Tuesday, 18 December 2001
Seanad Eireann Debate
Mr. Cosgrave: I welcome the Minister of State to the House and I thank the Cathaoirleach for allowing me to raise this matter on the Adjournment. The Minister of State may or may not be aware – I appreciate that this is not his area of responsibility – that in the High Court last week Mr. Justice Kelly, who manages the list of non-jury and judicial review cases, stated that a serious situation had developed in respect of delays because of a shortage of judges. It is time to call for a review of this area, particularly in respect of the administration of the courts. The new Courts Service has been put in place but dif ficulties still obtain throughout the court system, particularly in relation to the High Court.
Mr. Justice Kelly pointed out that the former President of the High Court, Mr. Justice Morris, had retired, and that Mr. Justice Quirke and Mr. Justice Smith were involved in dealing with other matters and they had not been replaced. He also highlighted the fact that another judge is dealing almost exclusively with cases, many of which have yet to be heard, involving refugees. Mr. Justice O'Neill who was involved in the hepatitis C tribunal advised barristers and solicitors that there are no hearing dates available for many cases due to come on stream from mid-January onwards. This is a deplorable situation which must be reviewed. The Minister should make the necessary contacts with the courts and the Bar Council to discuss how best this situation can be resolved.
There is a clear need for the appointment of extra judges. Various judges have been seconded to other areas – I compliment Ms Justice Lindsay for her work on the Lindsay tribunal, a tribunal that has received fewer headlines than others given the details involved, the families who have suffered, the people who died. Her report is awaited and will be discussed on another day.
A long serving member of the District Court, who did a great deal for the administration of justice at the lower end of the spectrum, Mr. Justice Sean Delap, passed away last weekend. I pay tribute to him and other members of the Judiciary who have given long service in a variety of capacities. Many cases have been delayed due to the unavailability of judges. There is a clear case for the appointment of extra judges and a need to undertake an overall review of the High Courts and District Courts. We must face up to this problem. The Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform, the Attorney General and the Government must look at this situation in consultation with the relevant authorities to see how best the problem can be addressed with a view to shortening the delays in the administration of justice.
Mr. Jacob: I thank the Senator for the opportunity to deal with this issue. There is a particular problem in terms of judicial resources and this may have prompted the Senator to raise the matter on the adjournment.
There is currently one vacancy on the High Court Bench. This has arisen as a result of the retirement of the former President of the High Court, Mr. Justice Frederick Morris, with effect from 1 December 2001 and his replacement as President by Mr. Justice Joseph Finnegan. This left a vacancy for an ordinary judge of the High Court and the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform has requested the Judicial Appointments Advisory Board to submit the names of suitable candidates for appointment to this post as soon as possible. When the Judicial Appoint ments Advisory Board submits the names of suitable candidates to the Minister, he will bring the matter of appointment to Government without delay.
To address the heavy demands on the High Court Bench, the Minister has provided for the creation of two further High Court posts. This will increase to a total of 26 the statutorily approved number of ordinary High Court judges who may be appointed. This increase requires legislation and provision for this is being included in the Court and Courts Officers Bill, 2001, which is currently awaiting Second Stage in the Dáil. It had been hoped to enact this legislation before the end of this year but this did not prove possible due to a very heavy legislative programme in both Houses of the Oireachtas. The Minister is very anxious, however, to progress the matter early in the new year.
The two additional High Court positions which the Government has agreed are to provide for the replacement of Mr. Justice John Quirke who was appointed to the chair of the Public Service Benchmarking Body earlier this year and Mr. Justice Matthew P. Smith recently appointed to chair the Ethics in Public Office Commission. The Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform is satisfied that once these three posts are filled, i.e. the existing vacancy and two new posts which are being created, the current pressure on the High Court will ease.
The Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform has been concerned with the level of delays in the hearing of cases coming before the Central Criminal Court and he has, accordingly, requested the Courts Service Board to examine the jurisdictional relationship between the Central Criminal Court and the Circuit Criminal Courts. In response, the Courts Service Board has indicated that it plans to undertake a comprehensive review of the distribution and business among all courts.
In relation to the Circuit and District Courts it is my understanding that cases in these, with the exception of some problems in one or two circuits, are largely up to date. The Minister is aware of the heavy work load which the Circuit Court carries and for that reason, he arranged, with Government approval, for the appointment of an additional judge of the Circuit Court in February last year and the appointment of a further extra judge in January of this year.
The Senator may also be aware that major changes in the civil jurisdiction of the Circuit and District Courts are proposed in the Court and Courts Officers Bill, 2001. It is proposed to increase the civil jurisdiction of the Circuit Court from £30,000 to €100,000 and the civil jurisdiction of the District Court from £5,000 to €20,000. These are major jurisdictional changes which will affect the work load in all three courts – the High Court, the Circuit Court and the District  Court. The Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform is satisfied the courts are well equipped to handle such cases and will keep the adequacy of judicial resources generally under review in that context.
Mr. Cosgrave: I welcome the Minister of State's remarks and declare my interest as a solicitor. I do not wish to end up in any trouble that might evolve from this, particularly if one were treated unfairly.
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