Wednesday, 22 February 1995
Seanad Éireann Debate
This problem relates to the delay from the time the case is set down, particularly in relation to the Circuit Court, to the time the case is actually heard, thus causing injustice to those seeking legal redress. While they may not always win the case, at least they deserve that it be heard at an earlier stage.
There have been delays in various ends of the legal system. Previously, they occurred regularly in the High Court, but the jurisdiction has changed with regard to the Circuit Court. There are lengthy delays in dealing with cases, particularly personal injury cases — involving claims between £5,000 and £30,000. In 1991 if one set down a case it took four to five months to be heard in the Circuit Court; now the delay is upward to 20 months, and growing. This must be looked at.
This is not a problem of the Minister's making, it has been caused by circumstance, but steps must be taken to address it. Some of the points regarding the courts system and the huge upsurge  in litigation causing long court delays were addressed by Mr. Justice O'Flaherty of the Supreme Court. He raised some relevant points in an interesting address to a conference of the National Union of Journalists in Dingle some weeks ago. In an article which appeared in The Sunday Press of 12 February 1995 he stated:
It seems to me that trials are taking too long. When I was first called to the Bar the idea of a case going on for two or three weeks was a rare occurrence, now cases lasting that length of time seem to be very regular.
We must also address the situation regarding the Circuit Courts which hear various types of cases. Leaving aside personal injury cases, and where people suffering loss and damage deserve to be compensated, I ask the Minister to give special attention to family law cases and the delays involving these cases. Where there are difficulties there should be an interim hearing before the case is finally dealt with.
Many problems have arisen because of the change in jurisdiction. This has meant that many cases which hitherto would have been heard in the High Court are now heard in the Circuit Court. There has not been an appropriate response to this. The problem is especially difficult in Dublin, although my colleagues in the country tell me the situation is the same there.
There are problems in some of the other courts too. There are probably fewer delays in the District Court, although some of the facilities and overcrowding in these courts should be looked at. For example, from my knowledge of some of the District Courts in the Dublin area, if the fire officer was vigilant on certain days, no court would sit. On one occasion a certain District Justice was competing with a rodent  species with regard to who was occupying the court.
Many matters must be addressed, and I am sure that the Minister is well aware of the various problems which must be looked at. In this respect, the legal profession must also respond and various matters must be considered with regard to the timing of cases and procedures. For example, we are all aware of the difficulties in having surgeons, engineers or other expert witnesses appear in court, especially as much of their evidence could be agreed before a court case proceeds. In some cases certain matters could be sorted out and reports agreed much more quickly.
However, there is no doubt that, at present, there are insufficient judges to deal with some of these cases and we must do something to reduce the backlog. It had improved when these problems were addressed earlier, but unfortunately, since 1991, the matter has become four to five times worse. I hope the Minister will respond positively, will take these concerns on board, and with her colleagues, will recognise the present difficulties.
The trouble about long litigation is that others are being deprived of access to the courts. And the areas of neglect tend to be those of the needy and the oppressed: family law, problems of housing, questions concerning children and the elderly, who are often the victims of neglect and abuse.
We can develop the most high sounding principles in the world but if the courts are not readily available — both in time and cost — to the ordinary man and woman, we are failing in one of our basic duties.
I am sure the Minister would not dispute or disagree with anything I have said this evening. It is a case of considering  the situation and discussing it with the people involved — barristers, solicitors, members of the Judiciary, court registrars, clerks, etc. An attempt should be made to bring forward better proposals.
I ask the Minister to respond positively to my remarks. There is great concern about the build up of cases. It can give rise to people in the legal profession, and elsewhere, attempting to settle cases out of court, a course of action which is recognised by insurance companies from a cost view point. I am not speaking of people who bring fraudulent claims. People who have suffered genuine injury or loss and have endured hardship deserve to be compensated.
There must be a response from the legal authorities with regard to sorting out the difficulties which have evolved. The report on the Attorney General's office indicated that that office, and many others, operated in a Dickensian manner. There must be a response to this situation and change must take place. I ask the Minister to recognise the need for reform and to endeavour to eliminate the backlog.
Minister of State at the Department of Justice (Ms Burton): I thank the Senator for raising what is an important and practical matter. I am very aware and concerned at the substantial delays in the hearing of cases in the courts at present. I am also very aware of the serious hardship, both financial and emotional, which such delays can cause to those people coming before the courts.
At present, there are delays of up to six months in the hearing of cases coming before the Central Criminal Court and up to two months in the Dublin Circuit Criminal Court. Delays in the hearing of criminal cases give rise to a great deal of anxiety on the part of victims of crime, especially where the defendant is remanded on bail.
Defendants who are remanded on bail and whose cases cannot be heard for lack of a judge, are obviously free to  commit further crimes, because of the excessive delay in the disposal of their cases. This is a matter of concern, not only to the victim of the initial crime, but also to society in general and to those involved in maintaining law and order.
With regard to family law, to which the Senator referred, the delays in the hearing of these cases are confined mainly to the Circuit Court. The number of cases coming before this court increased dramatically following the implementation of the Judicial Separation and Family Law Reform Act, 1989, which transferred the majority of family law cases to the Circuit Court.
Social attitudes to marital breakdown have also changed in recent years with more and more persons having recourse to the courts in regard to family law matters. Delays in the hearing of family law cases, which can extend to 12 months in the larger urban centres, are a matter of particular concern because of the sensitive nature of family law business. Such delays not only cause additional suffering to the parties concerned but also to their families.
The programme for Government, A Government of Renewal, has given a firm commitment to complete the steps necessary to ensure that the family courts are strengthened. In this regard we are awaiting with interest the final report of the Law Reform Commission on family courts which will be given immediate consideration on publication.
Delays in the hearing of civil cases are substantial in both the High and Circuit Courts. In the High Court it is mainly personal injury actions which are affected and which can take up to 34 months to be heard. Delays in the Circuit Court vary from venue to venue and range from little or no delay at some venues to substantial delays in the larger urban centres ranging from six months to three years.
The delay in both these courts can be attributed in great part to the Courts  Act, 1991. The Act itself increased the civil jurisdiction of the Circuit Court with the result that the number of civil cases for hearing in that court has approximately doubled since the 1991 Act was enacted. Immediately prior to this Act coming into force the number of actions put down for hearing in the High Court increased substantially but have continued to decrease since then. Without any corresponding increase in judicial resources, this has naturally led to serious delays in the hearing of cases.
It must be mentioned at this point that the hearing and disposal of cases in the both the Circuit and High Courts is subject to a variety of factors, many of which are outside the control of the courts. Cases which are listed for trial are subject to application for adjournment from either party and, indeed, are often adjourned at the request of legal representatives in the interests of their clients.
The problems of delays and backlog of cases for hearing in the courts is currently under examination in the Department of Justice. The previous Government, in an attempt to address these issues, gave approval to increase the number of judges of the High, Circuit and District Courts by two, seven and five respectively. The legislative provisions to enable these appointments to be made were to have been contained in the Courts and Court Officers Bill, 1994.
However, under our programme for Government —A Government of Renewal— we are committed to reviewing the provisions of this Bill to ensure that the measures it contains will adequately address the need to tackle the backlog of cases to be heard in all the courts. This review is receiving urgent attention at present in the Department of Justice and I hope to be in a position to give a firm indication of the plans in this regard in the near future.
The old saying that justice delayed is justice denied speaks for itself. I read the comments of Mr. Justice O'Flaherty  of the Supreme Court, who put the problem very well. It is a matter of concern for all Members and the Minister and I will be addressing this as a matter of urgency.
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