708. Deputy Eoghan Murphy asked the Minister for Justice the impact the pandemic has had on court proceedings; and the level of backlog this is likely to cause for the future. [12743/21]


Minister for Justice (Deputy Helen McEntee): The Government is committed to ensuring adequate resources for the courts in order to maintain access to justice for all citizens. This commitment was reinforced recently with the highest ever budgetary allocation for the Justice sector including €158.8 million for the Courts Service. This included €8 million for the new Courts Modernisation Programme along with an additional provision of €5.7m for COVID measures to enable court sittings take place in a socially distanced and safe environment. A significant priority for my Department and the Courts Service in the years ahead will be to significantly invest in digital technology, to transform the experience of practitioners and of court users.
I am pleased to say the Courts have continued to sit on priority matters in the areas of family law, criminal matters (especially cases involving people in custody), bail and urgent injunctions. Prior to the latest imposition of Level 5 restrictions, additional capacity was added to the courts infrastructure to facilitate the holding of numbers of courts close to pre-Covid levels. While every effort has been made to facilitate as much court business as possible unfortunately significant backlogs have been accrued in regard to certain case categories. The Government endeavours to ensure our courts continue to operate as effectively and efficiently as possible. My Department is in constant contact with the Courts Service and has maintained a schedule of regular interactions with the Courts Service throughout the pandemic to support the Service in addressing the issues that have arisen during this crisis, including where backlogs have arisen.
As the Deputy will be aware, under the provisions of the Courts Service Act 1998, management of the courts is the responsibility of the Courts Service, which is independent in exercising its functions However, the Courts Service has advised that they continue to work with the Judiciary to prioritise business and the holding of courts to address areas of concern.
The Judiciary and the Courts Service have worked closely to adapt to changed circumstances and innovated through the use of technology to maintain the highest level of activity possible. This has seen the first remote courts being conducted over video technology as well as an expansion of the use of videolink technology particularly with the Prison Service. This investment and commitment to continuing to serve has enabled the Supreme Court and the Court of Appeal to continue with its throughput of cases and supported the other jurisdictions keep many lists up to date. In other jurisdictions, such as the High Court, the increased use of remote technology has led to an increase in cases heard. Investments continues to be made in these areas to further improve services and the Courts Service is currently rolling out videolink facilities to 43 additional courtrooms across the country and is looking to enhance the infrastructure used in virtual courts.
Further investment is being made in hiring Croke Park to expand courtroom capacity in Dublin and using external venues in order that juries can be empanelled safely for Criminal trials. These measures are temporarily suspended during the current heightened restrictions but will be recommenced once it is safe to do so. Criminal trials can now take place in an increasing number of trial venues throughout Ireland. Public health guidelines on social distancing initially limited the number of county town courthouses that could hold jury trials but through adaption of courtrooms and the use of technology the number of trial venues has increased from 8 to 16. Criminal trials can now be hosted in the following venues outside Dublin: Carrick On Shannon, Castlebar, Cork, Drogheda, Ennis, Galway, Kilkenny, Letterkenny, Limerick, Monaghan, Mullingar, Sligo, Trim, Tullamore, Waterford and Wexford.
The Courts have demonstrated an ability to resume a high level of activity immediately once society begins to reopen. Through staggering of court lists, positive callovers of cases on hand and the introduction of new people management procedures, Courts began to operate at near full capacity in the summer and autumn of last year and good progress had been made in dealing with arrears that built up during latest period of restrictions. The Courts Service expect similar results will be possible once current restrictions ease and continue to work closely with the Judiciary to identify areas of work that require particular attention. Work is on-going to manage day to day issues and to plan for reopening, including regular engagement with key stakeholders such as An Garda Síochána in relation to summonses and with the legal profession.