CHECK AGAINST DELIVERY
Tuesday 25 July 2017
Chief Justice, members of the Judiciary, members of the Board, distinguished guests, I am pleased to be here today to accept the Courts Service Annual Report for 2016.
I would like to take this opportunity to commend the Chief Justice and Chairperson of the Courts Service Board, Mrs Susan Denham, and all the board members as well as the Chief Executive, Brendan Ryan, and his staff on the excellent service provided by the courts.
This is my first time to be presented with the Courts Service Annual Report and, indeed it is the last report to be presented by Chief Justice Denham who will be retiring shortly.
I wish to thank you, Chief Justice, for the very significant court reforms that you presided over and I am confident that your legacy will continue for many years to come. You have been an inspiration to all of us seeking to enhance access to justice for all our citizens. During your tenure both as a judge of the Superior Courts and as Chief Justice you were instrumental in many pioneering reforms including the establishment of the Courts Service itself and of course the new Court of Appeal.
As I have said before I was a solicitor in practise in Portlaoise for many years. I know first-hand the importance of the Courts and the Courts Service to the State and I am delighted with the significant improvements happening across the courts system.
Investment in the Courts
The Government is committed to providing for an excellent courts system. The provision of first class satisfactory court accommodation and resources is an important part of achieving this goal. The work on a Courts Bundle Public Private Partnership (PPP) Project is a major achievement in the modernisation of our Court facilities and is a very significant investment.
Four new courthouses are being constructed around the country and three courthouses are being refurbished and extended. Earlier this month I had a pleasure of opening the new Drogheda Courthouse, the first courthouse to be completed under the Courts Bundle Public Private Partnership. I am looking forward to the completion by the end of this year of the other projects in Letterkenny, Limerick, Wexford, Cork, Mullingar and Waterford.
A visit to the Courts can be a very stressful experience and I am very conscious of the concerns expressed by the judiciary, legal practitioners and victims groups in relation to the poor state and set-up of many Family Court facilities. The development of a new purpose built Family Law and Children's Court complex on the Hammond Lane site was included as one of the key Justice Sector projects in the Government's Infrastructure and Capital Investment Plan 2016 to 2021.
I acknowledge and appreciate the work of the dedicated Project Board, chaired by High Court judge Mr Justice Michael White that is working closely with the OPW State Architect in overseeing the planning for this ambitious development.
Family Court Bill and Mediation Bill 2017
This Government also has ambitious plans to establish a dedicated Family Court within existing court structures. Work is underway in my Department on the General Scheme of a Family Court Bill, which will aim to streamline family law court processes, clarify jurisdictional issues and provide for a set of guiding principles to help ensure that the Family Court will operate in a user-friendly and efficient manner. This work is being complimented also by a working group established between my Department, the Courts Service and the Legal Aid Board. They are at present identifying costs, personnel and other implications on the ground for a successful implementation of a new family courts structure.
The Family Court Bill will support the proposals in the Mediation Bill 2017 which offers alternatives to dispute resolution and should be able to save litigants from engaging in long and potentially costly legal cases. I look forward to the Mediation Bill being enacted later very early in the autumn session and hope it will assist in more timely resolution of family law cases.
Judicial Appointments Commission Bill & Judicial Council Bill
The Government is committed to resourcing the Courts and is filling vacancies on a continuous basis. As you are aware, the Government is working towards reforming the system of judicial appointments. I am pleased that the Judicial Appointments Commission Bill has already passed the second stage in the Dáil and will move to Committee Stage in October.
I am also pleased that the Judicial Council Bill was also recently published and indeed wish to acknowledge the work of the Tánaiste and previous Minister for Justice and Equality Frances Fitzgerald in regard to both Bills. The need for a Judicial Council has long been recognised, both domestically and internationally and its important role in promoting and maintaining excellence and high standards of conduct among judges.
I am certain that these two Bills will underpin public confidence in the judiciary and will ensure that the quality of our judicial system is maintained.
Budget and Staffing
The Government is acutely conscious of the need to provide an excellent court system as a key underpinning for our democracy and has continued to provide substantial resources to the Courts Service, with a gross allocation of €113 million for 2016, (which is €5 million more than the allocation in 2015). The improving budgetary situation permitted further increases for the Courts Service this year bringing the total allocation for the Court Service Vote in 2017 to over €140 million. The additional funding will continue to boost staffing across the Courts Service, including in frontline services and will assist in efforts to drive reform. It will also enable improvements in Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) infrastructure and position the Courts Service to maximise efficiencies from developments in technology.
Review of the Administration of Civil Justice
I am very pleased that a Group, chaired by the President of the High Court Mr. Justice Peter Kelly, has been set up to review and reform the administration of civil justice in the State. The Group will make recommendations for changes with a view to improving access to civil justice in the State, promoting early resolution of disputes, reducing the cost of litigation, creating a more responsive and proportionate system and ensuring better outcomes for court users and is to report to me within two years.
While the Courts remain extremely busy I am happy to note that, in general, across the courts system waiting times have either been maintained or, in certain areas, there has been reductions in waiting times and backlogs. I wish to commend both Judges and courts staff for all their efforts in this regard and of course, encourage everyone to continue working to bring about further improvements.
The establishment of the Second Special Criminal Court last year confirmed the Government’s commitment to ensure that those who commit serious crimes affecting the security of the State or certain organised crime offences will be brought swiftly to justice. The Court sat for the first time in May 2016 and by the end of 2016 waiting times for trial dates had reduced from two years to 15 months. I am also pleased to note that High Court waiting times are as low as six weeks for most areas of work (from the time cases are ready for hearing to a date being available). Also in the Central Criminal Court waiting times have been reduced to 11 months, thanks to the efforts of the judges and Courts Service staff, including the allocation of additional resources by the President of the High Court and the Chief Executive of the Service.
Supporting people with mortgage arrears
The Government remains committed to supporting people with mortgage arrears. A huge amount of work has already been done with a number of new measures put in place to support mortgage holders who are in arrears including major reform of the Personal Insolvency framework that gave the Courts the power to review and, where appropriate, to approve insolvency deals that have been rejected by banks.
Priority was given last year to getting the new national Mortgage Arrears Resolution Service (Abhaile) up and running. The service ensures that people who are at risk of losing their home have access to free independent financial and legal advice and assistance. My Department, together with the Department of Social Protection, leads both operational oversight and governance steering groups for the new Abhaile service and its effectiveness and impacts are being closely monitored as part of these processes. I know that the Courts Service were of great assistance in the whole process of getting those services up and running under the Abhaile scheme. The services provided by MABS advisers in particular the provision of quality information as well as the access to duty solicitors in the courts around the country is proving to be of significant benefit to those dealing with problems with mortgage arrears.
Move from Taxing Masters to Legal Costs Adjudicators
I am also pleased that work is progressing in the phased commencement of the remaining Parts of the Legal Services Regulatory Act 2015 Act that deal with legal costs and I look forward to the establishment of the new Office of the Legal Cost Adjudicators next year.
I know that my officials are very grateful for the expert assistance of many people throughout the Courts Service on an on-going basis in policy formulation and preparation of legislation but also in the day to day parliamentary accountability process. We will work to continue to maintain this high level of cooperation and excellent working relations to allow us to achieve necessary reforms.
Again, Chief Justice may I thank you for the Annual Report and I extend my good wishes to you for a long and happy retirement.