Wednesday, 4 February 1998
Seanad Éireann Debate
Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform (Mr. O'Donoghue): Amendment No. 1 provides that the transitional arrangements set out in Part VIII of the Bill will come into effect one month after the Act is passed. As the Bill now stands, the transitional board shall stand established on the day of the enactment of the Bill. This gives rise to practical difficulties with regard to the operation of the selection procedures envisaged under section 36 which provides for the membership of the transitional board. The main purpose of this amendment, therefore, is to allow time for the nomination arrangements envisaged under section 36 to be brought into effect. It would be more practical, for example, for the election arrangements for members of the Judiciary to be carried out after the enactment of the relevant provisions.
I assure Senators that while I am satisfied that this amendment is necessary for the reasons I have outlined, I do not envisage it delaying, in any significant way, the establishment of the transitional board or ultimately the courts service. Much informal preparation in respect of the membership of the transitional board will be carried out before the Bill is enacted.
Amendment No. 42 is a related amendment. Section 36 provides that provisions of the Act relating to the board or the service will also apply to the transitional boards and references to the establishment date in those provisions are to be construed as references to the date of the passing of the Act. The reference to the date of the passing of the Act must now be adjusted as, under amendment No. 1, all of the transitional provisions will come into effect one month after the passing of the Act. This amendment inserts the new reference in section 36 which will now be a reference to the date of coming into operation of Part VIII of the Bill relating to the transitional board.
Ms O'Meara: My amendments Nos. 2 and 3 have been ruled out of order but I have not had an opportunity to discuss the reasons. This is an important issue and I welcome the Government's amendment. We tabled this amendment to other legislation. It is important to place a deadline on when the operations of a Bill shall come into effect.
Mr. O'Donoghue: Amendment No. 4 is a drafting one which is consequential on amendment No. 6. Amendment No. 6 provides for the name of the service in the Irish language, “An tSeirbhís Chúirteanna”. Senators will doubtless agree that provision should be made for the Irish language name of the new courts service which the Bill establishes.
Senator O'Meara's amendment No. 7 also seeks to provide for the Irish name of the service. There are some technical difficulties with the change proposed in that the definition section of the Bill would still refer to “the Service”. In any event, the main aim of the Senator's amendment is achieved in the Government amendment which is the standard approach to the provision of the Irish name of a body in legislation. In those circumstances, while thanking the Senator for the amendment, I would, nonetheless, ask her to withdraw it. This amendment and, more particularly, my next amendment to section 7 of the Bill is a strong indication of the importance this Government attaches to the role of the Irish language in the provision of public services. I am of the view that the Irish language is of particular relevance in the context of the provision of court related services and, as has been acknowledged by the courts, in the area of legal proceedings. I will return to this subject again in the context of my amendment to section 7.
Mr. Cosgrave: The Minister stated earlier that the establishment day for the transitional board would be a month after the enactment of the Bill. What time scale does he envisage in relation to the establishment day and what discussions have taken place on this? I have heard it said that measures will be in place prior to the legal new year which starts next autumn. Without giving specific dates, what time scale is the Minister working towards? Obviously, certain teething problems will have to be sorted out.
Mr. O'Donoghue: As Senator Cosgrave will be aware, the Bill does not mention any time frame for the designation, by order, of the establishment day. However, the key function of the transitional board will obviously be the appointment of a chief executive designate. After the operation of a short period of between four and six months, I would hope to move to bring the remaining provisions of the Bill into effect pursuant to section 1 (3). In short, I anticipate that we should be in a position to move on within four to six months of the operation of the transitional board. I trust that answers the Senator's question.
Mr. Cosgrave: What costs does the Minister envisage being incurred on establishment day? I have read the figure of £150,000. I know certain matters must occur but what other costs are envisaged for this transitional period?
Mr. O'Donoghue: As Senator Cosgrave pointed out, the estimated cost associated with the chief executive is £150,000. Most of the other costs already exist under the Department and I anticipate they will be provided for in the Estimates. However, I cannot give the Senator a ballpark figure other than to indicate that the costs will be covered.
Mr. Cosgrave: I presume High Court judges, clerks and various officers of the court who are being paid today will be paid on and after the establishment day. Will any extra costs be associated with the establishment day? I am not saying there will be ceremonies and parties but it appears there may be further charges. Can the Minister enlighten us in that regard?
The Department has apparently already indicated to the Seanad office that extra charges will  be involved. I do not know if the office received any further details but we were given a general indication of potential charges. Will the Minister expand on the extra charges which the Department has indicated to some staff members of this House?
Mr. O'Donoghue: In addition to the charges which I mentioned there will obviously be some expenses for the members of the board. However, they will be minuscule in terms of the overall budget. I do not envisage any charges in addition to those I have already outlined. Obviously, if additional charges are essential to the proper functioning of the board they will be discharged.
The Courts Service is, as I said, already an expense to the State. The functions of part of the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform are being transferred to the independent Courts Service, with the axiomatic transfer of the funds required for the running of that service. We have specified that the salary and associated costs of the chief executive will be in the region of £150,000 and that some expenses will be incurred by the board members in the performance of their functions. I trust that outlines the position in full.
Mr. Cosgrave: I appreciate that the costs associated with board members are dealt with in the Bill. However, does the Minister envisage any extra large costs arising from the establishment day itself?
“(1) On the establishment day there shall be established a body to be known as An tSeirbhís Chúirteanna or, in the English language, the Courts Service (in this Act referred to as ‘the Service’) to perform the functions conferred on it by this Act.”.
This amendment seeks to insert a new paragraph into the section to ensure the establishment and management of a statistics unit to compile and publish statistical data on court proceedings. This was recommended by the first report of Mrs. Justice Susan Denham's courts commission, the recommendations and fine reports of which have formed the basis of this legislation and have been praised in this House, particularly on Second Stage.
This is a very important amendment in that compiling data supplies us with an extremely important mechanism to study the operations of the Courts Service and, as legislators, to ensure it is effective and that required changes can be made. I urge the Minister to take the amendment on board, particularly as it is in accordance with the first report of the courts commission.
Mr. Burke: The section provides that the functions of the service shall include the requirements to “provide, manage and maintain court buildings” and to “provide facilities for users of the courts”. Many courthouses are in the ownership of local authorities. Does the Minister envisage that all those facilities, including the courthouses, will be handed over by the local authorities and that the Courts Service will be responsible for their maintenance and upkeep for which the local authorities have been responsible heretofore?
Will the Department of Finance provide substantial extra funding for the maintenance and upgrading of those facilities? I am sure the Minister is aware from his political and legal experience that many of those facilities have become run down over the years. A substantial amount of money is required for their maintenance and upgrading to user friendly facilities. Will the local authorities receive substantial funds for the handing over of those courthouses and other property currently in their ownership?
Mrs. Taylor-Quinn: I second this worthwhile amendment which the Minister should take on board. It ties in very clearly with section 5(c) which states that one of the functions of the service shall be to provide information on the courts system to the public. The amendment, which calls on the service to establish and manage a unit to compile and publish statistical data on court proceedings, ties in very well with that subsection. It will be useful that such statistical analysis and information will be available from the county registrars' offices from the point of view of general information, policy and policy decisions and the allocation of personnel. It would outline the areas in need of attention and priority. This is a  commendable amendment which I support and second.
On the section, Senator Burke raised an important point about the transfer of the maintenance and management of courthouses and properties from local authorities to the new Courts Service. It is important local authorities, which in many instances were put under financial pressures and had difficulties meeting maintenance costs, are financially reimbursed for the transfer of properties to the service. While it is appreciated they are in public ownership, it is also realised that local authorities provided a service and due compensation would be more than justified in this instance.
Also on this section, the Law Reform Commission and various Oireachtas committees made recommendations over the years relating to facilities for court users — clients, solicitors, barristers and judges. Section 5 deals with the provision of services for judges and other users of court facilities. While it is appreciated that much improvement has taken place in the courts in recent years, especially in family courts, some court facilities are still antediluvian, to put it mildly. I hope the Minister will direct the new Courts Service to prioritise the provision of proper, up to date and modern utilities and facilities for users of the courts. I also hope priority will not just be given to the large urban areas which in many instances receive priority to the exclusion of more isolated rural areas. A balanced and focused approach needs to be taken and I hope the Minister, when appointing this body, will ensure there is an even-handed and level approach.
It comes down to the fundamental question of cost. This new service has a wider cost factor and I want to know how funding for administering its functions will be put in place. If it were to be done effectively and properly, it would incur a substantial cost.
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