Speaking at the 22 September launch of the European Commission report, he said that recommendations on the 2020 review of the administration of civil justice were expected by year-end.
Due course of law
The right of citizens to a trial and due course of law, in a reasonable timeframe, is not currently happening, he accepted.
“If the right of citizens to have their cases heard and determined within a reasonable time is to be vindicated, it is essential that additional judges should be deployed,” he said.
A working group would report on the matter by the second quarter of 2022, he said.
Strengthening the legal-aid systems and limiting legal costs were also important in improving access to justice.
The report also concluded that there was no evidential basis for recommending the unification of the legal professions, but it undertook to revisit the issue once other reforms under the Legal Services Regulatory Act had bedded down.
Length of proceedings
The average length of proceedings in the High Court in 2019 was 785 days, an increase of around 35 days from 2018.
The length of commercial proceedings continued to increase, by around 220 days, from 2018 to 2019.
By contrast, the length of proceedings at circuit and district courts decreased in 2019 compared with 2018, after an increase the previous year.
Length of proceedings at the Court of Appeal increased by around 110 days between 2019 (1,220 days) and 2018 (1,101 days).
Between 2018 and 2019, the length of criminal proceedings increased by around 120 days at Circuit Court level, and by around 100 days at the Central Criminal Court.
The Review of the Administration of Civil Justice made recommendations to reduce delayed proceedings. A criminal procedure draft law providing for pre-trial hearings, which could provide for a faster and more efficient court process for certain offences, was signed into law on 24 May.
The report complains that the current regime enables disproportionately high damages for defamation, which can have a negative impact on journalistic freedom.
An independent media is a fundamental democratic need, the minister said.
“Reforming our defamation laws is a significant priority … to avoid the chilling effects of high awards,” he added, promising movement before the end of the year.
Defamation has become “a rich-man’s law,” because of unpredictable awards, he admitted.
The rule-of-law report points to challenges in Ireland’s capacity to deter and punish corruption “due to limited resources and institutional fragmentation”.
“Prevention of corruption and promotion of integrity measures are in place, but challenges remain as regards enforcement, in particular on asset disclosure, lobbying and revolving doors,” the report says.
The Standards in Public Office Commission, which manages the disclosure of interests and tax clearance regimes of public-office holders, is not adequately resourced, it says.
UCD law lecturer Dr Gavin Barrett said that rule-of-law backsliders bring about serious and persistent breaches of foundational EU principles.
He described this as a bigger problem for the EU than Brexit, with a distinct failure by member states to accept a role in tackling it.
“I think Angela Merkel, notwithstanding all she did for Europe, can actually be faulted somewhat for this,” he said.
Dialogue is an inadequate and naïve response to rule-of-law breaches and defiance, he said.
“Dialogue assumes that everyone wants to reach the same end, and that just isn’t true [for all states],” he said.
The European Commission approach is well-meaning, but too little, too late, he said.
A “blizzard of soft-law instruments” is not effective in dealing with states that really don’t give a hoot, said Barrett.