The working group consisted of
- The Chief Justice,
- Eilis Barry (FLAC chief executive),
- John McDaid (Legal Aid Board chief executive),
- John Lunney (Law Society),
- Joseph O’Sullivan BL (Bar Council), and
- Mr Justice John MacMenamin (formerly of the Supreme Court).
The first conference of the Chief Justice’s Working Group, hosted by the Law Society, was held remotely in October 2021.
That conference highlighted efforts such as the Kelly report, the Courts Service modernisation programme, and family-justice reform.
The Chief Justice said that the establishment of a Judicial Planning Working Group, to consider the number of judges required to administer justice and ensure timely access to justice in Ireland, was fundamental.
This was the first evidence-based attempt to assess the demand for judges on an objective and measurable basis, and to break the cycle of overloaded court backlogs and crisis, he said.
“I very much welcome its acknowledgment of an acute need for more judges in Ireland, its recommendation that several additional judges be appointed in the short to medium term, and that there should be ongoing assessment of judicial-resource needs, and associated judicial support, into the future,” he said.
The decision to create additional judicial positions wais a very important and welcome development, he said.
“It is a real and tangible recognition of the fact that a functioning justice system is not a luxury, but is a critical component of a modern liberal democratic society, which is founded on the rule of law,” he added.
Access to justice
The public must know its rights in relation to access to justice, the Chief Justice said, and high-quality decision-making in courtrooms was not the sole objective of the justice system.
“If people do not know about their rights to begin with, or if they cannot get a hearing because of delays in the system, if they cannot afford to go to court if it is too expensive to obtain a lawyer, or if – as in many cases – lawyers are willing to act, nevertheless the risk of an adverse costs order is too great, then the quality of the justice in the courtroom falls short of providing the administration of justice that the Constitution requires, and that members of the public are entitled to expect,” he stated.
Good laws and judges meant nothing if citizens could not come into court to seek the enforcement of those laws, he said.
The Chief Justice paid tribute to the work of his predecessor Frank Clarke in establishing the working group.
The reports of the first conference were launched in association with the Ballymun Law Centre in March last year.
That report was a useful resource on the direction of possible progress, the Chief Justice said.
The 2023 conference was backed by a ‘coalition of reformers’, he added.
“There is not just a growing demand for change, but – it seems to me – a growing willingness in all quarters to contemplate change,” he added.
The legal-aid system, as it stood, could not simply muddle along, the Chief Justice said, even though reform of the system would inevitably incur a cost and, some might say, risk, creating a limitless, demand-led system.
Legal problems could also create consequential problems in other areas such as health, at an additional cost to the taxpayer, the Chief Justice said.
The pace of reform was also influenced by European litigation and court decisions, he pointed out.
“I know that many thoughtful people are rightly uncomfortable with the idea that all social issues can be converted into legal issues, so that decisions are made by courts rather than legislators,” he continued.
“Apart from fundamental concerns derived from the separation of powers, there are also real and valid concerns, which relate to competence and resources.
“Broadly speaking, litigation shines a very bright light on issues, but does so through a keyhole, and has some powerful, but essentially crude, weapons.
“It lacks the power, for example, to devise sophisticated administrative schemes.
“But the administration of justice is expressly provided for in the Constitution, the European Convention on Human Rights, and the treaties establishing the European Union and the Charter of Fundamental Rights.
“If problems in relation to legal aid cannot be resolved through the administrative and political systems, then it will not be surprising if claims are brought to court in Dublin, Strasbourg or Luxembourg – and possibly all three,” the Chief Justice said.
When people came before the courts, they should feel that their side of the case would be presented, and would be heard, and that if the case were decided against them, it was not because of an imbalance in representation, the Chief Justice said.
That belief in the justice process was a critical part of the bonds that held a society together, he said.
Any loss of faith in that system ultimately undermined belief in, and commitment to, the State itself, the Chief Justice added.
Judges back increase
The Chief Justice and Presidents of the Court of Appeal, High Court, Circuit Court, and District Court also formally welcomed the announced of extra judicial positions.
The senior judges have said that the report of the Judicial Planning Working Group, together with the OECD report which underpins it, are an important and welcome development in investing in judicial resources and associated support.
Spending on the justice system had been low in comparison with other European countries, the judges said.
The report is a real and tangible recognition of the fact that a functioning justice system was not a luxury, but a critical component of a modern liberal democratic society founded on the rule of law, the judges said.
Courts Service 'very pleased'
The Courts Service has welcomed both the OECD report on Modernising Staffing and Court Management Practices in Ireland, and the adoption by Government of the Judicial Planning Working Group report.
“As participants on the Judicial Planning Working Group, we are very pleased with the Minister’s commitment to the implementation of the report’s recommendations, and with the commitment of support from the judiciary.
“We look forward to constructive dialogue with the Department of Justice, the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform, and the judiciary on progressing implementation,” the Courts Service said.
“The substantial increase in judicial numbers over the coming years starting in early 2023 recognises that judges are at the heart of the courts system. The report recognises that an effective court system providing timely access to justice is of importance to society and the economy,” the body added.