The Minister for Justice, Equality and Defence, Mr Alan Shatter T.D., today announced the publication of the Courts Bill 2013.

The Bill has two purposes, the first of which is to modify the in camera rule which prevents members of the public, including the news media, from being present in court when family law and child care proceedings are being heard. This proposal is in furtherance of the Programme for Government commitment to reform and modernise aspects of family law. The second purpose of the Bill is to increase the monetary jurisdiction limits of the Circuit and District Courts in civil proceedings.

The Bill aims to provide for a careful balancing of the need for privacy for persons involved in family law and child care proceedings with the need to ensure access to important information on the operation of family and child care law in our courts. The Bill proposes to retain the privacy provisions in respect of such court proceedings while allowing the attendance of bona fide representatives of the Press. The courts will, however, retain the power to exclude representatives of the Press or restrict or prohibit the publication of evidence given in the proceedings in certain circumstances. In addition, a strict prohibition will apply on reporting of material likely to identify the parties to the proceedings or any children to whom the proceedings relate.

As regards the jurisdiction limits of the courts, the Bill proposes to change the monetary limits on the jurisdiction of the Circuit Court and District Court in civil proceedings to €75,000 and €15,000 respectively. However, in personal injury actions, the revised monetary jurisdiction limit of the Circuit Court will be €60,000.

Making the announcement, the Minister said, "I am very pleased to bring forward legislation to amend the long standing in camera rule in family law and child care proceedings, and to increase the monetary jurisdiction limits of the Circuit and District Courts. These reforms are long overdue. Media access and reporting of cases will add transparency to the conduct of family law and child care proceedings and will provide valuable information on the operation of the law in this area.

The Bill is designed to achieve an appropriate balance between greater transparency in family court proceedings and protecting the anonymity and privacy of families and individuals, with a particular focus on the best interests of the child. The measure is also intended to ensure that sensitive information relevant to a family’s or individual’s commercial interests is not disclosed in the reporting of family proceedings. As the Bill embodies a fundamental change in our approach to family proceedings, I regard detailed consideration of these provisions as a crucial part of the legislative process to ensure we achieve the right balance between the public interest and the right to privacy.

The proposed changes to the jurisdiction limits of the Circuit and District Courts should ultimately lead to a reduction in the burden of legal costs for individuals and companies involved in litigation. It is crucial that parties involved in legal conflict do not incur more legal costs than are necessary in circumstances in which they have to resort to litigation. It is also important that our court jurisdictions keep substantially in line with inflation and that our higher courts are not unnecessarily overburdened with appeals that could and should be properly dealt with at a lower level. The extension in the jurisdiction of the District Court will result in a portion of litigation presently undertaken in the Circuit Court in the future being dealt with at District Court level. The changes will also result in a proportion of litigation presently being conducted in the High Court in the future being dealt with at Circuit Court level. Over time, this should effect a reduction in the number of appeals that have to be dealt with by our Supreme Court. A further amelioration of the burden presently imposed on the Supreme Court will result from the creation of a Court of Appeal should the proposed referendum it is hoped to hold next Autumn to provide for such court receive public support.

As a further measure to deal with concerns relating to possible inflation of awards and a consequent effect on insurance costs, I am proposing to restrict the jurisdiction of the Circuit Court to €60,000 in respect of personal injury actions."

It should be noted that the current monetary jurisdiction limits for civil matters in the Circuit Court stands at €38,092 and for the District Court at €6,384. The limits have remained unchanged since the coming into force of the Courts Act 1991. In concluding Minister Shatter stated "It is almost 22 years since change was affected to the monetary jurisdiction of our courts. This is far too long. I believe it is in the public interest that jurisdictional issues be revisited more frequently and I am considering what steps might be taken in the context of this Bill to ensure this occurs in the future." 

The Courts Bill 2013 is available on the Houses of the Oireachtas website: www.oireachtas.ie

19 March 2013

ENDS

 

 

Note for Editors:

In camera rule

The purpose of the in camera rule is to protect the identity of the parties and any child to whom the proceedings relate. While the general principle is that justice be administered in public, the underlying concern is that family law proceedings relate to matters which are sensitive and private to the parties and there is no public interest in requiring that their identities be published.

The application of the in camera rule in relation to court hearing of family law and child care proceedings has given rise to a public perception that undue secrecy is attached to the administration of these areas of the law and that there is a lack of uniformity and consistency in the manner in which they are administered.

Recent policy in the law on the hearing in the courts of family law proceedings in private is reflected in section 40 of the Civil Liability and Courts Act 2004 and regulations made under that section. The Civil Liability and Courts Act 2004 (Section 40(3)) Regulations 2005 (S.I. No. 337 of 2005) allow certain classes of persons to attend family court sittings, subject to Ministerial approval, in order to draw up and publish reports. Ministerial approval is subject to certain safeguards including a requirement that the parties to a case or any relevant child would not be identifiable. Under this scheme, several persons engaged in family law research who were nominated by a body specified in the Schedule to the Regulations have been approved. In addition, the Courts Service introduced the Family Law Reporting Service on a pilot basis in 2006. The purpose of the pilot project was to provide information on the operation of family law in the courts.

While these initiatives have provided a useful insight to family law and its operation, they have not adequately addressed concerns raised on the secrecy of the courts in family and child care proceedings and the absence of essential information on the operation of the law.

Jurisdiction of Circuit Court and District Court

The monetary jurisdiction limits of the Circuit Court and District Court have remained unchanged since 1991. The Courts Act 1991 set the current monetary jurisdiction limits for civil matters at €38,092 (£30,000) for the Circuit Court and €6,384 (£5,000) for the District Court. Although the Courts and Court Officers Act 2002 made statutory provision for increases in the limits to €100,000 and €20,000 respectively, these increased limits were never brought into operation.

The retention of the lower monetary limits has rendered the District and Circuit Courts redundant in respect of some classes of civil proceedings. The low level of jurisdiction in the Circuit Court means that very modest actions must, in the absence of agreement between the parties, be taken in the High Court with consequential higher legal costs arising. Legal costs are a significant component of the overall cost of civil actions.

The Minister is proposing to increase the jurisdiction limits to €75,000 for the Circuit Court and €15,000 for the District Court. However, in personal injury actions, the revised jurisdiction limit of the Circuit Court will be restricted to €60,000. The Minister’s proposals will set the jurisdiction limits at levels that are more in keeping with current monetary values while at the same time guarding against undue inflationary pressure on insurance costs.

Main provisions of the Bill

Preliminary and General (Part 1)

Section 2 provides for the repeal of sections 13 to 18 of the Courts and Court Officers Act 2002. These provisions were not brought into operation and will be overtaken by Part 3 of the Bill.

Amendment of rules relating to certain proceedings heard otherwise than in public (Part 2)

Section 5 will amend section 40 (Proceedings heard otherwise than in public) of the Civil Liability and Courts Act 2004. It provides for the amendment of the in camera rule, as contained in certain enactments relating to family law, so as to allow bona fide representatives of the Press to be present in court during proceedings under those enactments.

However, where a court is satisfied that it is necessary to do so (i) in order to preserve the anonymity of a party to the proceedings or any child to whom the proceedings relate, (ii) by reason of the nature or circumstances of the case or (iii) as it is otherwise necessary in the interests of justice, it may exclude representatives of the Press from the court, or otherwise restrict their attendance, during the hearing or particular parts of it, or restrict or prohibit the publication or broadcasting of evidence given or referred to during the proceedings.

In determining whether or not to make such an order, the court must have regard to the desirability of promoting public confidence in the administration of justice and must also have regard to the following:

(i) the best interests of any child to whom the proceedings relate;

(ii) whether information given or likely to be given in evidence is sensitive personal information;

(iii) the extent to which the attendance of representatives of the Press might inhibit or cause undue distress to a party to the proceedings or a child to whom the proceedings relate by reason of the person’s emotional condition, medical condition, physical impairment or intellectual disability;

(iv) the need to protect a party to the proceedings or a child to whom the proceedings relate against coercion, intimidation or harassment;

(v) whether information given or likely to be given in evidence might be prejudicial to a criminal investigation or criminal proceedings;

(vi) whether information given or likely to be given in evidence is commercially sensitive information; and

(vii) whether information of the type referred to in subparagraphs (ii), (v) and (vi) when taken together with other information would, if published or broadcast, be likely to lead members of the public to identify a party to the proceedings or a child to whom the proceedings relate.

Section 6 inserts a new section 40A (Prohibition on publication or broadcast of certain matters) into the Civil Liability and Courts Act 2004. The new section 40A prohibits the publication or broadcasting of any information about a matter that would be likely to lead members of the public to identify the parties to family law proceedings or any children to whom the proceedings relate. Contravention of this provision will be an offence. The new section 40A will not affect the law as to contempt of court.

Section 8 amends section 29 (Hearing of proceedings) of the Child Care Act 1991 so as to allow bona fide representatives of the Press to be present in court during child care proceedings under that Act. The provisions of this section mirror those of section 5 in relation to the attendance of representatives of the Press at family law proceedings.

Section 9 provides for technical amendments to section 31 (Prohibition on publication or broadcast of certain matters) of the Child Care Act 1991, which prohibits the publication or broadcast of matter likely to lead members of the public to identify a child involved in care proceedings under that Act, and provides for increased penalties for offences under that section.

Jurisdiction of District Court and Circuit Court (Part 3)

Part 3 will change the monetary limits on the jurisdiction of the Circuit Court and District Court in civil proceedings to €75,000 and €15,000 respectively. However, in personal injury actions, the revised monetary jurisdiction limit of the Circuit Court will be €60,000. Sections 11 to 18 of the Bill and the Schedule amend various enactments to provide for this.