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No COVID-19 cases from courts last year
Courts Service Chief Executive Angela Denning and Chief Justice Frank Clarke Pic: RollingNews.ie

28 Jul 2021 / courts Print

No COVID-19 cases from courts last year

The Courts Service says that there was no record last year of any cases of COVID-19 being acquired or transmitted in any courtroom or courts workplace.

The organisation’s annual report describes this as its “greatest achievement”, as it adapted its operations to restrictions imposed to deal with the spread of the virus.

The report shows that the courts body spent just over €5.4 million on measures linked to its efforts to keep the courts going during the pandemic.

There were 2,411 remote court sessions in 2020, while 654 new laptops were issued to the judiciary and staff.

The report also shows that there were 13,000 video links between prisons and courts in 2020 – up from 3,798 the previous year. The Courts Service says this helped to keep COVID-19 infections among prisoners, staff and court users out of court venues.

Backlogs in some areas

Speaking at the launch of the report, Chief Justice Frank Clarke (pictured) praised the Courts Service’s response to COVID-19 restrictions, saying that its previous thinking, planning and actions in preparing for a ten-year modernisation programme had enabled the organisation to “hit the ground running” when the pandemic hit.

The report shows that the Supreme Court and the Court of Appeal are completely up to date with all matters, having used remote technology for almost all their hearings last year.

Criminal trials with juries were particularly affected by restrictions, but the use of vacation periods for hearings and the restart of jury cases across the country earlier this year have seen trials being heard again since March.

The chief justice acknowledged, however, that build-ups had developed in certain areas, especially those that were not considered suitable for remote hearings.

He commented that there were “potentially significant” numbers of cases delayed by the pandemic that may come into court offices throughout the country in the near future, providing significant challenges for the system.

Longer PI waiting times

Separate figures released by the courts body show that the waiting time for the High Court’s personal-injury list in Dublin increased – from up to eight weeks before the pandemic to six-to-eight months by July this year.

The Courts Service warns that this is likely to increase, due to a 47% rise in the number of clinical-negligence cases started between 2019 and 2020. There are also backlogs in the provincial personal-injury lists.

The waiting time for the High Court civil jury list is now around 14 months, while the diary for commercial planning and SID (strategic infrastructure development) cases is full until December.

The number of non-jury judicial review cases is also expected to rise, as many of the bodies whose decisions are challenged in the High Court were not sitting during the pandemic.

There are no backlogs, however, in infant rulings, and the Courts Service figures show few delays in the High Court family-law list.

‘Imperfections’

The chief justice acknowledged that there had been “imperfections” in how the courts responded to COVID-19, but added that decisions that would normally take months or years of planning had to be made in days and weeks.

“To attempt to keep going in a traditional manner would have seen a very significant reduction in the throughput of our courts,” he said.

The annual report highlights future challenges posed by the response to the pandemic, saying that a lack of integration of remote-hearing solutions with a modern case-management system resulted in an increased workload for Courts Service staff.

“This highlights the need for a more strategic approach to digital-process reform,” the report states.

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