Thursday, 20 June 1991
Dáil Éireann Debate
I sincerely welcome the increase in the monetary limits of the civil jurisdiction of the Circuit and District Courts. This provision will make access to the courts in civil matters cheaper and more convenient for litigants and witnesses. There is now a claim-seeking mentality and, as a result, insurance premiums have increased enormously. Under the Bill and as a result of the proposal to increase monetary jurisdiction limits, legal and other costs, such as witnesses' and litigants' expenses, should be reduced as many more actions can be initiated in the District and Circuit Courts. As a result the cost of public liability insurance, employers' liability and motor insurance should fall as, in theory, other costs should also fall. It will be important to monitor these costs and changes in public liability, employers' liability and motor insurance when the new provisions are law.
Sections 11 and 12 of the Bill are very important as they relate to increases in monetary jurisdictions, specifically to  family law. I have come across many harrowing cases — as I am sure every Deputy has — where deserted spouses and their children have not been adequately catered for by their partner. I welcome the increase in the maximum amount allowed under section 11, where the District Court can increase the maximum maintenance order from £100 to £200 per week for a spouse and from £30 to £60 per week for a child. I am sure that this provision will be welcomed with open arms by all interested parties throughtout the country.
Section 16 contains another welcome change where the monetary terms can be varied, by order, by the Minister of the day and it will not be necessary to bring in a Bill to change the order. The limits should be automatically increased each year by reference to the consumer price index or another suitable index because it would be ridiculous to have to introduce a Bill every time a change is necessary.
Another bugbear is the length of time it takes for many cases to come to court. There has been, especially in Cork, a shortage of High Court and District Court judges, which has been a matter of great concern. I am glad that the Government have acted to reverse the position by increasing the number of judges at all levels. There has been an increase in the number of High Court judges from 14 to 16, in the Circuit Court there has been an increase from 15 to 17 and in the District Court the number has been increased from 39 to 45. This is a significant and welcome step forward and will, it is hoped, bring the backlog of cases up to date. Of course, law does not necessarily equate with justice but cases should be disposed of within a reasonable period. I am confident, as a result of the step taken by the Minister and the Government, that the backlog will be quickly reduced.
We have highly trained, efficient gardaí equal to any force in the world, but some of the tasks they are required to carry out could be undertaken by others. For example, the summary summons could be served through the postal system. I am glad the Minister has taken  this matter in hand. Section 21 authorises summary summons to be served by registered post, and that is wise. It brings this work into the 21st century. The Garda have been undertaking duties which were designed for another age, and I am glad that where practicable changes are to be effected.
The Minister said that this provision will free at least 60 gardaí in the Dublin area and 70 around the country to perform operational duties for which they have been trained. It goes without saying that when there are more gardaí on the beat the crime rate falls and people feel more secure. With more gardaí on the beat and operating in country areas citizens will feel more secure and will be happier with their lot. The fact that summonses may be posted will mean that people will receive them quicker and revenue should come in faster. With tongue in cheek, one could say that people will not be very happy with that provision but, from the point of view of the State, it is an efficient way of doing business. The main objective of this Bill is to make litigation cheaper and speedier and to give people better access to the law. It meets these objectives and is to be commended.
Mrs. Fennell: I welcome this Bill and I commend the Minister for introducing it. Many people will be pleased with the new procedure for dealing with small claims in the District Court. This has been sought very often, not least in debates in this House, and it represents a positive change. I am interested in the role of the small claims registrar outlined in the Minister's speech, and the fact that he or she will attempt to settle claims between disputing parties and may, indeed, interview them in order to reach a settlement. Only if a settlement is not reached will the matter be referred to the courts, and the registrar will then present facts to the district justice. This is a very interesting development. Any development that tries to keep people out of court must be encouraged.
I would like to know a little more about the profile of the registrar. What training  will the registrar receive, considering that he or she will have a mediation or reconciliation role to play? This scheme is to be introduced initially as a pilot scheme and, like all pilot schemes, we hope it will succeed and that all the resources possible will be provided to ensure it succeeds. However, the degree of success of the scheme will depend very largely on the personality of the registrar and the special training given to the person chosen. I trust that some thought has been given to this matter and I would like the Minister to give some detail as to what he envisages in this regard.
I wish to concentrate mainly on sections dealing with increased maintenance in family law cases, the increase in the number of judges and district justices and the serving of summonses by post. I regret that the Bill did not see the light of day a month ago before I completed work on a booklet I co-authored with Paula Donlon and Mary Mulcahy called Marriage and Family Law—A Pocket Guide. This Book was published to update an existing small, basic legal guide for people experiencing family law problems. I now find that this Bill effectively updates that book. I suspected we would be updating the law on maintenance because I realised that the present amounts have been in existence for six or seven years. However, this is something we can correct in the next edition. I am glad that these changes are being introduced. I welcome the fact that the amounts have been doubled from £100 to £200 for a spouse and from £30 to £60 for a child.
As long ago as 1985 in the report of the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Marriage Breakdown these increases were recommended because it was regarded that the amounts were insufficient. I can say categorically that none of the needy spouses I know will be jumping up and down with delight about this increase because they cannot afford to go to court to press their maintenance claims under the Family Law (Maintenance of Spouses and Children) Act, 1976. They do not have the money to go to solicitors and, therefore,  they are dependent on the free legal aid centres, but there is a delay of four months for first consultations in all these centres. This is a great procedure for those who can afford it but for the vast majority of people, mostly women, it will not apply.
The free legal aid scheme is almost totally taken up with family law cases at present. Some people say it should be renamed as a legal aid scheme for wives because in 85 per cent of family law cases dealt with the wife is the petitioner. There is a sad and desperate army of women waiting for justice. They are suffering due to the crisis in the legal aid centres. I thought a year ago that the position could not get any worse but these centres are now dealing with what they define as emergencies. One would have thought an emergency would have to be dealt with immediately but these centres have to define emergencies. As far as these people are concerned the provisions in this Bill are an empty gesture. The Minister of State at the Department of Justice is in the House and I ask him to please do something to make the legal aid scheme responsive to families who need it so badly. The scheme is not working. It was not properly structured in the first place. It needs to be totally reviewed to make it an effective system which will meet present day needs.
I suggest, as I have done a number of times, that there is a need to set up a panel of solicitors in local areas who could give even a basic legal service to people in family law cases. Every day I receive calls from women all over the country seeking help and they usually ask for the name of a “cheap” solicitor. It is very sad that the people who need legal aid cannot get it. They ask if they can go to court without legal representation, and in some instances they can do so, but that is putting them at a dreadful disadvantage in that they go to court to face their husband on the other side, and he will very likely be accompanied by a solicitor or barrister and legal expertise that he can afford by virtue of the fact, I have to concede, that he is earning a wage. The use of private  practitioners would help to get over the present problem and perhaps that should be incorporated in the legal aid scheme on a permanent basis. The proposal was recommended in the 1977 Pringle report. Page 81 of that report states:
One advantage of the panel system is that it carries with it an obligation on the part of panel members to make their services available to those eligible for legal aid or advice. Also members of the public immediately know what solicitors are available to do legal aid work. We recommend that no solicitor or barrister who places his name on a panel should be free to refuse his services unless he can satisfy the Board that he has good reason for so doing.
Another suggestion made in the report that might again be worth looking into, because we are in a desperate position, was the operation of a law phone-in service such as that in operation in Canada. Page 105 of the Pringle report deals with that matter.
In Manitoba the Faculty of Law, University of Manitoba, and the Department of Justice sponsor a “law phone-in service”. This is an arrangement under which legal advice is offered free of charge, by phone, on a wide variety of civil matters. The advantage of the service is that it can be made use of in confidence and with the minimum of effort on the part of a client who is unwilling or, in certain circumstances, perhaps afraid to be seen at either a solicitor's office or a law centre. It is interesting to note that the vast majority of those who use the service in Manitoba actually reside in the city of Winnipeg although there are community law centres in Winnipeg.
I am not suggesting that the Department of Justice, UCD or Trinity should provide a law phone-in service here in Dublin, but that is a concept that should be examined.  Perhaps it could help the vast army of people who need basic direction and guidance on the options available, on the possibilities open to them and on where they can go for help. At the moment they are left stranded.
Good and worthy though the provisions of the Bill may be, there will be a hollow laugh from another group of spouses, those whose husbands are self-employed. The measures contained in the Bill will only aid the deviousness of many husbands who can afford to pay maintenance but will not do so. They use every tactic and every ploy to manoeuvre their way out of their responsibilities. They can and do doctor their financial accounts for a court hearing. Unlike the spouse of a person in regular paid employment, the spouse of the self-employed cannot get an attachment order on salaries or wages. The group of spouses of the self-employed includes the wives of farmers, shopkeepers, doctors, builders and many others. Other measures should be proposed to cover that group. There could be provision to make a lump sum payment under the Maintenance Act. At the moment that is not possible. However, it is possible under the most recent Judicial Separation and Family Law Reform Act, brought in by Deputy Shatter, to make lump sum payments. That measure should be considered in order to relieve the position of the spouses of the self-employed.
The Committee considered situations where the courts might be empowered to make once-off lump sum payments in the light of circumstances where dependent spouses are effectively denied the right of maintenance. This can occur where the person against whom maintenance is awarded can defeat the effect of the order by disposing of his assets, leaving the jurisdiction or, if self-employed, by simply refusing to obey the order of the court and requiring the dependent  spouse to have endless recourse to the courts with little hope of success.
The Committee also considered situations when both spouses consent to the making of lump sum payments or where the dependent spouse and/or children are in need of a capital sum for, say, school fees or the provision of alternative living accommodation as a matter of urgency.
The committee heard submissions from a range of groups that expressed that issue as a problem — as we all know it to be — and came forward with recommendations. Unfortunately, like so many other recommendations, they have just fallen into the background and have not been taken up. That issue is definitely a problem and should be considered in the context of payments and maintenance orders.
Sections 17, 18 and 19 deal with increases in the numbers of district justices and judges of the High Court and Circuit Court. Of course no one will quibble with the increases, given the extra legislation that has come on to the books in recent years, most notably the new Rape Act, the Judicial Separation Act and, it is to be hoped, the coming onstream later this year of the Child Care Bill.
What I and many others will question, and have questioned before, is how well equipped those appointed will be to rule on matters of a sensitive and intimate nature. No flash of inspiration and wisdom will go with the Government appointment. The State should not take the matter of the training of judges lightly. That issue comes up again and again, and with good reason. I want to know what process of training or familiarisation will be undertaken by the six proposed new district justices, for instance. Will they have to undergo any form of training before taking up their new work? In other countries judges attend special training courses; they have to undergo training. In virtually every other part of the workforce training of some kind is required. As I said, the issue  comes up constantly and at this stage those of us who keep bringing it up must be beginning to sound like a broken record.
This Bill will, in one fell swoop, give the Cabinet a golden opportunity to appoint women to the Judiciary. I remind the Minister of the content of the first statement of the Commission on the Status of Women, which was accepted entirely by the Taoiseach. Recommendation 3 of the commission dealt with Government nomination to State-sponsored bodies. It recommended that women be appointed to casual vacancies. I suppose judicial appointments could be called casual vacancies. It would be very nice to think that ten women would now be appointed to the District Court, the High Court and the Circuit Court. That would be wonderful. I am sure, though, that that is rather a fantasy. Judicial appointments would qualify as casual vacancies.
Mrs. Fennell: That same recommendation proposed the establishment or restructuring of boards, with a minimum of 40 per cent of appointments being for men or women. There would be a 4/6 membership on the boards. If that is the favoured rule then of course we would like to have six women and four men. The Government must take a lead from that recommendation. As far as I know — and I checked the statement this morning — appointments to the Judiciary were not specifically mentioned. I am not sure whether that was because of the modesty of the chairperson, Ms. Carroll. Indeed, there is no doubt that she is a woman who should be in the Supreme Court.
I suspect that it was intended that appointments of any kind and any nominations made by the Cabinet should follow those guidelines, which are very clear. The way in which the Government perform on this first clear opportunity to begin redressing the general imbalance of the Judiciary will tell a very interesting  story. We will all be watching the progress. There are ten new appointments to be made, so I should expect no fewer than five of those appointments to go to women. Although I say that now, I suspect some of the appointments have already been made. The message goes anyway.
In conclusion, I welcome the provision under section 16 that the Government may in the future make orders to vary amounts in the Bill as the need arises. We will not have to wait for years and years. The amount of maintenance, for instance, is so unrealistic because it has shrunk in real terms over the years compared to the cost of living. The fact that we will not have to come through here with legislation to remedy that and that it can be done by order is a very welcome change.
I had some reservations about section 21 which deals with the serving of summonses by post. In the explanatory memorandum it says that this would be in addition to and not replacing existing modes of serving. Could the Minister give us some idea which summonses will still be served by a garda in person and how exactly will postal serving work? I suspect that in some instances there is postal serving at the moment. I am concerned about the serving of summonses for a barring order hearing. This is a difficult area involving disputes between husbands and wives at a very difficult time. In my experience wives can know in advance when the Garda will come to serve the summons. Will those summonses still be served by a Garda, and what others will still be served by a Garda?
It is wonderful that this provision will relieve up to 60 gardaí to go back on police work. They are badly needed and I would suggest that they should be used for community policing rather than being merged back into the general force. We should develop the concept of community policing which is so badly needed to deal with break-ins, vandalism, etc. There is a terrible division at the moment between people living in their communities in the type of urban areas that I represent, with  huge housing estates and linear developments, and their Garda station which is so often up to three miles away. The concept of community policing would give these people a feeling that they have contact with the Garda station. A move in that direction to release gardaí to do the kind of work they have been so highly trained for and which they are so good at would be a good thing. I suggest, therefore, that the 60 gardaí that are being relieved should be used for community policing.
I welcome the provisions in the Bill. I would love to think that this £200 extra that is being given in family law cases will go to families who need it badly. I wish we did not have the problem we have with the free legal aid centres. However, I have made my proposals and I would like a response. I trust the Bill will have a speedy passage through the House. When we look at the House today I suspect it will have a very speedy passage.
Mr. Dennehy: I welcome this Bill unreservedly and the whole programme of reform the Minister is introducing. He has been most innovative and has worked to implement the Law Reform Commission recommendations in many areas. He promised this Bill earlier in the year, which included the appointment of extra judges, and I am glad to see him delivering on that promise.
What I welcome most is that we will get a chance to bring in other issues, to discuss the courts in general and the legal framework. There is a need for more of us who are not involved in the legal profession to make a contribution here. The public perception is that this whole area is a nice cosy arrangement with the courts system and the people working in the legal profession on one side and on the other side professional crooks. When the general public get involved in the legal area they are at a distinct disadvantage trying to get their case dealt with or even understood. For that reason we need to look at the overall situation including personnel, judges, barristers, solicitors and so on. We need to examine the workings of the system, cost  efficiency and, most of all, the availability of justice to the public. At the moment it appears to them that there is quite a lot of law but very little justice.
Many changes need to be made, and made fairly rapidly. I welcome the fact that the Minister is moving in a few of these areas. Very often the public point out what they see as a logical change that needs to be made and we try to explain to them why it cannot be done immediately. However, the ingredient that is missing in the argument is common sense. We explain to them that it can take up to ten years to train a draftsperson on the legal side, people who can write legislation that will not have holes picked in it every time it is dealt with in the courts, legislation which will not lead to obvious law breakers being able to get away on a purely technical point.
As a lay person this is one of my greatest worries about the system. Day after day we see cases of people who are obviously guilty being set free on the slightest technicality. It worries me that this can happen. It is so rare for common sense to be applied that if a judge makes a decision based on the facts before him and ignores the technical arguments it makes banner headlines in the media. We need a bit more comon sense in the courts.
The courts system is clogged up. The availability of the courts to the general public is a factor to worry about. We have asked why the system is clogged up, and who is gaining and who is losing as a result. We must look at the cost effectiveness of the whole system and introduce legislation to deal with that. I take the point made by my colleague, Deputy Ahern, a few minutes ago that there should be an automatic yearly increase in the level of fines, payouts and the maximum level for cases in the various courts. This would be a logical approach and could be based on the consumer price index. It should not be necessary to waste the time of this House, of the Minister and the people drafting the legislation to do that. It should be automatic.
On the question of personnel I am glad  the Minister is moving to get changes made in regard to barristers, solicitors and the law area in general. I am glad he now seems to be getting the Bar Council to go along with that. They seem to be proposing changes on a voluntary basis. The Minister has initiated the dialogue and he must follow through on that and make changes.
This area is clouded as far as the general public are concerned. There are 111 senior counsel and 588 junior counsel, but the public do not know that. They do not even know the difference between a senior and junior counsel or between barristers, solicitors and so on. This whole area must be opened up to the public and discussed here, and if necessary changes should be made. I accept that the legal system has become a very tough area in which to work, as well as a very lucrative one. Because of changing legislation and decisions handed down from higher courts, it can be difficult to keep up with all that is happening.
As legislators we need to take the initiative. I am glad that the Minister for Justice is doing that. Logical changes have to be made. It is archaic that summonses have to be delivered by highly trained gardaí. A system of sending summonses by registered post should have been implemented years ago. Another system which needs to be changed is where gardaí from all parts of the country have to come to Dublin to attend court for cases which are adjourned time and again. Gardaí have complained that they sometimes spend 50 per cent of their time pursuing the legal side of law breaking. Because of having to be present as witnesses, having to write up reports and follow through, they are actually missing out on the policing of their own areas. I welcome without reservation the Minister's proposal to deliver summonses through the registered post.
As the Minister develops his radical programme for change, I will suggest other areas that might need change. Why cases are adjourned should be examined. I have been led to believe that all the professional people involved get paid  each time a case is called and many cases are adjourned for frivolous reasons.
This Bill attempts to keep some cases out of the higher courts. I appreciate that the Minister is trying to stop some cases going to a higher court by allocating costs appropriate to the court in which a case should be heard. Many of the people who opt for the higher court are known criminals with substantial criminal records who will not pay anything, and the State pay the higher cost. It is frustrating for the gardaí and the legal profession on the State side when some cases go unnecessarily to a higher court.
The cost of legal representation is a major source of worry to the public. Due to media reporting of cases the public can see that many cases cost five, six, seven or ten times more than the money involved in the case. This whole area will have to be examined. The implementation of the Minister's suggestion vis-á-vis a small claims court at District Court level will be a major step forward. People are restricted in that they cannot pursue a grievance against the State or another Member of the public due to legal costs, and therefore a small claims court is a very positive step in the right direction. I hope there will not be any complaint about this from the legal profession.
If a person can get a grievance resolved for a fee of £5 it will be a good thing. From the television, many people are observing how the American system works and how things could change. One of the major changes that will have to come following this innovative Bill will be a change to introduce a system to deal with minor offences under the traffic acts for instance. At the moment it is ludicrous to waste the time of gardaí and others pursuing a case, for instance, relating to a person not having a tail light on a car. We will have to extend the on the spot fine for minor offences, in the interests of the public, the gardaí and the person being charged.
In one of the Cork local papers an editor outlined how he had witnessed an offence being committed and offered to go forward as a witness to give evidence. After five sessions at court he carefully  outlined the cost, the frustration and the time lost because the case had been put back because of minor technical matters. I am worried about the willingness of the public to co-operate because of frustration and cost. Because of minor technical points the co-operating public almost end up the victims, instead of helping the State. This is related to cases being put back for frivolous reasons.
The courts are clogged up partly due to the level of crime and crime is rising because to some extent law enforcement officers are not on the beat but are dealing with crime in the court. The working hours of the courts and the judges, and their programme of work, are a mystery to the public. They do not understand the quarterly sessions, especially when Latin terms are used to describe them.
The work programme of our courts needs to be examined by a person who is not a member of the legal profession, for example, a person with an expertise in management and cost-effectiveness. Such an examination should have nothing to do with an independent judiciary or forcing judges to give judgments more quickly. It should simply look at the workings and efficiency of our courts, the number of hours worked, the reasons cases are referred back, the calling of witnesses and so on. The decision to opt to have cases heard in higher courts has led to the clogging up of these courts. Hopefully the steps the Minister has taken to rectify this problem will be successful.
The number of judges available to hear cases is another factor which should be looked at. One of my constituents is waiting six years to have her case heard. This woman is frantic at this stage and has lost confidence in our legal system. She believes she is being victimised because she is trying to bring a case against another person. Ordinary decent citizens who are not law-breakers should not be victimised in this way. The number of staff in our courts is another issue which needs to be looked at. When we made representations for extra staff, they were supplied in many cases. Obviously, judges are the key people in our courts  and the appointment of extra judges will eliminate many of the bottlenecks in this area.
I wish to refer again to the drafting of legislation. I was shocked to hear the Secretary of a Department say how long it can take to train a person and the level of expertise they need. It is frightening to think that if one or two people leave the Department the programme of legislation in the legal area can be held up. When they are drafting legislation they have to take into account the ability of the professionals to find loopholes in it and the decision of judges to throw out cases for the flimsiest reasons. This is another area which needs to be looked at. When people ask me why the Minister does not bring in legislation on such issues as stolen property, statute of limitations, rape and debt collection I tell them the Bill is being drafted. They cannot understand why it takes so long to prepare a Bill; they believe a Bill can be drafted in days.
Even though civics classes deal with our legal system, the Department of Justice should initiate a public awareness programme on it. This has been done in regard to crime and I congratulate those involved in the project. The only time people hear about the Attorney General and the Director of Public Prosecutions is when people complain about a case not being pursued or an offender not being charged. There is a huge hue and cry at such decisions and Members lambaste the Director of Public Prosecutions for not stating why he did not pursue a case. The public should be made more aware of the workings of the offices of the Attorney General and the Director of Public Prosecutions. The difference between senior counsel, junior counsel, barristers, solicitors or, to use the American phrase, lawyers, needs to be explained to people. They also need to be educated on our courts system. Why one goes to a District Court. Circuit Court or the High Court and how they work.
 I welcome the proposal to allow arbitrators deal with small cases. The Minister has also suggested changes in regard to the Bar Council. Deputy Ahern referred to the difficulties people have in getting a solicitor to act in a case against another solicitor. While some progress has been made in this area, some monitoring system should be put in place for the public. I also support the proposal for an automatic increase in the level of fines linked to the consumer price index rather than requiring the Minister to come back to this House time and again to deal with this issue by way of legislation. This should also apply to fines under other legislation. We need to legislate for many different issues we would not have thought of ten years ago. We need to take logical steps in this regard such as linking the level of fines to the consumer price index.
I commend the Minister on bringing this Bill before the House. He was described a few years ago as a part-time Minister but if we examine his record since he became Minister for Justice we can see that it stands up to scrutiny. He has dealt with issues raised both inside and outside this House, introduced legislation which was pending for many years, tried to catch up, so to speak, with the recommendations of the Law Reform Commission, worked very hard to meet the wishes of this House, and more important, tried to deal with the frustrations experienced by the general public. I wish him well in his legislative programme and commend the Bill to the House.
Mrs. Barnes: To take up a point raised by Deputy Dennehy, all of us welcome the opportunity to participate in debates on law reform in this House. It is one of our major tasks. In this context, I welcome the Minister's statement that this Bill represents the first instalment of a major programme of reforming legislation which will be introduced in the near future. I should like to think that we will complete the entire programme and not just the first few volumes during the next few sessions. We have a responsibility to introduce reform, respond to the  changing needs in the area of justice and match up justice and the law as closely as possible. I welcome the attempts being made to simplify the procedures and to make it easier for people to gain access to our courts. All the sections in the Bill should be welcomed. What I would like to do is go through the Bill quickly, section by section, and highlight the points on which we might need to be reassured.
I welcome the introduction of the small claims procedure. Many people are of the view that if their claim is small their case is not serious enough to be taken to court and as a result they feel frustrated. Under this procedure they will find it easier to gain access to the courts. In addition, it will only cost £5 to have a claim examined and this should be of help. I would ask the Minister of State to outline the special training registrars will receive. Even though the claims may be small at times one will need the wisdom of Solomon in examining applications.
It is of the utmost importance in providing a new service for the public that we make sure the necessary staff and resources are made available so that we do not add to people's frustration. In this regard the Ombudsman's Office which has proved to be successful and competent, could be used as a model. I would like to think that the registrars will gain the trust of the public in the same way the Ombudsman did.
It would be of tremendous help to the legal profession, to us as legislators and to the staff of the Department of Justice, if an annual report was produced indicating the number of cases dealt with. Such a report would be of help in drawing-up legislation in the future as we would be aware of the issues which were considered to be contentious and the areas not covered adequately by legislation.
May I take it that registrars will be available throughout the country? We should be anxious to ensure, when introducing a new procedure for the public, that people living in isolated areas or rural areas find it just as easy as people living in urban areas to gain access to the  courts. Indeed, the Minister of State is well aware of how far flung services can be in rural areas. We must always bear in mind the need to ensure that people living in isolated areas will be able to avail of any new service being provided for the public.
I have decided to establish the procedure initially on a pilot scheme in the Dublin Metropolitan District Court, in Cork and two other District Court venues. My intention is to extend the procedure to all District Court venues as soon as the pilot scheme has been fully tested.
While I accept it would be almost impossible to establish a network without first establishing a pilot scheme to discover where the loopholes are and see what difficulties may be encountered, I stress the urgent need to monitor the implementation of the pilot schemes and complete the network as quickly as possible. The Minister went on to state:
My general approach is to create a structure in which the Supreme Court would deal only with appeals in the more important cases involving the issues of law including, of course, all appeals in constitutional cases. All other appeals from the High Court would be heard by the new Court of Civil Appeal.
Given that long delays can occur in the courts we should be acutely aware of the need to make sure that judgments of the Supreme Court are not delayed having regard to the fact that legislation cannot be introduced until the Supreme Court has handed down its decision that a matter is in keeping with or contrary to the Constitution, and to the fact that that judgment can affect many people.
As the staff at the Department of Justice are aware, many attempts have been made to draw up what is loosely called a married property Bill which would acknowledge the contribution made by women in the home and would allow this to be taken into account in deciding on  the level of maintenance to be paid. Work was carried out on this Bill during the terms of office of various Ministers for Justice. The vast majority of women took a keen interest in that work. As the House is aware in this country there are more women working in the home that anywhere else and we must make sure that these women are duly protected. That is what the married property Bill is about.
Mrs Barnes: It is important to put this on the record of the House; the punch line is coming. After all the years of high expectation I hope the issues raised in family law cases will be heard. Some years ago when an action was taken to the High Court there was an immediate demand that it be referred to the Supreme Court on a constitutional question. It is still not resolved. We are all hindered by the delay in the introduction of this very important and serious legislation. I would like to think that with the establishment of the new court of civil appeal the constitutional issue I referred to will be taken quickly and that we will not have a long delay.
I will not go into the technical reasons for the long delay in the production of the Book of Evidence but I hope the Minister, and his staff, will look at this when dealing with the reform of the legal profession. It can take an incredible length of time to prepare a case, especially when an issue may be referred from one court to a superior court. This, in fact, represents a denial of justice.
The Minister proposes to introduce a solicitors amendment Bill very shortly and I welcome that. I hope it will be introduced at the beginning of the next session and will be a part of the legislative programme he has promised. The Minister is right to link this with the reform of the Bar Council. I join with other  Deputies who welcome the fact that when the Minister met members of the Bar Council they informed him that they intended to make certain changes voluntarily. We all welcome the positive changes and reforms the Bar Council propose to voluntarily introduce rather than having them imposed by legislation. I hope all the reforms the Minister would like initiated will be carried out on a voluntary basis. Indeed, if reform is introduced voluntarily it cuts out a great deal of delay due to the length of time it takes to prepare legislation.
I will now deal with a point many of us have concentrated on because it affects many people daily at a fundamental level, that is family law and the obstacles to its administration. The Bill proposes substantial changes in the monetary limits in family law cases in the District Court. The present limit of the District Court's jurisdiction is an incredible disincentive to women and spouses who wish to appeal an order for maintenance payments. Their level of income prevents them from appealing to a higher court, which has a higher ceiling on payments. They have to go through the District Court where they can only get a sum which we all recognise is totally inadequate for their needs and keeps them in dire poverty. Indeed, the Combat Poverty Agency report, and the other reports on poverty, show that women and children caught in this situation suffer from poverty. We have now the whole new concept of the feminisation of poverty. Sadly, this phenomenon is backed up by a great deal of data.
This Bill will have the effect of increasing the maintenance payments to women and children in the home who find themseves in this situation. Deputy Fennell drew our attention to a loophole — the Minister and his officials are aware of it — in how we legally address the question of maintenance for the families of the self-employed. We have a very high number of self-employed here and, therefore, a great number of spouses and children are caught.
Another matter needing urgent attention is the question of violence against women. We welcome the fact that under  the Family Home Protection Act the court may make a barring order preventing a violent spouse from battering his wife and children and prevent him approaching and intimidating them. The most basic security we can give to anybody is to guarantee their physical, mental and emotional security. I do not know of a more basic human right. It is appalling, therefore, that women who find themselves in relationships that are not recognised as marriages by the State, for example, common law wives and women in second relationships, do not have the protection of that Act. I have been informed by those in the courts who see these people coming in day after day that they make up one-third of the family law cases coming before the courts. Women in this category do not automatically get a barring order as a spouse and have to take a civil action against their partner. There is a delay of at least three weeks in bringing such a case and many people do not have sufficient money to take a case against their partner. These women are caught in very dangerous and violent situations and the Family Home Protection Act should be extended to encompass all women in the home. We need to make provision for the security of people within their own home.
We promise and try to guarantee the security of citizens on the streets and there is a great backlash, and rightly so, when people feel their security and personal safety on the streets is threatened. However, a great number of vulnerable and dependent members of society are trapped in domestic violence and this does not rate the same degree of importance. I appeal to the Minister to examine this urgently. I will not labour the point because I know other Members wish to speak, but we cannot emphasise enough the denial of free civil legal aid to women and spouses caught up in family law cases. The network of offices is insufficient to give them support. We could spend hours quoting the most harrowing cases. In the event of a marriage breakdown a woman is in a very vulnerable position and it has  a very debilitating effect on her psychological wellbeing. Not alone does she not have access to justice but she takes much bad treatment, from violence to mental intimidation, because she is worn out. She does not feel she has control over her life or that there is an outside resource that will provide the type of support she needs. It is absolutely essential that free civil legal aid be extended to include people involved in marriage breakdown. The majority of people who find themselves in financial difficulty in such cases are women.
Deputy Fennell suggested demystifying the legal aid system. People are scared stiff of the law and of the jargon that goes with it. Sometimes it is not until they are at their most desperate that they seek to have it explained to them. The Minister might consider setting up a legal helpline of the type which Deputy Fennell mentioned is available in certain states in Canada. I would hurriedly add, before the legal profession descend en masse upon me, that I am not advocating giving serious legal advice over the telephone. I am suggesting that a helpline should be available where people could get a preliminary examination of their case to see if it is covered by legislation and whether it would be worthwhile following it up. It would be of great assistance if people could be informed as to the procedure to be followed in setting up a case. Other helplines are available in very serious areas ranging from cancer advice to the Samaritans and can offer a clear, direct and private service. All of us are attempting to make legal information and judicial procedures more accessible, understandable, friendly and far less intimidating.
Concern for the speedy processing of cases must underlie reform. The Minister might tell the House if the workload of the courts is being monitored and reported upon. We must know where resources are most needed and if any of the courts are unable to fulfil their duties properly.
We must ensure that there is proper training and retraining for judges as for everybody else. Masses of legislation at  European and national level come tumbling in every day and it is very difficult to keep up with it. In a fast moving society it is necessary for everybody to keep up to date with complex developments and new technology. It would be foolish not to accept that this is required of judges as people who administer and interpret very complex legislation affecting the lives of people at a fundamental level. That is no way reflects on the professionalism of judges. It is essential for all of us.
A system of night courts might be considered to deal with the backlog of cases which beleagures all our courts. The idea has been mooted for some time. The processing of cases in this way would prevent their clogging the day process.
I welcome the release of gardaí from the onerous and time-consuming job of delivering summonses. I would add the caveat that in sensitive areas such as the delivery of a summons in respect of a barring order it should be done in person and not by post. Discretion will be used in that area.
Dr. Hillery: I too welcome the Minister's decision to increase the jurisdiction limits of the District and Circuit Courts which play a vital role in the administration of justice. There is a very valuable network of lower courts well located throughout the country which are relatively easy of access. This means that local differences can be resolved at local level through these lower courts.
It is timely to review the jurisdiction levels of the courts. It is ten years since changes have been made and the increases provided for in the Bill will mean that the value of money will be restored to these jurisdictions to make good the erosion during the past decade. I am convinced that the new jurisdiction limits will result in a greater number of cases being brought to the lower courts. Increasing the Circuit Court's jurisdiction to £30,000 will mean that many  cases which until now had to be handled by the High Court will transfer to the Circuit Court. It is certainly a welcome development, particularly for persons outside Dublin who, because of the present jurisdiction limit of the Circuit Court, often find that they have to travel long distances to the High Court in Dublin when their actions are for more than £15,000.
It will also mean that legal costs, which are a primary concern for us as Members of the Oireachtas, will be reduced because the costs of taking an action in the District and Circuit Courts are lower than in the High Court. Allowing more actions to be heard locally at District and Circuit Court level should also reduce travelling costs of the parties to an action and their witnesses, including the actual time spent in travelling and absences from work. When these costs are added to the legal costs it can become a very expensive business. The general impression is that taking action in court is very expensive and these proposals to increase the jurisdiction of the lower courts, combined with the establishment of a small claims procedure, are very helpful in that they should make litigation cheaper and more readily available to ordinary citizens.
Previous speakers have referred to the very sensitive and at times very sad area of family law. The increase in the jurisdiction of the District Court in relation to deserted spouses and their children is to be welcomed. There is more scope for improvement but this is an important step in the right direction. It means that the award of £100 for the maintenance of a spouse can be increased to £200 by the District Court where it is considered appropriate and the sum of £30 for each dependent child can be increased to £60. Spouses who find themselves deserted, often with children, should be able to seek maintenance in the least formal and most expeditious way. In this context the District Court has proved both expeditious and less formal than higher courts and is generally perceived to be doing a good job. In fact, approximately four out of five family law business cases  are now dealt with in the District Court and the general impression is that the procedures offered are seen to be working well. Turning to the increased jurisdiction, the Fair Trade Commission report on restrictive practices in the legal profession — I will say a little more about the Bar Council later — last year recommended that the jurisdiction limits for the District Court and the Circuit Court be increased up to £5,000 and £25,000 respectively. This Bill goes further, and I would not quibble with that. The increase to a £30,000 jurisdiction limit in the case of the Circuit Court reflects more adequately the changes in the cost of living and is appropriate in current circumstances. The commission also suggested that, depending on the level of inflation, the jurisdiction of these courts should be amended every five years. I welcome that. I think more frequent intervals are necessary.
This House has a very important responsibility in relation to the powers, functions and jurisdictions of these courts. As we know, the District and Circuit Courts were established by statute, whereas the High Court and superior courts owe their origin to the Constitution. The only way up until now to alter the jurisdiction of the lower courts was to introduce amending legislation. There is now provision in section 16 of the Bill to make these adjustments in future by draft order. This is welcome. It is obviously a simpler procedure than bringing an amending Bill before the House and should facilitate the Government in responding readily and more rapidly to any changes in jurisdiction levels justified by changes in the cost of living. However, the important fact is that this House continues to have an important role in relation to the lower courts. There will be an opportunity to debate motions for any such changes in jurisdiction limits in the House and to approve them. However, I am confident that the relevant section in this regard, section 16, will prove most useful. It combines an arrangement which will allow the Government to respond rapidly to any changes in the jurisdiction of the lower  courts called for as a consequence of changes in the cost of living while at the same time preserving the important role of this House in relation to the jurisdiction of the lower courts.
I want to make a few points of current interest. Clearly, there will be an increased volume of work for the lower courts and in particular for the Circuit Court. Therefore, I welcome warmly the increase in the number of judges. However, it is important that the situation be monitored to ensure this increase is sufficient and that a backlog does not build up despite the positive steps now being taken. As the old legal maxim goes, justice delayed is justice denied, so I draw to the Minister's attention that, welcome as the changes in jurisdiction limits are, the Circuit Court volume of work in particular will need to be monitored to ensure that an adequate number of judges at that level will be available, taking into account the actual increase in the Circuit Court as well as Circuit Court numbers in the Bill.
A further area of concern and of general interest is in relation to personal injury cases which now are typically handled in the High Court. The new Bill will help to alleviate the common situation at present of relatively small personal injury cases taking up valuable space in the High Court when they should have been brought to the Circuit Court. It is important that people be encouraged to take their cases to the appropriate court. To this end paragraph 15(5) of the explanatory memorandum refers to a new disincentive for litigants who have chosen to pursue their case in a higher court than was necessary. The court will now have the option of ordering such a litigant, even though successful in his action, to reimburse the defendant, for this increased cost in defending the action in the higher court.
The Government obviously share the concern of many people that the cost of liability insurance is too high. Personal injury cases at present handled in the High Court are a source of general concern and the method of determination is, as the Minister pointed out, a source of  concern to the Government. It seems that the transfer of many personal injury cases which should more properly, before this in any case, be at Circuit Court level will now actually be transferred down because of the new £30,000 limit. My hope would be that motor public liability insurance will decrease as a result.
Turning to the question of the service of summonses this is a timely and enlightened step. The provision in the Bill for service of summonses by post is undoubtedly to be welcomed. Certainly it is a more practical way of handling the delivery of such summonses. In the modern age it makes no sense for us to waste valuable Garda resources in the personal service of summonses in relatively minor matters. I am delighted at the news in the Minister's speech that this will allow 60 gardaí in the Dublin area, which includes my constituency of Dún Laoghaire, time to devote an on the job, on the street, so to speak, operational focus on the crime problems that face us in that constituency as well as the Dublin area generally. It is much more valuable use of highly trained gardaí to have them on the spot working in the community rather than merely delivering summonses, work for which they are over-qualified. I welcome this measure. I might add that 70 gardaí outside the Dublin area will also be able to devote their time to operational Garda matters as opposed to delivering summonses.
I want to make a general point about the Government's policy in the area of legal reform. The Bill fits in with the Government's general policy of making our legal system more receptive to the needs of people. That is really what we are about here and we have to facilitate that process. Our legal system has served us well in the history of the state, but that is not to say improvements are not necessary and that they cannot be made.
The Minister has referred to the various Bills he has on his agenda for reform in this area, the Solicitors (Amendment) Bill and the Court and Court Officers Bill, and to his discussions with the Bar Council. This is a very timely and relevant  point at which to refer to the Bar Council. I understand the Bar Council have a meeting scheduled for this coming Saturday to discuss their internal procedures and affairs in the context of Government ideas and proposals. For my part, I wholly support a policy of consultation with the professions in regard to reform. By that I mean I will support a policy of consultation as opposed to confrontation. Self-regulation by the profession itself is clearly preferable to imposing legal strictures, provided the reforms which I hope will be voluntarily proposed by the Bar Council will match and be in line with the public interest. Reforms must maintain as their principal object the provision of legal services at a reasonable cost of the public. That is our primary concern here.
I regard this Bill as a further important step in the programme of legislation and legislative reform. I congratulate the Minister for Justice, Deputy Burke, and his Minister of State, Deputy Treacy, for the energy they have brought to bear on their task and I look forward to contributing to further measures as they introduce them in the period ahead.
Mr. T. Kitt: Broadly speaking, this is a very welcome Bill. Many of the measures contained in it are overdue. Anything I have to say will be constructive and I ask the Minister to consider the points I make. Before I begin, I would like to join with other Deputies in the House who have paid tribute to the Minister for the many reforming measures he has introduced during his term as Minister.
The Bill will provide for an increase in the number of judges at the High Court and the Circuit Court. The President of the High Court has indicated that there are not enough judges. Sadly, we have seen a dramatic increase recently in the number of rape prosecutions which has put additional pressure on the High Court. For this reason the decision to increase the maximum number of High Court judges from 14 to 16, in addition to the President of the High Court, is welcome as the additional personnel is required. The increased in the jurisdiction of the Circuit Civil Court to £30,000 also  helps alleviate the burden on the High Court and reduces the cost of litigation.
The setting up of a small claims procedure in the District Court, which does not require legislation, is also a progressive step. However, I would have a number of reservations about how this procedure will operate. As I said earlier, I hope these comments will be taken as constructive. The type of claims to be dealt with by this process would not exceed £500 in value, for example, faulty dishwashers, microwaves, carpets, etc. Every effort should be made to resolve these claims by mutual agreement. Rather than having the registrar referring the matter for hearing in the District Court — a matter that was referred to by the Minister — having failed to effect a settlement between the parties, would it not be advisable to short circuit the process by insisting that the parties contractually agree to abide by the decision between them? Effectively, this would be an arbitration system. If they were not willing to agree, the case would go to the High Court. This would prevent a lot of time wasting and make for a more efficient system.
I would have some doubt about the advisability of having a £5 fee with each application. After all, people should be encouraged to use the small claims procedure and not penalised for doing so. Apart from the disincentive to the public I question the cost effectiveness involved in the administration of the collection of the £5 fee. Perhaps the Minister would have another look at this aspect also.
Section 27 of the Bill deals with a very important proposal providing for the service of summonses by registered post in summary cases. While on the whole this is a progressive measure and will release approximately 60 gardaí who are engaged full-time on summons service duties in the Dublin area for duties for which they have been trained, I would, nevertheless, question whether the vast number of these summonses are necessary. We seem to be accepting that we must live with all the paperwork, etc. that surrounds the issuing of summonses and the number of summonses involved.
 The danger is that if this is a measure to deal with serving summonses, it reflects a failure to deal with parking fines. There is clearly a distinction between minor fines and major penalties. At a time when major reforms of local government are under way, I firmly believe that the whole area of parking law and penalties should be looked at. We treat as equals the inoffensive and non-obstructionist parking offender and the motorist who double parks his or her car backing up traffic for hundreds of yards. Surely a system that does this is not a fair system. The motorist who causes a massive obstruction should be heavily penalised, not because we want to use parking offences as a means of gaining revenue but because we want to ensure free flowing traffic.
Our motives must be pure and not for monetary gain. The degree of penalty should reflect the degree of traffic violation. I would ask the Minister to ensure that the law reflect the distinction between the serious and the minor parking offender. I am not, by any means, making a case for the minor parking offender. I am simply saying there is a very clear distinction and that parking fines should be imposed for the right reasons, which are to ensure free flowing traffic.
With regard to the changes in the monetary limits of the civil jurisdiction of the District Court from £2,500 to £5,000, I would make the following observation. While on the whole I can accept the fact that the District Court should be able to deal with cases, the vast increase in jurisdiction should necessitate a review of the court procedures. The District Court procedures do not provide for one side telling the other side what the claim is about. A sum of £5,000 is a lot of money and because of the amount of litigation involved, there should be corresponding provisions for changes in procedures. The District Court Rules Committee should be urgently asked to look at the District Court procedures having regard to the changes.
The Minister referred to the proposed  Solicitors (Amendment) Bill and the subject of change in the barristers profession. In welcoming many of the changes which are on the way I would utter some words of caution in regard to deregulation. Comprehensive deregulation could well result in a free-for-all. The wealthy solicitors could gain and the poorer litigants and more socially concerned solicitors could lose out. If you break down the system, the big commercial interest will get the top solicitors, the top barristers. At present the smaller rural solicitor is equal to the large Dublin practice in that he or she can get the best top barristers. Barristers are like taxis: first come, first served. One side effect of deregulation could mean that taxis would convert to company cars and the larger the company the larger the company car. I am simply issuing a word of warning in regard to deregulation in that the smaller solicitor and the poorer litigant could lose out.
I would ask the Minister to be aware and wary of this aspect of the change. Commercial free-for-alls may work in some areas but may not turn out to be fair and satisfactory in this instance. The Minister for Justice should be encouraged to introduce dialogue with the Bar Council on the subject of change in the profession. I would be concerned that the intervention of the Minister for Industry and Commerce would hamper seriously and damage these delicate but successful negotiations.
I am aware that the Bar Council have moved to introduce reforms. It would be prudent to hold fire while these proposals are pending and while we are awaiting the outcome of the two-way communications between the Bar Council and the Minister for Justice. I am confident that progress will be made on this basis.
I would like to refer briefly to the role of the insurance industry. Naturally, they will feature strongly in any debate on courts legislation. Five years ago the insurance industry started a compaign saying premiums were too high and that the Government should get rid of juries. The Government got rid of juries but  premiums increased. The insurance industry than said that the problem was that there were two senior counsel on each side in every High Court action and if that number were reduced to one senior counsel, premiums would be reduced. Under Government pressure there was a change to one senior counsel and premiums increased. Now the insurance industry are suggesting that if the Circuit Court jurisdiction was increased to £30,000 — £5,000 more than that recommended by the Fair Trade Commission — and if the Government implemented the changes being put forward by the Minister, premiums would be reduced. All I can say is that we have heard it before and on this occasion premiums must be reduced.
Incompetence in the industry can no longer be concealed by lashing out at everyone except those ultimately who control premiums. For at least the third time in five years, the Government are responding to proposals made by the insurance industry and on this occasion the House expects premiums to be reduced.
The insurance industry have complained about monopolies and restrictive practices elsewhere, yet as Europe opens up to this country and 1992 looms nearly, this industry had to get the Government to protect them from Europe. Those who call most for domestic deregulation and free trade are those who have lobbied heavily and, indeed, have coerced successive Government, including the present Government, regretfully, into ensuring protectionism and cushioning from the effects of our European membership. If the insurance industry looked more positively and outwardly towards Europe, I am convinced the consumer and the insurance industry would also gain.
On closer examination we see that English companies primarily have traditionally and successfully traded here over the years. These companies are protected and are lobbying to prevent foreign companies from joining the competition. I am not convinced that  English companies should have a selfassumed right to exclusive trading in this country.
It says little for a free, open market that many young drivers are now paying motor insurance premiums of over £2,000 per year. Like other Deputies, I know many such young people. In my own constituency I spoke to one young man who started his own business but whose van has been lying idle outside his house for three months because he cannot get insurance he can afford. Insurance companies blame everybody except themselves but they should look closely at their position, particularly at their fear of competition from Europe, or merging with European companies and joint ventures. The cost of motor insurance in this country, particularly for young people, is a national scandal and if 1992 and the Single Market are to mean anything to the Irish insurance industry they should think again about their cocoon-like strategy and attitude and confidently adopt a different and more enlightened approach towards Europe. I am convinced that a common European insurance regime is inevitable; Ireland should recognise that and be ready and prepared for it. Our motorists, especially young people, will thank us if we wake up to this reality.
I wish to pay tribute to the Minister for bringing before the Dáil very significant reforming and progressive legislation. The Bill will make litigation in the courts cheaper and speedier and will also mean easier access to local courts. Further changes can be effective by Government order so that an Act would no longer be required. The numbers of the Judiciary will be increased and modern arrangements will be made for serving summonses. I strongly commend this Bill to the House and I welcome the fact that it has received widespread support from all parties in the House.
Mr. Enright: I agree with the unanimous view of the House in relation to this Bill. The Law Reform Commission made many proposals and, in some instances, the Government have gone  further than the commission. Most litigants will be broadly in favour of the Bill and I am sure the same applies in relation to district justices, Circuit Court judges and the High and Supreme Court judges. There may be a viewpoint that members of the legal profession may not be totally in favour of the Bill because higher costs are paid in the Circuit Court than in the District Court. The same applies to the High Court in relation to the Circuit Court. However, I am sure the vast majority of solicitors and barristers will be in favour of this Bill.
In extending the jurisdiction a number of points should be looked at. Up to now District Court cases have had a jurisdiction of £2,500 which is now being extended to £5,000. In a District Court, if there is a running down action, some justices require you to have an engineer to prove your case and a doctor to confirm your medical report. However, in some instances district justices are reluctant to authorise the payment of fees to an engineer for attending court. If the plaintiff is successful in his action and succeeds in getting an award, the engineer who gave evidence gets a very reduced fee for attending court, preparing maps and all the other work involved. The fee is deducted from the award or, alternatively, the solicitor pays it from his costs. It is an unsatisfactory situation. Everybody wants to have goodwill at the conclusion of a case and it is in everybody's interests that a proper schedule of fees is laid down for doctors producing medical reports, court attendance and so on. There should also be a proper scale of fees in relation to engineers for the preparation of maps, photographs and attendance in court to give a professional opinion. There should also be a reasonable level of remuneration for a solicitor for looking after cases, which should apply at all levels of the District Court.
Similarly, in the Circuit Court there are difficulties in obtaining fees for professional witnesses coming from different parts of the country. There should be a review in relation to the level of fees paid to professionals required to attend court.  Sooner rather than later overall agreement will have to be reached whereby written medical reports will be accepted in the courts. One cannot direct a judge how to run and administer a case but the Law Reform Commission should examine this matter closely to see if medical reports could be accepted without doctors attending personally. Doctors are very careful in relation to what they write in medical reports and their professional opinions are often backed up by their practices. A medical report should be accepted and if there is a counter argument by a doctor on the other side both reports should be furnished to the judge for examination. It is an area in which there could be quite a saving on costs for insurance companies and people involved in court cases.
The increases in jurisdiction are necessary. With the drop in monetary values — to which Deputy Hillery referred — such changes and extensions make sense. It is proposed to increase the number of judges, which is important.
I should like to make suggestions in regard to the small claims court. I am very much in favour of the small claims courts whose jurisdiction is less than £500. Those courts deal with cases relating to household equipment, electrical equipment and items of that nature. When the Minister's colleague, Deputy Geoghegan-Quinn, was Minister of State at the Department of Industry and Commerce many years ago I was spokesman on consumer affairs and I recommended the setting up of small claims courts. Their establishment was a welcome development.
I would ask the Minister to consider bringing minor offences, which are nevertheless important, under the jurisdiction of the small claims courts — for example, failure to pay a television licence. I attend court occasionally and see long lists of people being brought before the court for failure to pay television licences. In 90 per cent of the cases these people are on low incomes and simply cannot afford the licence, but television is educational and is essential for  their children. It can take up to an hour to hear these cases in the District Court. An effort should be made to see if it is possible to have them heard in the small claims court.
As regards road traffic offences, such as failure to hold a driving licence, failure to pay parking tickets and so on, consideration should be given to whether it is possible to move these cases from the District Court to the small claims court. My understanding is that the small claims court deals with civil cases. Offences relating to television licences, driving licences and motor tax come under the criminal law because a jail sentence can be imposed on people who commit these offences. Overall the matter should be examined to see if these cases can be heard in the small claims court.
At present there are inordinate delays in hearing cases at all levels — in the District Court, Circuit Court and High Court. I will give some facts about the present court delays. In the High Court, from the date of setting the case to the date of hearing, delays were reduced from two years to ten or 12 months but of late the time span has increased again to about 18 months. That is a long time for somebody to have to wait to have their case heard. As bad as the position is in Dublin, Galway and Kilkenny, it is much the worse in Cork. In Cork cases set down in 1988 are still awaiting trial and are not likely to be heard this year and a delay of more than three years between the setting down of cases and the hearing of those cases in the High Court.
For example, a man with a wife and family to support who has been seriously injured suffers the trauma of having a High Court case hanging over his head for up to four years. During that time medical bills run high, the person may be let go from work and may be receiving payment from a health board or social welfare. It is grossly unfair that, in our administration of justice, people have to wait up to four years to have their cases heard. That is intolerable and something must be done about it. It has a most serious impact on the less well off people,  people on low incomes, people with families and young people living alone in flats. It is very important that this matter be examined.
The Circuit Court is functioning reasonably well. Most judges make every effort to complete the list of cases each day, and that is important. Judges, barristers, solicitors and professional witnesses do not worry about going to court but for an ordinary person it is probably the first and only time they will be in a court and it is a very worrying time for them. Some people may disagree but in many instances it causes as much concern to these people as if they were going for an operation. I have talked to people who have told me about their concern and worry in this regard. Many judges appreciate the concerns of these people and try to complete the list of cases each day. The Circuit Courts down the country who set out a list of cases for the week try to complete that list but, nevertheless, there is a backlog of cases in many Circuit Courts.
Overall these courts deal with their business in a reasonably expeditious manner, but expedition is not all that counts in the administration of justice. Our courts must be seen to be fair. People must feel there is a sense of fair play and that justice is administered in an equitable, reasonable and courteous manner.
The District Court could be called the engine room of our courts. I will give some figures on the level of cases heard in the District Court. There are 46 district justices around the country. In 1987, 721,701 cases were heard in the District Courts; in 1988, 729,239 cases and in 1989, 710,084 cases. It is incredible that such a high number of cases are heard in these courts. Some changes have been made as regards the issuing of revenue licences for pubs, and that will reduce the level of work for District Courts.
On occasion people are critical of decisions arrived at by district justices. It is incumbent on people in this House to go and see the working of the District Courts. In the past, journalists attended these courts and became well known for their work there. Indeed, some district  justices became equally famous. The reporting of these cases brought home to people the problems of the workings of the District Court. The publicity generated at that time did a lot of good for the administration of justice. Some District Court justices realised the importance of what they were doing. Overall the publicity that was generated was of benefit to everybody.
The number of cases demonstrates the stresses and strains on the District Court. It may be necessary to determine ways in which that workload may be further expanded to accommodate people and try to ensure that cases are given more time. The district courts should not be regarded as conveyor belts on which justice is administered in a rubberstamp fashion. That is not what the district justices or any of the Judiciary want. In general, they are conscientious people and, in common with everyone else, at times they suffer from blood pressure, concern and exhaustion. They try to act in a reasonable, fair and diligent manner but they operate under a great deal of pressure.
The pressure is particularly heavy in the large urban centres where the major crime occurs, where the major problems are experienced and where the major social deprivation exists. The increased jurisdiction to the District Court will increase the workload of that court.
I shall outline the way in which ordinary district courts in rural towns and larger provincial towns operate. All cases are called for 10.30 a.m. or 11 a.m., whichever time is preferred in a particular sitting area. On any one sitting day the court might have to deal with such diverse matters as family law, civil law, television licence cases, cases involving indictable offences, applications for auctioneers' licences, for gaming licences, for lottery licences and for salmon and trout dealers' licences. Such cases would be called along with criminal cases. There would be indictable cases in regard to criminal business and in regard to civil business there would be eviction procedures and so on. The list of the various kinds of business dealt with by a  district court is so long that it would take quite some time to go through.
I am concerned that all cases to be heard on any day are called for the starting time. We have heard much about the Government's anxiety to cut expenditure. One simple way to cut expenditure in the courts would be to separate the hearing of civil cases and family law cases on one day and the hearing of criminal business cases on another day. At present all cases are called for the one time, and some district justices hear family law cases first while other district justices hear them last.
When a family law case is heard before other cases it is particularly hard on the husband and wife — indeed, on everyone involved — that when they go to court on a particular morning the place is full and everyone in the locality has confirmation that the couple have a problem. The lack of privacy is unsatisfactory. It is also difficult for families when such cases are heard after all other business. The husband, the wife and perhaps the children and other family members are all at the court from the beginning of the day, and they are seen at the court. In provincial towns many people attend court sessions. These may include people who are out of work, elderly people who want something to do and so on. In a small town it becomes well known that a couple have a problem. Family law cases are supposed to be private, that is why they are held in camera. Therefore, they should not be heard on the same day as ordinary cases. There could even be a special time fixed for family law cases to be heard. That would not be a simple procedure to implement, but it is important.
I have been in courts and seen gardaí waiting for one, two or three hours to give evidence. There is often in attendance a superintendent or two, perhaps a garda inspector, four or five Garda sergeants and 40 or 50 gardaí, some of them being paid overtime. They all sit in court through the hearing of civil cases. People could be arguing about a car crash, about the price of an animal, about an alleged trespass offence or some other matter.  All those members of the Garda Síochána have to sit and wait until their case comes up. That issue needs to be examined. The expenditure involved in having so many members of the Garda Síochána waiting for cases to be heard is extravagant. It is a waste of scarce public money. A solution to that problem needs to be found at the earliest possible opportunity.
That problem applies mainly to the District Court but it applies also to the Circuit Court. A comprehensive review should be carried out by the Department in co-operation with District Court clerks, county registrars, members of the legal profession and the Garda Síochána. The setting up of a small committee to review the system would be beneficial to everybody and would make for a vast saving of funds. I cannot see any difficulty in that regard, and the Judiciary of the District Court, the Circuit Court and the High Court would be very much in favour of such a proposal.
The provision in the Bill for the serving of summonses by post is one I completely accept. However, that service would have to be by registered post, otherwise it would not be wise or safe to introduce it. For instance, a problem that could arise would be people denying receiving the correspondence. Deputy Barnes said it would be essential to make summons service by post by way of registered mail so that no one could deny receiving the correspondence. I go along with that.
I note that a new Bill is being prepared in relation to the legal profession. It is important to have new legislation in that regard. I am confident that the Bill will be welcomed by the legal profession. I trust that whatever reform the Government put forward will be the subject of consultation and agreement. Ongoing consultation would be required in that respect.
We should move slowly in relation to changes concerning the Bar and proposals of the Restrictive Trade Practices Commission. The Bar Council are well able to make their own case so I shall not make it for them. Deputy Kitt made  several points in that regard this morning and described the issue reasonably well. However, the matter is not quite as simple as the Deputy put it — engaging the services of a barrister is not quite as easy as hailing a taxi. Most solicitors' practices have at their disposal a number of barristers who brief them on a regular basis. Goodwill builds up between both parties. In celebrated cases in the past members of the Bar have acted for people without receiving fees or payment of any kind. In every profession there is a large percentage of people who are involved for monetary gain. However, there are excellent people in the legal profession who are prepared to act for litigants they feel have a genuine case. I am not aware of anybody in Ireland to date that had a case they wanted heard in court who has been deprived of access to the court for want of finance.
We have civil legal aid and I am not trying to score a political point when I say that it is badly funded, because no Government in this State has funded civil legal aid sufficiently. Funding is inadequate and there are major problems. To make changes in the Law Library and in the solicitors profession without having some type of civil legal aid in place would be very unwise and could do a lot of damage. I would, therefore, ask the Minister to be very careful about moving along those lines. That is all I have to say on that; it will be debated again.
I have spoken about our courts in general. One of the main problems at present is overwork in the District Court and that must be looked at. While looking at the courts we cannot ignore the situation in regard to crime. A number of people have dealt with this. People working for the papers in general have no particular political leanings. They are doing a job on behalf of society. The same is true of people working on radio and television. They too are carrying out a function on behalf of society.
 However, it is not too often that two of our national leading newspapers are in total agreement on any subject. The headline in yesterday's Evening Herald referred to our “revolving door” jails while the heading on the Evening Press was “Jail My Son Widow Pleads”. On “Radio 2” this morning Gerry Ryan spoke about crime in Ireland. The Star newspaper is also carrying out a review of crime. I am not politically motivated in making this point. I am putting this forward in the interests of everybody in Ireland.
We cannot be complacent about what is happening. Crime is one of the most important issues affecting us all. In a case before District Justice James McDonnell the mother of a boy said that the courts had given him “a licence to steal” by not putting him away in an appropriate detention centre. She said bag snatchers like her son “always seem to pick on defenceless women as the easiest prey”. He will be charged with 60 handbag snatches from women motorists in the Summerhill area and 65 gardaí will have to attend to give evidence. It is serious that any boy would be involved in that level of crime. What is more serious is that he was released on bail yesterday. To go a stage further, District Justice James McDonnell said he had no option but to release him on bail as Trinity House was full. That is serious.
This morning on “Morning Ireland” I heard the Prison Officers' Association spokesperson, Mr. Dennis McGrath, speaking about the “revolving door” jails. There are 300 people signing on each week at our prisons. That is a serious matter because people do not get sent to jail for simple offences. In general people sent to jail have committed the most serious crimes. There are roughly 300 people signing on at our jails on a weekly basis. That should concern everybody because these people whose crimes range from road traffic offences to burglary, joy-riding and assault, are the very people who are holding communities to ransom and who terrorise estates on a nightly basis. That is not something that  can be ignored. It is very serious and we have to take cognisance of it.
It was reported in yesterday's Evening Press also that 150 people had fled a besieged Limerick housing estate. Can you imagine in Ireland today people having to flee their homes because they are being terrorised? This is Ireland 1991. This is no time for complacency. It is a time for urgent attention to this matter. When one councillor was asked for a solution he said that the Army should be brought in to take control. That is dangerous talk. I would be concerned about that. The Army is an aid to civil power; it is a last resort. If this situation is not tackled there is a potential danger which I do not need to spell out. The facts speak for themselves.
Up to 1983 there was an increase in crime. Between 1983 and 1988 there was a decline. In 1988 and again in 1989 there was an increase and the provisional figures for 1990 will show a further increase. There were 257 house break-ins in Shankill last year and 135 house break-ins have taken place in Shankill in the first three months of this year. I hope the Garda will be able to take action in that specific case.
On the “Gerry Ryan Show” this morning a number of honest people rang up. One was Mary, a widow whose house was broken into. Since that time when she goes into a room in the house she locks the door of the room behind her. This woman felt that the trauma of the break-in would affect her for life. The next woman who rang up had been in bed when a man opened the door and walked in with a pal who did considerable damage downstairs. They loaded her electrical equipment and her jewellery into their car and they stole her car from outside of the front door. This woman believed she would have been able to identify the youth but she said that a garda told her that if she went ahead with the case, the robbers would be back again. Another lady said that when her house had been robbed and damaged, she not alone moved house but moved out of the city.
These trends are very worrying  especially when one considers that 150 people have fled from a besieged Limerick housing estate according to yesterday evening's paper. A woman from Carlow described how a man with a hammer walked into her house and robbed her. This man was caught and convicted and got a three month custodial sentence, but he was the only one who was caught and sentenced. In all of the other cases outlined the people were not caught and punished.
I do not advocate heavy sentencing, or locking people up and throwing away the key, but something must be done to tackle this worrying problem. The situation is particularly bad in Limerick and in Dublin.
When talking to a taxi-man of about 60 years of age I was told that the man's house was like Fort Knox and that he is afraid to walk the streets or open his hall door at night. This man has been a taxi driver in Dublin for 36 years and he is not given to exaggeration. He said that in all his years he has never seen anything like the situation in Dublin at present.
It is important to examine policy with regard to custody and sentencing. District Justice Hubert Wine has been on the bench for a long time. He has experience and is not given to exaggeration either. He is a level headed man. District justices, in general, do not like to make pronouncements from the bench. They prefer a quite life. When District Justice Wine was dealing with a 13 year old youth now appearing on 36 charges, the youth tried to escape but was recaptured by a garda, having narrowly escaped injuries, having run into the path of a passing car when trying to escape. The boy was being charged with stealing two ladies' handbags at a break-in at Loughlinstown Health Centre and at a house in Ballybrack. According to the Irish Independent of 31 May:
It was as District Justice Hubert Wine was remanding the accused and urging the Government to get down to providing a place of detention for juvenile delinquents, that the youth bolted from the court.
Last week in this court I made an appeal to the Ministers involved, which I thought was constructive because of my belief that the authorities have absolutely no idea of the magnitude of what is involved in this shocking problem of juvenile delinquency.
The justice then went on to say that he had not received one word in reply, that all he had asked was simply that the Minister should draft a letter to every court to ascertain the magnitude of what is involved. Has there been a communication with District Justice Wine in this matter since then?
If this “revolving door” policy exists it has to stop. The real danger is that the situation will get totally out of hand. I welcome the setting up of the crime committee yesterday, but on its own it is not sufficient. We must provide the requisite number of Garda Síochána to tackle the spate of crime. We must provide the necessary detention centres and the backup facilities in our District Courts. There is a small fire burning at the moment but the fire is getting worse. It is a very dangerous fire that will get out of hand unless it is tackled.
The courts have to be equitable and use common sense. The elderly people living alone must be protected, families must be protected and people walking the streets must be protected. It is up to the Government to make sure that the necessary resources are provided to resolve the problem.
Prior to 1986, assaults on gardaí were regarded as serious crimes and were indictable offences. The Director of Public Prosecutions at the time decided that assaults on gardaí which did not result in actual harm should be treated as ordinary common assault. Any assault on a garda should be treated as serious and should be indictable as distinct from common law assault. This matter should be re-examined. I trust the Minister will consider the points I have made as they relate to matters of the utmost importance.
 Will the Minister give the House information about the money being spent on the present system? I understand that there has been a decline in expenditure on our prisons. I am not certain about this and I should like the Minister to clarify the position in this regard. Members of the Garda Síochána, justices and people in general are demanding that criminals who continue to commit crimes on a regular basis should be placed in detention centres. It is essential that this is done and I ask the Minister to give this matter his full attention. I welcome the Bill.
Mr. Jacob: I welcome the Bill and I compliment the Minister for Justice, Deputy Burke, and his Minister of State, Deputy Treacy, on its introduction. This Bill is another chapter in their ongoing programme of law reform and updating legislation.
I welcome the changes proposed in the Bill in relation to the courts. I want to refer to the beneficial impact some of the proposed changes should have for litigants. The increase in the monetary limits of civil jurisdiction of the Circuit and District Courts will enable more litigants to have their cases heard at local venues and at lower costs. It will also mean that most ordinary actions can be brought in one or other of these courts. The previous limit of £15,000 for the Circuit Court meant that almost all claims for personal injuries, including moderate injuries, were heard in the High Court. Plaintiffs were often forced to take cases of relatively minor injuries and serious damage to their cars to the High Court. Taking the cost of replacing a car at £13,000 and the cost of car hire at £1,000 the previous limit of £15,000 meant that a person was left with a maximum of £1,000 to cover injuries, medical fees and loss of earnings. In future many cases of this nature will be adequately covered by the new upper limit of £30,000 for the Circuit Court.
The increase in the monetary limit of the District Court from £2,500 to £5,000 will enable all cases relating to relatively  minor accidents to fall within its jurisdiction. Even a minor collision can cause damages of £2,500 to a car. Previously plaintiffs had to take such cases to the Circuit Court. In addition, it will be cheaper for plaintiffs to take cases to court as no barristers will be involved in cases in the District Court and only one junior counsel will be involved in cases in the Circuit Court. Prior to this, both a junior and senior counsel were involved in cases in the £15,000-£30,000 bracket.
I want to refer to the other aspects of access to justice, for example, the practical problems for a person from the country who has to leave his family and take time off work in order to travel to Dublin for a High Court hearing. At times this made it impossible for a plaintiff to pursue his case and he was put at a disadvantage if his key witnesses could not travel to Dublin or arrived too late. The Minister's proposals will be of substantial and practical benefit to all people using our courts. The proposal to increase the monetary limits of the civil jurisdiction of the lower courts will enable a greater number of cases to be heard in such courts. These courts are more conveniently located throughout the country and litigants and witnesses will not have to travel long distances. It will also lead to a speeding up in the hearing of court cases and a consequential reduction in delays in disposing of cases.
These proposals will also lead to a reduction in formalities in District and Circuit Courts which will make it easier for the parties involved in a case to understand the proceedings. In addition, most cases will be heard in the locality in which the parties reside. This will make the courts more convenient and accessible to people and reduce the cost and inconvenience to witnesses who have to travel long distances. These proposals will bring justice to the people rather than the other way around.
Cases are heard and disposed of in the Circuit and District Courts much more quickly than in the High Court where the proceedings are more elaborate and involve more stages. The High Court and  Circuit Courts are scheduled to sit for approximately nine months during 1991. They will sit from 11 January-22 March, 8 April-16 May, 29 May-31 July and 7 October-21 December. District Courts sit virtually 364 days of the year to deal with criminal cases, and for 11 months to deal with civil matters. They only break for the month of August. The increase in the number of judges will speed up the legal process considerably.
The increase in the monetary limits of the civil jurisdiction of the lower courts will be of limited benefit if litigants — I am thinking in particular of plaintiffs — do not make use of it. It seems to be a tradition for some litigants to litigate only in the High Court. Under our Constitution the High Court is invested with full original jurisdiction to determine all matters and questions whether of law or fact, civil or criminal. Plaintiffs are entitled to initiate any action in the High Court. However, a defendant is given no choice in the matter and the costs he will have to pay if he loses the case are largely determined by the decision of the plaintiff to initiate his action in a particular court. That decision could cost a defendant thousands of pounds.
As the Minister said, there has been a long-standing policy to discourage plaintiffs from initiating actions in a higher court than is necessary by limiting the costs they may be awarded to the costs appropriate to the lowest court having jurisdiction to grant the relief given. I understand that the present law allows a wide discretion to the courts to certify payment of higher court costs, even when the award made is appropriate to the jurisdiction of a lower court. I have heard it said that lawyers will often advise their clients to proceed with a personal injuries case in the High Court if they value the case at more than half the jurisdiction limit of the Circuit Court on the basis that the High Court costs will be granted. This general practice can serve only to frustrate the objectives of legislation, such as this Bill which proposes to increase the civil jurisdiction of the lower courts.
I am not surprised to note the Minister  is taking steps in this Bill to enact more restrictive provisions governing the granting of higher court costs. He is leaving a margin in cases where more than £250,000 is awarded in the High Court for the granting of higher costs. This is probably justified because it may not be possible to estimate the value of some cases with complete accuracy.
I am pleased the Minister is introducing a new disincentive to discourage plaintiffs from lititigating in a higher court than necesary. I am referring to the proposals in section 14 which will empower the court to penalise a successful plaintiff who takes an action in a court other than the court with lowest jurisdiction by requiring the plaintiff to pay the defendant the equivalent of the additional costs incurred by the defendant in having to defend the case. This is relevant to the point I made earlier concerning the additional costs imposed on the defendant by reason of the plaintiff's decision to proceed in a particular court.
There are some celebrated cases where judges awarded derisory damages to plaintiffs in High Court cases. They told them, in effect, that they had no business proceeding in the High Court. One such case heard in the High Court in Cork received widespread publicity earlier this year. In that case the defendant's lawyers asked the judge to penalise the plaintiff by awarding the additional costs of taking the action in the High Court. The judge was unable to do so. I am glad the Minister is giving the power to the courts to make such an award of costs against the plaintiff.
This matter does not concern the plaintiffs in personal injury actions only. In the vast majority of personal injury cases the defendants are insurance companies. The insurance industry, and their spokespersons, have consistently maintained that high legal costs is one of the main reasons the cost of car insurance is so high. This is a matter about which the Government are concerned. Indeed, we are all concerned. It is clear that this problem was in the forefront of the Minister's mind when he set about drafting the Bill. The new limits proposed for the  lower courts should result in many more personal injury cases being initiated in the Circuit Court and, possibly, the District Court. I feel confident that the more restrictive new provisions which will limit the costs plaintiffs can be awarded if they proceed in a higher court than necessary will ensure that the increased jurisdiction of the lower courts will be used in practice by litigants. These measures will go a long way towards reducing the legal costs of defendants with a consequential benefit for the public at large through much needed reductions in the level of liability insurance premiums.
The proposal that summonses be served by post is warmly welcomed. It will release gardaí from the unproductive job of serving summonses and allow them to engage in their real vocation, crime prevention and detection. I am sure that was the Minister's aim in introducing that proposal. Gardaí are required on the streets, and not just in urban areas and in our cities given that there has been a swing from urban crime to rural crime with the counties nearest to Dublin most at risk. I live in County Wicklow where there has been a dramatic upsurge in crime.
In a county where great efforts are being made, in conjunction with the Government, to develop the tourism industry there is the serious problem of “tourism bashing”. In resorts such as Glendalough and Brittas Bay, particularly at long weekends during the summer, thugs interfere with visitors and local people. The crime graph is heading in the wrong direction. Any measures the Minister takes to ensure a greater Garda presence in these areas will be welcomed.
I have some reservations about a provision in the Bill. I have in mind the case of a person who claims he has not received a summons but I can voice these reservations on Committee Stage. In relation to summonses, I ask the Minister to consider allowing Garda superintendents and/or inspectors to issue summonses, in addition to District Court clerks, in an attempt to streamline the procedures further. This would avoid the necessity for members of the Garda  Síochána to go to District Court offices to have summonses signed. I welcome the reforms in the Bill and I fully support the Minister's proposals.
Mr. S. Barrett: I have been trying for months to convince the Minister that this is the case all over the country. We had a series of speeches about crime being on the decrease, that we had more gardaí than ever before and that there was no problem. Each time the Minister opened his mouth he listed the Bills he had put through since he was appointed but suddenly the message seems to have got through. Yesterday the Minister admitted that crime is on the increase and that new measures will be taken. Why? The answer is that the people told him that this was the case on the doorsteps. Suddenly, the public relations exercises have been dispensed with. Now that we are facing up to reality it is time we did something about this problem.
At last the Minister has agreed to appoint the Select Committee on Crime. It has taken him four years to make up his mind despite the fact that we had a similar committee on crime between 1982-87 who did much good work. Had they been allowed to continue in existence many of the changes sought and needed would have been made. They would not have been contrary to Government policy because Members on all sides of the House want to have the crime problem resolved. They are not looking for political kudos or taking any pleasure in continuously harping on the fact that people are afraid to leave their homes, walk the streets or park their cars. No one wants to live in such a society and no one, be he politician, journalist, civil servant or member of the public, is excluded from the effects of this wave of  crime. It is in all our interest, therefore, to attempt to resolve this difficult problem so that people can feel free to go out, lock their doors or park their cars and expect to find their property intact or that their cars are still in the same place on their return. This is not a party political issue.
Newspaper reports accuse us of discovering only now that there is a crime problem because of the local elections. I wish to answer that charge. Those who have been Members since 1987 when I became spokesperson on Justice who say that I did not open my mouth until an election was in the offing obviously did not read the Dáil Official Report. I know that our friends in the press who report on the proceedings do their job and send in their reports to their newspapers but people are not interested in many matters discussed in the House. Of course, at election time issues are raised because that is what elections are about. People want to know the proposals of those standing for election so that they can consider whether they will vote for a candidate.
We live in a democracy and if people are concerned about an issue such as crime they certainly want to know what we propose doing about it. I do not think anybody should make any apology for the fact that we have successfully brought home to the Government the urgent need to take radical steps to deal with the horrendous problem of crime sweeping the country. The sad fact is that according to this morning's newspapers', the Minister will make a speech in Templemore this afternoon outlining how he is going to involve parents in dealing with juvenile crime. I have been making the point of parental responsibility for years but the Minister chose to go outside this House to make a statement as to how he proposes to deal with the problem. It is no wonder the public are concerned about the activities of this House because Ministers are choosing to make major statements outside the House so that there can be no debate or discussion on the subject. The proceedings of this House are being turned into nothing more than  a PR exercise to try to convince people there are no problems.
If we had had a committee on crime in place for the past four years issues such as parental responsibility could have been discussed and the views of all Members could have been taken on board. The role of parents and guardians could have been examined. Now we are being told what the Minister proposes to do without us getting an oportunity to discuss or debate the matter with him. We have a take-it-or-leave it style of Government. Announcements are made at openings. The Minister will tell the world in Templemore what he is going to do in relation to parental responsibility but when Members table questions about proposed legislation, the reply will state the Minister has no intention of announcing his proposals in regard to legislation. Yet, the Minister can make speeches on issues outside this House without thinking twice about it.
The question of parental responsibility is very serious and Deputy Enright brought to our attention what the media have been saying about various incidents of juvenile crime. The media have commented also on the prison service. There was a headline in the Evening Herald yesterday about “revolving prisons.” It is obvious to everybody that the present policy is not working. The Minister may provide an additional 200 places in juvenile detention centres but this will not resolve the problem unless that is done in conjunction with other measures. It is obvious that detention is no longer a deterrent for people involved in crime. It is also obvious that some parents have abdicated their responsibility for their children. We cannot go on building more and more prisons at enormous cost simply to take people off the street for a very short period and send them out again to do exactly the same thing. That policy will not work.
It is quite obvious that problems resulting from the high level of crime arises directly from a lack of educational opportunities, no jobs for young people and a lack of recreational facilities. These issues are part and parcel of the process  of trying to find a solution to the problem of crime. We are only fooling ourselves if we think that putting an additional 1,000 Garda on the street will resolve the problem. It will certainly help to alleviate the problem but it will not resolve it. To say that the provision of an additional 40 detention places will solve the problem, when it will not is only fooling ourselves and the sooner we are seen to be coming forward with proposals to deal with the world we live in today the better for everybody.
I had not intended to speak on this Bill but I did so because this morning a Private Members' Bill in my name dealing with the whole question of bail was circulated. An amendment to the Constitution would be required. We are aware that some people hold genuine views on the issue of bail, the right of the individual to bail, and that we could be going too far to deal with the problem. That is a legitimate fear. I would like to answer some of the fears expressed.
First, the Bill does not propose that bail be refused in all cases but that the court have discretion to admit or refuse to admit any person to bail pending trial. What the Bill proposes is to give the courts discretion to deal with the problems that come before them on a daily basis. A quid pro quo for this is that where bail is refused in accordance with the provision in my Bill, the person who has been refused bail should have an automatic right to an early trial. This is vitally important. That is why the proposal in this Courts Bill to increase the number of judges is welcome.
We should also address the question of providing more courthouses to deal with the problems coming before the courts. If we can find a building overnight to house the 470 staff from the Central Statistics Office — because the Minister decided to make an announcement in Cork that he was going to move that office from Dublin to Cork — I cannot understand why it seems difficult to find a relatively small building to be used as a courthouse. I maintain that problem can be overcome. It is only right if we are to refuse bail to people that they  should have an automatic right to an early trial.
Refusing bail is not new. We have preventive detention in two instances, if a person is unlikely to turn up for trial, or if the person is likely to interfere with witnesses. We have already established that there are certain circumstances where bail can be refused. Refusal to grant bail is not totally contrary to the principle that a person is innocent until proved guilty, because at the end of the day it is left to the court's discretion under the existing law to decide whether the person is likely to turn up for trial or, if granted bail, would interfere with witnesses.
As a society we already give discretion to our judges to make a judgement depending on the circumstances. That discretion should be extended. It cannot be suggested that if such discretion were given, every judge would suddenly refuse bail to persons who would normally be given it. They would, however, have discretion. Deputy Enright cited the case of a person before a court with 60 charges against him whose mother asked that he be taken away and something done with him.
I read a very interesting article in today's edition of The Irish Times in which the issue of bail was analysed by a journalist. People are entitled to their views and to criticise if they see fit. All I ask is that there be balance in this argument. Let us not ignore the reality of today's world. A district justice may have before him a person who has 40 charges against him for house breaking and a record of being in and out of prison and detention centres, with no intention of mending his ways. The district justice knows that if bail is granted the individual before him will go out and continue breaking into houses. What about the rights of the individual whose house has been broken into or who has been mugged on the street? We must take into account all the circumstances.
In the interests of society it may be the right thing to refuse bail pending a hearing of the charges against that  person. On the other hand, the judge might decide that bail should be granted. All we are saying is that the court should be given discretion. We are not asking judges to depart from any principles that have been established. We are seeking a constitutional referendum to give discretion to the courts. I do not believe the courts would suddenly stop granting bail altogether. Members of the Garda Siochána frequently have the experience of apprehending a person who has caused havoc in an area; when brought to court he is released on bail and the gardaí have to pursue him again because he continues his wrong doing, on the principle that one might as well be hanged for a sheep as a lamb.
We have always upheld the principle that a person is innocent until proved guilty and we have bent over backwards to give people charged with offences every opportunity to prove their innocence and to have a fair trial. We spend considerable sums of money on a free legal aid system and we endeavour to frame our laws in such a way that there is a heavy onus on the prosecution to prove that the accused is guilty. We have much to be proud of.
I am proud that the party of which I am a member has been to the forefront in ensuring that justice is done and is seen to be done. My party have a proud record of law reform in the family law, civil law and criminal law areas. We are a group of people who face up to reality. If we do not deal with the problems that exist, democracy will take second place because the public will lose confidence in the democratic system we are trying to protect. If society sees that our structures are incapable of protecting them, it leaves room for those who use other tactics to impose their will. That is already happening. If we want to discuss the whole issue as set out in the Private Members' Bill circulated today by me on behalf of my party, let us have an open and honest discussion about the principle.
We are supposed to lead the people who elect us to represent them. We should not engage in half truths but  should place all the facts and arguments before the people who can then decide whether they want to provide discretion to the courts to deal with the bail issue. If the people so decide, the Minister has the power under this Bill to increase the number of judges and to increase the jurisdiction of various courts. If I had my way, I would give the Minister power to increase the number of judges by way of regulation.
I fail to see why we should have such a hullabaloo about appointing another two, four or seven district justices as if they were something extremely precious when a recruitment campaign in the pulic services can take in 1,000 gardaí or 500 civil servants. It is not necessary to come to the Dáil every time it is required to recruit staff. The Minister should be able to bring a regulation before the House for approval rather than be forced to bring in legislation to provide for another High Court judge. I have no objections to the Government of the day having the power by way of regulation to increase the number of judges.
I am concerned that we should have a system of justice capable of tackling the problems of society in a balanced way. It is time that the victim had someone to speak for him. If a person speaks out about what is happening, there is a danger of being regarded as a right wing conservative who believes in law and order and belongs to the flogging and hanging brigade. It has become unfashionable to say what should be said, but people on the doorstep will say what they feel. If I believe something should be said, I will say it. It is easier to be regarded as a wet liberal who errs on the side of the popular, it is more trendy to be that way at times.
We have forgotten about the victims of crime. I have no difficulty in making suggestions that will protect society at large and at the same time preserve certain principles and rights of individuals who should have a fair trial and proper representation. The State should have an obligation to prove a person guilty. I uphold all those principles. I have no difficulty about them. All I want to say is  it is time we started tipping the balance a little towards the victims of crime, the sort of people Deputy Enright spoke about. No matter which side of the House one is on, we all knock on doors and we all hear the same stories. What was said on the “Gerry Ryan Show”, as quoted by Deputy Enright, is not new and neither is what is written in the evening papers.
Those of us who represent Dublin constituencies and I am sure those who represent rural constituencies all know that people are living in fear, especially old people or widows. They are afraid to open the door at night. They are afraid to leave their homes. As I have asked before now, what use is it to them if our current budget deficit is eliminated or our balance of payments is in order if they cannot live a decent life and are afraid even to communicate with the rest of society? Of course we are going to have to use part of our finances to fund certain things to restore those rights to those people. Those people are entitled to their freedom and their rights, for instance, their right to walk the street without fear, and they should be defended.
Is society going to tolerate this situation where women in particular are afraid to visit their daughters or, if they are visiting their daughters, sons or friends they have to leave early to get home before dark because they are afraid to get off the bus and walk to their homes? When they get to their homes they put three bolts and four locks on the door so that nobody can break in during the night. Everybody here, no matter to which party he or she belongs, knows that is the truth. Society cannot continue to tolerate that. I do not care if I am charged with being a right winger on this issue because that is the truth of the matter and we must do something about it. We will not do something about it until we resolve the basic problems that are obvious to everybody. It is grand to be passing this legislation here, which is to be welcomed, but courts are there to deal with problems and we would not need these courts if we did not have these problems. We will need more and more of this legislation as  long as the present situation is allowed to continue. I welcome the Bill. The intentions in it are good. Perhaps there are a few questions to be asked on Committee Stage but that can be done. It is a move in the right direction, a positive, progressive move. I believe in supporting things that are good, but I believe also in speaking out. It is time the Minister for Justice recognised that the sort of problems we have will not be resolved by one or two steps but only by a series of steps. All sides of the House should be encouraged to participate in trying to find a solution to the problems which face society.
I was disappointed when I read in my paper that despite all the attempts made here at Question Time and on various occasions on Bills when I and others raised the problem of parental responsibility, the Minister is now choosing to go outside this House to Templemore today to announce regulations to deal with this matter without this House ever getting a chance to discuss the content of those regulations. It is a dangerous thing to do. The Government of the day have responsibility to introduce regulations but we should use the facilities available to us here — Question Time, committees or special debates — to discuss these issues.
I do not say I am right in everything I say. I have ideas which I think represent the vast majority of people out there, and I know people are asking where the parents are. That was borne out in a survey carried out by my colleague, Deputy Jim Mitchell, in the Cabra electoral area on the whole issue of crime, by way of a questionnaire distributed to households. From memory, I say over 70 per cent of the people were concerned about the lack of parental responsibility, particularly in relation to juvenile crime. It was the single biggest issue in the survey. If anybody tells me a 13 year old child can have 50 or 60 charges against him and that his parents are in no way responsible, I will eat my hat. If any child of 13 or 14 years of age is out on the streets at 1 a.m., 2 a.m. or 3 a.m. where are the parents? Who is responsible?  What good is it taking that child and locking him up for six months in Lusk, or anywhere else, and then sending him back out to do precisely the same thing? He is going back into a home environment where responsibility is lacking. It is sad to see a young life destroyed like that and those who are responsible not being called to answer. It is time we faced up to this issue and dealt with it. However, it is a pity we did not have the opportunity to discuss the matter here.
Mr. Cullimore: I welcome this Bill and I compliment the Minister for Justice, Deputy Burke, and the Minister of State, Deputy Treacy, for bringing it before the House. The Bill is part of the declared commitment to bring about a reformed court system that is effective and efficient and accessible to all persons. The Bill proposes changes in the monetary limits of the civil jurisdiction of the Circuit Court and the District Court. In the case of the Circuit Court the limit is being increased from £15,000 to £30,000 and in the District Court from £2,500 to £5,000. I know this goes beyond what the Fair Trade Commission recommended in their report on restrictive practices but, as the Minister indicated on Tuesday, the Government decided to increase the Circuit Court jurisdiction from the recommended £25,000 to the £30,000 now proposed.
I welcome this, not only as an end in itself in relation to this Bill but because it also indicates that not only are the Government willing to consider and accept recommendations of thoughtful critics but are willing to go beyond these recommendations and propose them into law. Therefore, the raising of the Circuit Court and District Court jurisdiction limits is to be welcomed for reasons specific to the reforms proposals and as an indication of the Government's willingness to reform the court system.
The raising of the jurisdiction limits will be neutral as regards the amounts of compensation to plaintiffs. However, it could and should help to contain legal costs and speed up claims settlements. As Deputies we all have had cases at our  constituency clinics of people suffering great anxiety and depression because of the length of time it takes to deal with cases in awarding compensation. I welcome this move as I believe it will speed up claims settlements. We all know the case lists of some Circuit Court judges are quite long, so I welcome the Minister's commitment to streamlining the system by giving due attention to both the number of judges and the resources that are needed to carry out these functions.
I welcome also section 21 which provides for the issuing of summonses by registered letter in summary cases. The majority of these relate to parking and other road traffic offences. We have one of the finest Garda forces in the world. They are competent, effective and of the highest integrity. We have spent much time and money training the force and we are all proud of them. Some members of the Garda are not flattered to be involved in issuing summonses in summary cases and I am glad the Minister is rectifying this problem in the proposed legislation.
The major part of the Bill concerns jurisdiction limits of the Circuit and District Courts and the extension of existing limits. The net result of these sections, especially sections 2 and 10, will be to transfer a number of cases particularly in the area of personal accident from the higher to the lower courts. This will result in significant savings both in legal and travelling expenses for both the litigants and the witnesses.
I would like to make one brief reference to the affect this legislation will have on insurance premia. I hope it will result in the stabilisation of premia and allow young drivers to obtain cover at a reasonable rate. On a note of caution, I would remind this House that we received a commitment from the insurance industry that if we abolished juries we would see a stabilisation in insurance premia. I would ask the Minister to monitor the position as regards legal fees in the Circuit and District Courts. It is important that we ensure there is no substantial increase in these fees following the enactment of this legislation.  There may be a tendency on the part of the legal profession to increase fees and I would ask the Minister to set up some type of monitoring system to ensure this does not happen. I commend this Bill to the House.
Minister of State at the Department of Justice (Mr. N. Treacy): At the outset I thank many Deputies for their sincere and genuine contributions. I wish to deal with as many points as possible. Deputy Cotter raised the question of the adequacy of court accommodation in the context of the increases in the jurisdiction of the lower courts. I do not anticipate that any particular difficulties will arise, consequent on the enactment of this Bill, in so far as court accommodation is concerned. Should there be any additional accommodation requirements at some time in the future, our Department will assess the matter then and will take whatever action may be necessary.
Deputies Bell and McCartan were critical of the existing standard of accommodation in the District Court. I accept fully that many of our courthouses are not up to the standards we all desire and I can assure the House we have taken steps to improve the situation.
The Cork duo, Deputies Ahern and Dennehy, raised the question of having an annual review of jurisdiction limits of the lower courts. As the Minister for Justice explained in his speech, the proposal in section 16 of the Bill will enable the Government to revise these limits by order in the future. This will certainly reduce delays in effecting the revisions but I do not think it would be appropriate to make firm predictions in advance as to the timing of such increases. This will depend on how quickly the proposed new limits are eroded by future inflation trends. As Deputies will be aware, our inflation rate has been reduced to among the lowest in Europe. This is another clear achievement of Government policy. Annual reviews of the jurisdiction limits would not be appropriate while we have an inflation rate of around 2 per cent  to 3 per cent, but we can certainly look forward to more immediate adjustments of these limits as circumstances warrant.
As I said earlier, I accept fully that many of our courthouses are not up to the standards to which we all aspire and desire. The provision and maintenance of most courthouse accommodation is the responsibility of local authorities. This arrangement has not worked satisfactorily over the years because of the reluctance of local authorities to spend money on such buildings. It was for this reason, and also because it was considered that courthouses ought to be a central rather than a local responsibility, that the Government agreed in March 1990 to transfer this financial responsibility to the Exchequer. An allocation of funds in this regard has been provided for the Courts Vote for 1991. A number of major improvement works are already under way. Our Department are reviewing the whole question of courthouse accommodation with the intention of drawing up a list of priorities and a programme of refurbishment. A sum of £1.25 million has been proposed for repairs and refurbishment to Galway city courthouse. Due to the time required to bring major building schemes to the tender state, it is expected that we will spend about £100,000 on this project this year. There is a proposal also to provide new court accommodation for Killorglin by refurbishing the former Carnegie library premises which would then be shared with Kerry County Council. The cost of the courts element is circa £100,000 in 1991.
The revised arrangements as set out do not affect the existing arrangements for the provision and maintenance of courthouses in Dublin city. This responsibility has been assumed by our Department and provision for an expenditure of £2 million on capital works and £2.269 million on maintenance works — £1.115 million of which it required for the upkeep of the Dublin courts for which we have had responsibility for several years now — is included in the Courts Vote for 1991. The sum provided for maintenance will  enable only partial recoupment to be made to local authorities as they spent £2.13 million in 1990. The capital provision, however, is expected to be sufficient to meet the cost of approved schemes which will fall to be paid in 1991.
The arrangement for capital works is that, subject to the prior approval of our Department and having consulted the Office of Public Works on technical matters as appropriate, local authorities will carry out projects on a recoupment basis. In operating the new arrangements this Department will ensure that courthouses in greatest need receive priority. We will also be able to dictate what facilities are to be provided in any project location.
There are a number of capital projects which require immediate attention. Examples of these are the ongoing project at Clonmel courthouse, on which £750,000 of the local loans fund finance was expended in 1990, with proposals for expenditure of £1.05 million in 1991. An extension and refurbishment scheme for Letterkenny courthouse has reached the contract stage and will require funding of about £750,000. At least £500,000 of that amount will be required this year.
Over the years, and particularly in recent years, difficulty has been experienced in getting local authorities to carry out their statutory obligations in relation to the provision and maintenance of courthouses under the Courthouses (Provisions and Maintenance) Act, 1935. Projects which did proceed include the restoration of Cavan courthouse which commenced in April 1987 and was completed early in 1989. The court offices returned to the premises towards the end of April and court sittings resumed there in July 1989. The cost of the courts element of the project was about £1.4 million. Other large scale improvements were carried out in recent years at Waterford, Tralee, Carlow, Ennis, Kilrush, Portlaoise, Roscommon, Wicklow and Monaghan. Each of these projects was financed from the local loans funds.
The Minister for Finance took a decision to write off outstanding local loans fund charges with effect from 1 January 1991. This means that any local  authority which in the past, and up to the end of 1990, borrowed money from the local loans fund to pay for the renovation of a courthouse now have nothing more to pay back. This is part of our commitment in Government to streamlining and simplifying our whole financial system, more particularly our local authority funding. We are eliminating circular transfer funding and credit for this must go to our Government colleague, the Minister for Finance, Deputy Albert Reynolds.
The provision of courthouse accommodation in Dublin City is, with the exception of Green Street, Kilmainham, Dundrum and Rathfarnham courthouses, the responsibility of the State. This responsibility devolves on the Office of Public Works. Funds are provided as required in the Office of Public Works Vote to meet their commitment. In regard to the exceptions mentioned above, Green Street courthouse is the responsibility of Dublin Corporation and Kilmainham, Rathfarnham and Dundrum are the responsibility of Dublin County Council.
The District Courthouse, Chancery Street, houses Courts 4, 5 and 6 of the Dublin Metropolitan District Court. These courts handle all criminal custody cases for the Dublin region. The courthouse was in a deplorable condition and was the subject of continuous complaints from district justices, legal practitioners, courts staff and the staff unions. It was lacking in even basic facilities for staff and justices and was also a serious fire hazard. The sheer pressure of numbers — defendants, relations, hangers-on and others — often led to general mayhem in the operation of the courts.
The Office of Public Works were asked in 1987 to draw and cost a scheme of remedial works for the Chancery Street building. However, because of cost constraints it was not possible to proceed with the work before 1990. The work commenced in August 1990 and was completed in November 1990. Court sittings resumed in the refurbished premises on 16 November 1990. There has been universal approval of the improved facilities,  the high standard of finish and the generally brighter appearance of the courthouse. The view has been expressed that the atmosphere is now less confrontational and it is to be hoped that this will result in the more efficient and satisfactory dispatch of the business of the courts.
The total cost of these works is circa £1 million of which the Department of Justice will expend about £650,000 and the balance will be paid by the Office of Public Works. The reason for the sharing of expenditure between the Office of Public Works and the Department of Justice is that while structural and fire precaution works remain the responsibility of the Office of Public Works, the upgrading of accommodation, redecoration and the provision of furniture and fittings is the responsibility of individual Departments.
Mr. N. Treacy: The Office of Public Works are the agency of State carrying out improvements to all public properties. They have the expertise and we must ensure that their expertise is coordinated. The various Departments for whom they operate provide the funding but, in certain cases, the Office of Public Works, which have a specialist furniture division, are responsible for the provision or furniture in the normal Office of Public Works Vote.
Various Deputies queried the capacity of the lower courts to cope with the increased workload arising from the jurisdiction changes. I am satisfied that, given the anticipated case load under the new jurisdiction of the District and Circuit Courts, the number of judges provided for will adequately meet the demand. I might add, in this connection, that there has been a decline in the civil and criminal case load in the District and Circuit Courts in recent years and that the enactment of this Bill should go some way towards restoring the level of business in those courts.
There has been an appreciable drop in  the number of cases dealt with by the District Court in recent years. Overall business was down from 942,000 cases in 1985 to 740,000 in 1990, a 21 per cent drop. In the last three years, civil business alone has dropped from 147,000 cases in 1987 to 101,000 in 1990. In the Circuit Court civil business has gone down from 31,000 in 1981 to 25,000 in 1990.
So far as civil cases are concerned, the decline is attributable to the erosion of inflation of the real limit of jurisdiction of the courts. This will be remedied, to some extent, by the enactment of this Bill. It is estimated, for example, that the number of new cases which would fall within the increased jurisdiction of the District Court is approximately 3,000 defended actions and 4,400 judgments by default. This figure is based on the approximate number of cases currently being dealt with by the Circuit Court, up to the limit of £5,000.
As regards the staffing implications, until the Act has been in operation for some time, it will not be possible to say definitively what effect it will have on the business of the courts and whether it will, in time, have any staffing implications. I can assure the House that the position will be kept under review by the Department and the possible need for any additional resources will be fully considered should it arise.
Deputy Cotter referred to the delay in hearing cases, particularly those relating to personal injury. In Dublin the period between application for a summons and the date of hearing is now approximately four months; at the beginning of 1989 the delay was of the order of ten months. A problem arose in the Dublin Children's Court in 1988 where unwarranted delays in hearing cases built up. Steps were taken by us in January 1990 to have a second court sit for three weeks to help to clear up arrears. Since then this second Children's Court has sat almost continuously.
The Courts Act, 1985, increased the number of Circuit Court judges from 12 to 15. Following a further review of the workload in the various circuits, the  Government appointed two temporary Circuit Court judges in February 1987. The President of the Circuit Court assigns spare judges, as required, to various circuits to keep arrears in check. Two judges now sit permanently in Cork and a third judge has been sitting there in recent months to help to clear the arrears.
The time taken to dispose of High Court civil actions is about 12 months, with the exception of Cork, where the delay has been as long as 30 months. The President of the High Court has arranged extra sittings in Cork to reduce the arrears. Furthermore, he recently decided to make special arrangements for cases in Cork which are more than two years on the list there. He is prepared to consider requests from plaintiffs in such cases to have their cases transferred to Dublin for hearing.
Delays in hearing civil actions are not all related to court sittings. In many instances cases are not pressed by legal advisers in the interests of their clients, for example, while awaiting final medical assessment of the likely long term effects of accident injuries. The availability of particular counsel is a limiting factor in Cork. It is understood that a substantial amount of business in Cork is taken by a relatively small number of counsel and that this inevitably means delays.
The Courts Act, 1988, which provides for the abolition of juries in civil cases, was expected to have the effect of reducing the backlog in the High Court but, to date, no discernible improvement has emerged in the throughput of cases.
Under the Constitution — Deputy McCartan referred to this — the Judiciary are independent in the exercise of their functions. This excludes any action by the Executive which could be interpreted as direct interference in the exercise of those functions, including imposing a training or briefing programme on them. However, a number of important points relevant to this issue can be made.
It must be emphasised that our system of recruitment to all levels of the Judiciary is based on the concept of bringing in people who are experienced and  trained practitioners. This contrasts with the systems of other States — particularly in the civil law countries — where recruitment is of new legal graduates who are subsequently trained in their judicial functions. The formal qualification required for appointment as a district justice is not less than ten years' practise as a barrister or solicitor; for appointment to the Circuit Court it is ten years' practise as a barrister and for appointment to the Supreme and High Courts 12 years' practise as a barrister is required. To become a barrister or solicitor in the first place requires successful completion of a course of study laid down by the qualifying authorities. On appointment, therefore, justices and judges can generally be expected to have a fairly wide knowledge of the law and its application, particularly of court procedures, from their training and practice.
Mr. N. Treacy: The human dimension must come into everything. On appointment, justices and judges are supplied with copies of the Acts of the Oireachtas. Copies of Acts originating from this Department are sent to them as a matter of course. They are also supplied with any law reports they require and have access to any legal text books they may need to assist them.
The President of the District Court has the power under section 36 of the Courts (Supplemental Provisions) Act, 1961, to convene meetings of the district justices for the purpose of discussing matters relating to the discharge of the business of that court. The Act mentions the specific purpose of avoiding undue divergences in the exercise by the justice of the jurisdiction of the court and the general level of fines and penalties. The Act allows for two meetings a year and these meetings take place. Every justice is expected to attend these meetings and, while there is no similar statutory provisions for the higher courts, there is no bar on the judges of these courts meeting for the same purpose. Available information  indicates that these judges also have meetings.
Members of the Judiciary frequently attend international meetings and conferences abroad and this keeps them in touch with developments in other countries. Deputies Cotter, Barnes and others were critical of the existing services under the civil legal aid scheme. The Minister for Justice stated on several occasions that he would like to be able to open new law centres all over the country but he must have regard to prevailing Government policy on the need to curtail public expenditure. It is very easy to complain about the lack of law centres but it is substantially more difficult to identify precisely how extra law centres are to be funded.
Since coming to the Department of Justice, the Minister, Deputy Burke, has been responsible for an increase in public expenditure on the civil legal aid scheme from £1.568 million in 1989 to £2.483 million this year, an increase of almost £1 million which is substantial by any standards. It is unprecedented in the history of Exchequer funding for the civil legal aid scheme. In addition, four law centres at Athlone, Tralee, Cork and Tallaght, previously funded from non-Exchequer sources under the Funds of Suitors Act, 1984, in the period 1985 to 1989, were placed on a permanent basis of funding by the Minister for Justice and their continued operation was thus assured. In less than two years the Minister for Justice has allowed the board to fill all their solicitor vacancies and the vast majority of their administrative vacancies. This year the service will be significantly expanded by the opening of three additional law centres at Letterkenny, Dundalk and Castlebar. This, with the rationalisation of the service in Dublin city, will bring the total number of full-time law centres to 16 with 25 part-time law centres. As an ordinary citizen, I regard this as progress.
Mr. N. Treacy: Solicitors may be  recruited as required. If the Deputy wants to put down a question I will give detailed facts. The Minister's approach is totally in keeping with the policy on the scheme as enunciated at the start, which means that it will be expanded on a phased basis in line with what we can afford to pay. The Minister for Justice is delivering on that commitment on behalf of the Government.
Deputy Cotter asked if the Minister would introduce a legal aid Bill to confer a right of access to justice for all citizens. The Minister for Justice has already stated that it is his intention to have legislation to place the present administrative scheme of civil legal aid and advice on a statutory basis this year. Deputy McCartan advocated that the District Court should have jurisdiction in relation to the provisions of the Judicial Separation and Family Law Reform Act, 1989. I do not accept that the balance of advantage would lie with such an approach.
While it is the case that the District Court is already involved extensively in the area of family law, it has to be borne in mind that the main reason for going to court under the Act will often be to resolve disputes, not about whether separation should take place but about very substantial issues in relation to the terms of separation, including issues in relation to the distribution of property. I do not believe it would be appropriate that the District Court would have jurisdiction over the division of property in such cases, including the family home. By the same token I would not consider it appropriate that the District Court would have jurisdiction to extinguish the succession rights of spouses.
Mr. N. Treacy: I would like to sincerely thank all those who have participated in the debate. I regret that I have not the time to deal with all the points that have been raised, but I will certainly deal with them on Committee Stage.
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