New legal year
Speaking at the start of the new legal year at the Criminal Courts of Justice in Parkgate Street in Dublin 7 this afternoon, the Chief Justice warned that statutory deadlines with the new Act could be triggered without proper planning and resourcing.
The establishment of the Judicial Council was passed into law before the Dáil summer recess.
It will take responsibility for:
- Ongoing education and training of the judiciary,
- The establishment of judicial ethical guidelines,
- A complaints procedure for dealing with alleged breaches of ethics,
- A sentencing guidelines function and,
- The production of guidance regarding levels of personal injury awards.
The Sentencing and Information Committee and the Judicial Conduct Committee are required to have lay members who are to be appointed in accordance with a transparent process by the Public Appointments Commission.
The Chief Justice warned against taking shortcuts and said the appropriate machinery must be in place to process complaints to the Judicial Conduct Committee.
Kevin O’Neill, Principal Registrar of the High Court, has already been appointed interim secretary of the Judicial Council.
The Personal Injury Guidelines Committee, specified in the Act, must also do detailed research research on the levels of awards in other jurisdictions.
“It is also important to understand that the timeline for the creation of each of the statutory committees is triggered by the designation of the establishment day.
“In other words, there cannot be a two-speed approach to the creation of the various committees. Once the establishment day is designated, then all committees must come on stream within statutory timelines which are challenging but doable.”
The Chief Justice said that in establishing then Judicial Council and its statutory Committees “ it makes no sense at all to take any shortcuts”
Meeting of court presidents
“With all this in mind, I have arranged for a meeting of the Presidents of the Courts to take place early next week so that we can identify the steps which we need to take to ensure that the Council is in a position to hit the ground running as soon as it is established,” the Chief Justice said.
The Judicial Studies Committee will take over information and training functions for the judiciary and a report has been commissioned from Dr Rónán Kennedy of NUI Galway on the requirements for a modern fit-for-purpose scheme which would bring our system up to best international practice.
An interim report has already been submitted to Government which benchmarks against practices in comparable jurisdictions such as Scotland.
A radical IT update is also in train in the courts, which the Chief Justice described as a “generational chance to modernise how the public and practitioners interact with the courts”.
He also said procedural and administrative reviews are concluding across the Courts Service, he said and an implementation stage must now begin but this will need resources.
He said the great success of the Court of Appeal cannot be guaranteed to continue unless the legislated-for extra judges are appointed soon.
While welcoming the speed with which the Oireachtas passed the necessary legislation to increase judge numbers from 12 to 16, the Chief Justice warned that Court of Appeal cases may have to be postponed until 2021 unless the appointments are made soon.
“Any good programme of reform begins with a planning stage. But the point must be reached where the process moves from planning to implementation,” the Chief Justice warned.
Significant legal powers
The Chief Justice said that the Council will exercise significant legal powers and it is important that its establishment and that of its committees are legally robust “or else we all run the risk of defeating the very purpose of bringing these important measures into play.
“We need to do this properly and not just get it done. While I fully understand the desire to have the Council and its committees up and running as quickly as possible, it is important that we do not take shortcuts which could, in the medium term, makes things worse rather than better,” the Chief Justice said.
He said that the review of the administration of civil justice is almost complete with a report available early next year.
In tandem with the Courts Service review of its own administrative procedures, led by President of the High Court, Justice Peter Kelly, this will offer a vision for the future of the courts in the decade ahead.
The Chief Justice said: “I have often said that digitalising a less-than-perfect paper system will simply produce a less than perfect digital system.
“Reform of our procedures is a very necessary parallel to the implementation of more easily accessible means of managing the court process.
“Many beneficial procedural reforms will not be capable of giving the maximum benefit unless we can also implement the vision contained in the Courts Service Report.
“Equally, that vision will produce far from optimal results without the reform of procedures contemplated. Both go hand in hand.
“Both have or are reaching the end of the planning process. Both will soon be ready to begin implementation. But the necessary resources to deliver that implementation is the vital last link in the chain”.
He said that recruiting the correct IT talent to the Courts Service was challenging given the disparate rates of pay in the public and private sectors.
The Chief Justice said that take-up of the new technology for applying online to the Supreme Court for leave to appeal has been disappointing.
The system is to be tweaked in hopes of an improved uptake.
The Chief Justice concluded by pointing out that Ireland has, by far, the lowest number of judges per head of population in the developed world.
“I do appreciate that there may also be a case for a more radical look at the structure of our courts. The centenary of the establishment of the courts of an independent Ireland in 1924, would mark an appropriate target date for the full implementation of any measures decided on,” he said.
He said that many beneficial changes in the court system have derived from important and considered judge-led reports.