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Sweeping court reforms to commence in response to pandemic
Justice minister Helen McEntee Pic: RollingNews.ie

17 Aug 2020 / courts Print

Sweeping court reforms in response to pandemic

Justice minister Helen McEntee has signed the commencement orders for the Civil Law and Criminal Law (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 2020, which introduces reforms to respond to pandemic challenges.

The measures will facilitate coroners to respond more flexibly to public needs.  

Minister McEntee said the enabling provisions relating to criminal proceedings will help to support the courts resumption of criminal trials.

Response

“This legislation reflects an important aspect of the courts’ dynamic response to the new challenges and many legal issues arising in the context of the current pandemic,” she said.

The changes will expand the use of technology in the courts.

As well as reform of the law concerning coroners in the context of the current pandemic, the new laws will see: 

  • The introduction of a statutory basis for courts to conduct remote hearings in civil proceedings,
  • The admissibility of business records as evidence in civil proceedings,
  • The lodgement of documents with the courts by electronic means, or e-filing,
  • The lodgement of "statements of truth" with the courts by electronic means as an alternative to the swearing of affidavits,
  • Provision for the wider use of video links between persons in custody and the courts,
  • Enhancing and widening the existing provisions on giving evidence through video link,
  • Providing for appeals (to the Court of Appeal and the Supreme Court) in criminal proceedings to take place via remote hearing,
  • Providing for the remote meetings of State bodies,
  • Provisions making it easier to alter the operating hours and sitting locations of the District Court.

Most of the provisions will come into effect on 21 August.

Section 5 (subsections 1,2, and 4) (repeals), section 23 (certain applications to court in criminal proceedings to be heard using live video link), section 24 (certain applications to court in relevant proceedings to be heard using live video link) and section 25 (evidence through live video link) will come into effect on 14 September.

An appropriate timetable to commence section 32 is currently under consideration.

Business records

The reform of the law in relation to business records in civil proceedings follow the recommendations of the Law Reform Commission in its 2016 report Consolidation and Reform of Aspects of the Law of Evidence.

The act also includes provisions to deal with the holding of meetings of unincorporated bodies, such as clubs, remotely during the pandemic and allows designated bodies, such as appeals boards, to conduct their business remotely. 

The minister has previously said that this is a reform that, where it is availed of, will endure beyond the period of the pandemic.

Criminal proceedings

The act introduces a number of changes in relation to criminal procedure where physical attendance may be difficult or impossible for public health reasons. 

The changes will allow wider use of video-links between accused persons and the courts. These are currently limited to persons in custody, for a limited list of hearing types.

The list of hearing types is extended in the bill, including to permit arraignments, returns for trial, sentencing hearings and certain aspects of surrender proceedings, and to allow accused persons not in custody to attend those hearings by video-link where the court so directs. 

Nothing in the act affects the right of an accused person to be present in person during the trial itself.

Witnesses

The act also allows witnesses to attend the same types of hearings by video-link, and provides for appeals to the Court of Appeal and the Supreme Court in criminal proceedings to be conducted remotely, with some or all of the participants attending via video-link.  

Additionally, it addresses a long-standing issue with the committal warrants for persons already in prison, and removes the need to transport prisoners between one prison and another, merely to execute these warrants.

Gazette Desk
Gazette.ie is the daily legal news site of the Law Society of Ireland