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Courts Service reaches milestone in 21st year in operation
Board chair Mr Justice Liam Hamilton (right) with Justice Minister John O'Donoghue in 1999

12 Nov 2020 / courts Print

Courts Service reaches 21-year milestone

This week marks 21 years since the Courts Service Act 1998 provided for a new and independent body known as the Courts Service, which was established on 9 November 1999.

Chief executive Angela Denning recalls the sense of excitement and uncertainty as to what the future would hold when establishment day arrived. 

Ms Denning is one of 284 staff currently working in the Courts Service who were there from the beginning.

Most significant impact

The change that had the most significant impact was the adoption of the important recommendation that it would be appropriate for judges to work alongside others on the Courts Service board, she said.

The functions of the new Courts Service were concerned with the management and administration of the courts, rather than the administration of justice itself, she pointed out. 

“Had this not happened, much of the success achieved since would have been simply impossible,” said Denning.

“I also have to recognise the enormous effort our first chief executive PJ Fitzpatrick, and his successor Brendan Ryan, and their management teams, had to put in so as to build an organisation from the ground up,” she said.

Their work involved a management structure that included the regions, specialised offices to provide judicial support, research and library services, and human resources, training, finance, court funds, buildings, audit and risk, ICT, an information office, and corporate services.

Realigning structures

The current management team is examining how best to realign structures to support the administration of justice into the future.

Angela Denning said that there were two dramatic changes for staff on establishment day – all promotions were now to be by competition, rather than seniority and suitability; and widescale computerisation would be introduced.

“If COVID has recently taught us that we have an over-reliance on paper-based systems now, at that time, most offices worked with cause books, ledgers, order indices and receipt books!” she said.

“Only a few offices had any IT capability at all, so the introduction of computers, email and some new applications in the first year was a very tangible sign of positive change.

“One of the challenges in coming years will be to replace some of those now very aged systems with something more user friendly, which will provide improved management data, support increased interoperability with other justice agencies, and which will enable court users to conduct more business online. 

Physical spaces

In 1999, physical infrastructure was the most manifest sign of the court system’s problems, Ms Denning said.

The Working Group on a Courts Commission had noted that many of the State’s courthouses were in “ruinous condition”.

“In the period since that stark but true appraisal was made, a large-scale building programme has seen our estate shrink, so as to provide better services, with new courthouses built and many others refurbished and upgraded,” she said.

This programme of work continues today, with work underway to assess the entire courts’ estate so as to develop an estate strategy, and a preventative maintenance programme, to best support the needs of the courts and court users into the future. 

Team spirit

The Courts Service website was built, delivering a wide range and variety of information, including daily courts lists and judgments, and provided access to a selection of online services.

Angela Denning praised the fantastic team spirit in the Courts Services’ offices around the country, and the strong working relationships with the judiciary: “Our colleagues demonstrate public-service values in every court office and building daily,” she said.

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