Thursday, 28 February 2008
Dáil Eireann Debate
Deputy Shane McEntee: I thank the Ceann Comhairle for this opportunity to raise the issue of the Kentstown bus crash. As we all know, almost three years ago five beautiful girls from County Meath lost their lives in that crash, which had a dreadful effect on their families, the local community and the whole country. Three years later that incident is still on everybody’s minds. The families would like to get on with their lives. Two days ago they had hoped the inquest into the deaths of their five girls could eventually be heard following a court case relating to this incident. This court case has been postponed until next January. The other children involved in the accident and the families would like to see this case brought forward. They would like to put a chapter of their lives in its place. Until the inquest is heard, this will not happen.
I am aware that the president of the Circuit Court is examining the possibility of arranging an earlier hearing for this case and if an available date is identified it will be offered to the other parties. On humanitarian grounds I ask everybody to ensure this is done.
Deputy Jimmy Devins: The Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform has asked me to thank the Deputy for raising this issue. He welcomes the opportunity afforded today to set out, in some detail, the developments under way in modernising and improving services to court users.
The Courts Service was established as an independent body in November 1999. The service was set up to manage the courts, support the Judiciary and provide a high quality and professional service to all users of the courts. The responsibilities of the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform include ensuring adequate funding for all parts of the criminal justice system, including the courts. I am pleased to say €107 million was provided in the recent budget for the Courts Service in 2008. This represents an increase of 5% on 2007. The Deputy raises two issues, buildings and waiting times, and I will deal with them in turn.
Since its establishment, the Courts Service has been extremely successful in transforming the courts system in this State and this has been widely acknowledged. The service is continuing the major programme of work to provide modern 21st century court buildings in all parts of the country. The allocation for capital works on courthouses next year stands at nearly €30 million. This funding will ensure our courthouse stock is maintained in good condition in keeping with its role as the public expression of the administration of justice in the State. The achievements of the courts building programme are impressive. A new, state-of-the-art criminal courts complex in Dublin is being constructed in Parkgate Street and is due for completion in 2010. The building will concentrate all central Dublin criminal law business in one service location with 22 new court rooms. This will involve the transfer of courts and administrative offices from three jurisdictions — District, Circuit and Central — to the new facility. The centralisation of all criminal business in the new complex will also mean the Four Courts will be freed up for civil business. This is a public private partnership project, PPP, and the biggest undertaking in the justice sector.
Approval has been given to the Courts Service to proceed with nine other greenfield court projects by way of PPP as part of the new envelope of €50 million for such projects over the next two years. Last year courthouse building and refurbishment projects were completed in Tullamore, Bray, Fermoy, Belmullet and Dolphin House in Dublin. This year projects will be completed in Ardee, Thurles, Clones, Blanchardstown and Gorey. Work will begin in 2008 in Kilkenny, Monaghan, Mullingar, Swinford, Manorhamilton, Wexford, Kilmallock, Killaloe, Youghal and Virginia. This is an impressive list and stands as firm evidence of the ongoing efforts to improve our courthouses. This level of development and modernisation is without precedent.
I do not list these projects merely to draw attention to the substantial investment the Government has made, but to highlight the resulting vastly improved facilities for all court users. As well as the impact on waiting lists for criminal trials and civil cases, the new criminal courts complex is being planned with separate transit flows, so that victims and their families no longer have to wait in proximity with an accused person.
The Government is firmly committed to ensuring that judicial resources are adequate to the demands placed on them. Last year, the Courts and Court Officers (Amendment) Act 2007 provided for an additional 14 judges — six judges of the District Court, four judges of the Circuit Court and four judges of the High Court. The additional judges were appointed to deal with delays and generally speed up the judicial process. The waiting time between return for trial and trial in the Central Criminal Court — where the most serious cases are heard — was 18 months in 2002. Today the waiting time for the hearing of cases is six months. The strict application by the court of its own ground rules on adjournments——
Deputy Jimmy Devins: ——and the continuing good case management and careful scheduling of cases have all contributed to the significant reduction in waiting times and the optimum use of the judicial and other resources allocated to the court.
The situation in the Circuit Court and the District Court varies according to location. While some venues are in a position to schedule cases for the next sittings, others are experiencing delays due to a variety of factors. The president of each court has at his disposal unassigned judges who can be used to assist permanently assigned judges where pressure of work demands it. If more judges are required, they will be appointed.
The Deputy referred to a particular case. The allocation of court business is a matter for the Judiciary. The Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform has no function in the area. However, I can make some general comments about the tragic case in question and I assure the families involved that everything possible will be done to bring this matter to a speedy conclusion. This case was listed for hearing at Trim Circuit Court. As there were understandable difficulties in empanelling a jury locally in County Meath, the presiding judge transferred the case to Dublin for hearing. In criminal cases, priority must always be given to those cases where the defendant is in custody. The defendants in this case are not in custody. The case was listed for hearing on 26 February 2008. However, all available judges were already hearing cases and it was not possible for the case to proceed. The President of the Circuit Court is now examining the possibility of arranging an earlier hearing date. If an available date is identified, it will be offered to the parties.
The scheduling of court cases in the Circuit Court is a matter for the president of that court and the presiding judge who are, subject only to the Constitution and the law, independent in the exercise of their judicial functions.
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