on a number of occasions in recent years the problem in the courts was not a lack of judges but, for one period, a lack of court rooms and in another period a lack of registrars. Whereas appointing an extra judge may be, in its own way, a help in getting the business through, unless these other facilities are available it will not serve any real purpose.

The other question I would like to put to the Minister is, in estimating the business over the next years and the necessity for an extra judge, and in making this decision, whether the question of juries was in the minds of the Minister and the Department? Is this on the basis that [1076] juries will not continue to be used or whether juries will be still in existence during that period?

Minister for Justice (Mr. Noonan, Limerick East): First, the question of juries was not specifically taken into account but there is advice that trials will be shortened somewhat by a move from juries to a judge making the decision. It is difficult to quantify that, but it was not taken into account in the calculations here.

The second point raised was the question of ancillary staff. These appointments were made with the sanction of the Minister for the Public Service to provide the normal ancillary staff that accompanies either a High Court judge or a Circuit Court judge. The reason for the curious wording in subsection 1 is that at the moment there is a backlog, especially on the civil side of some of our courts. It is running at about 10 months in Dundalk, which is the shortest one. It is 12 months on average, but in Cork there is still a backlog of perhaps 22 months. The President of the High Court says that during 1986 he expects that backlog to be down to about 18 months. We are aiming at a situation where we can reduce the waiting period from the time of setdown to the time of hearing to about 10 months right across the country. We feel it would be virtually impossible to get it below that, because it would not be possible to assess injury on the basis of full medical reports once they have recuperated beyond that point. Even though we have this backlog, the High Court is dealing with more cases than are actually being set down. Last year it dealt with an enormous number of cases. The present complement of judges is adequate to deal with the number of cases being now set down. If we could clear the backlog then we would not need the extra judge for a very long period.

We are doing a number of other things also. As I said yesterday, we have provided extra accommodation both in the High Court in the Four Courts in Dublin for jury courts, and also in Cork. One of the major problems with backlogs was [1077] the lack of accommodation, where the judges could sit rather than the unavailability of judges. Secondly, I said yesterday we are preparing a Bill to increase the role of the Master of the High Court. That will help somewhat. We feel that the extra judge will not be necessary as a permanent appointment to complement the existing number of judges. The reason for fixing 2 April 1987 as the operative date is that a judge is due to retire from the Bench on 3 April, having reached the retirement age, so whoever we appoint after January will obviously continue as a permanent judge. There will be one person fewer in the complement of judges once we pass 1987. If I or some other Minister reviewing the situation in 1987 decides that we still need an extra judge there is nothing to stop a Minister coming in and looking for the permission of both Houses to increase the complement of judges again. There are 14 judges, including the President, at the moment. This will make their number 15, with the President, up to 2 April 1987. Then it will revert to 14 after that point. It is specifically geared to clear the backlog on the civil side in the High Court.

Mr. O'Leary: Will it take some time?

Mr. Noonan (Limerick East): I am a very cautious person — 2 April 1987, there or thereabouts.

Question put and agreed to.

SECTION 2.

Question proposed: “That section 2 stand part of the Bill”.

Mr. O'Leary: On section 2, I mentioned in the Second Stage debate yesterday the question of the number of Circuit Court judges designated for the Cork area. I can well understand the desire of the President of the Circuit Court to keep maximum flexibility in that regard. It is a matter of statute that the number of judges allocated to the Dublin area was previously five. It is being varied to six here as a result of this subsection. The [1078] same section in the original Act lays down that the number of judges in the Cork area shall be one. As I pointed out, bearing in mind the population of the Cork area, two judges are proportionately needed in the Cork circuit on a permanent basis. I wonder would the Minister, in considering section 2, consider increasing the permanent number of Circuit Court judges, either by dividing the circuit or by doing it on the same system as they have in Dublin, by appointing more than one to the individual circuit? While the help which has been given to the Cork Circuit by appointing from time to time an additional judge is welcome, we must face up to the reality of the situation that in a circuit of that size, consisting as it does of more than 12 per cent of the population of the country, the kind of amendment envisaged in section 2 in respect of the Dublin area is something which would be very worth while in Cork as well.

Mr. E. Ryan: When the jurisdiction of the Circuit Court was increased some years ago, and increased very substantially, it was anticipated that this would result in a great deal of the High Court work being transferred to the Circuit Court. If that anticipation had been realised I think one would expect that today perhaps the Minister would be proposing the appointment of perhaps two or three extra Circuit Court judges and not any extra judge in the High Court. Can the Minister give us any idea in regard to the volume of work in the Circuit Court since the jurisdiction was increased? Has it had the effect of transferring, as far as one can see, business from the High Court to the Circuit Court?

Mr. Durcan: I made a point yesterday in the course of my Second Stage speech that the enactment of section 2 will not in any way alleviate the delays which are occurring in relation to certain types of work on rural circuits. There are considerable delays in dealing with certain types of work. I made the point yesterday to the Minister that litigants are forced [1079] back into Circuit Courts four times a year, sometimes for a year and a half and two years, before their cases are brought to hearing. It would appear to me that section 2 does nothing whatsoever to alleviate that situation. I would like to ask the Minister if he is satisfied, even with the enactment of section 2, if we will have enough Circuit Court judges to deal with the backlog which exists in some rural areas. Would he see justification for perhaps appointing another Circuit Court judge or two, purely for the purpose of acting as relief judges for overworked and very hard pressed Circuit Court judges who are unable to finalise their lists?

The point was made yesterday — and the point has been made by the Minister in recent months — about the cost of litigation in this Circuit Court. I submit to the Minister that one of the reasons for this is that ordinary witnesses and professional witnesses are brought back again and again on many days to Circuit Courts, when they are unsure as to whether their cases will be dealt with or not. Ultimately, this builds up the costs of the litigant. I believe that that problem could be cured if a number of relief judges to relieve the permanently-assigned Circuit Court judges were available to deal with this backlog. I can certainly provide the Minister with evidence in regard to certain parts of the western circuit where cases have been listed for six and seven hearing dates. That is by no means any fault of the Circuit Court judge who works extremely hard and works, to my mind, unacceptably long hours. It is the fault of the system which does not give him or make available to him the relief that is necessary to give speedy justice to litigants.

Mr. Noonan (Limerick East): First of all, as Senator O'Leary pointed out, there is particular difficulty in Cork. There has been an increase in the number of criminal and civil cases of 50 per cent and 35 per cent respectively between 1979 and 1984. During the legal year 1983-84 and of 1984-85 a second Circuit Court judge [1080] sat in Cork for a total of 64 days and 70 days respectively. I understand it is the intention of the President of the Circuit Court to do what Senator O'Leary requested and to appoint a second Circuit Court judge permanently to Cork.

With regard to the point raised by Senator Eoin Ryan as to the volume of business, certainly there is evidence of a transfer from the High Court to the Circuit Court. There are delays in the Circuit Court. Some of them result from this, but not all of them. For example, my information tells me that in Dublin there is up to 11 months' delay in the hearing of criminal cases, but that there is not a delay on the civil side in the Circuit Court. In the Cork situation there are delays there, as I have said, both on the criminal and on the civil side. In the rest of the country I have been told that there is no significant delay, but the position is being constantly monitored.

I am not familiar with what Senator Durcan is saying about the western circuit. My information is that there are not delays which can be cured by providing extra judicial manpower. There may be delays for other reasons, but not directly related to the number of judges. I am prepared to keep the matter under review. People should have ready access to court and there should be no undue delays. If we need to appoint extra Circuit Court judges I will come back again and look for the permission of both Houses to do so. At the moment I believe that the increases being requested in this Bill should be sufficient to clear the arrears both in the High Court and the Circuit Court.

Mr. Durcan: Just to follow up the point I made in relation to the western circuit, I wish to say that there are delays. I can furnish the Minister with documentary evidence. I keep the court lists and I have them for years back. They prove that cases are actually in the lists five, six and seven times. It is an entirely unsatisfactory situation so far as litigants are concerned. It is by no means the fault of the judges or the court officers, who work [1081] extremely hard, but it is caused by the fact that there is not sufficient judicial manpower to deal with equity cases, which take a considerable amount of time and of which there are a considerable number in that part of the country.

Mr. Noonan (Limerick East): That is not in line with my information. I accept that there are delays in other circuits. Delays can occur for a variety of reasons and they are not all related to the availability of judges. My information is that there are not delays occurring elsewhere in the country, apart from Cork and Dublin, which can be directly attributed to lack of judges. Certainly there are delays. I made the point previously that there are other ways in which these delays can be shortened.

Question put and agreed to.

Sections 3 and 4 agreed to.

Title agreed to.

Bill reported without amendment, received for final consideration and passed.