1418. Deputy Eoin Ó Broin asked the Minister for Justice the steps she has taken to ensure the full functioning of the court system compliant with public health advice to address the growing backlog of cases including divorce and separation cases. [19088/21]
Minister for Justice (Deputy Helen McEntee): 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. Furthermore, the scheduling of individual court cases and the allocation of court business are matters for the Presidents of the Courts and the presiding judges who are, under the Constitution, independent in the exercise of their judicial functions.
However, in order to be of assistance to the Deputy, I have had inquiries made and the Courts Service has advised me that they continue to work with the Judiciary to prioritise business and the holding of courts to address areas of concern. Urgent family law cases including domestic violence cases have been dealt with at all times during the current period of Level 5 restrictions. Judges have remained available to hear these matters, as and when required. Consent orders have also continued to be made when parties to such cases applied to Court.
Through staggering of court lists, positive callovers of cases on hand and the introduction of new people management procedures, the 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 restrictions. I understand that the Courts Service expects similar results will be possible once current restrictions ease and continues to work closely with the Judiciary to identify areas of work that require particular attention and schedule as much work as possible during current restrictions. Family law cases in the Circuit Court that were adjourned during the early months of the year are being assigned new dates for hearing.
The Judiciary and the Courts Service have worked closely and innovated through the use of technology to maintain the highest level of court activity possible, including through the use of remote courts. Family law proceedings have been heard remotely in Clare, Cork, Donegal, Dublin, Louth, Monaghan, Sligo, Tipperary and Westmeath.
Furthermore, the Courts Service has advised me that it is currently rolling out videolink facilities to 43 additional courtrooms across the country this year in order to assist in addressing the current caseload, reducing backlogs and ensuring that remote hearings are held in every county of the country.
I am advised that until such time as restrictions are fully removed, it will remain the priority of the Courts Service and the Judiciary to focus on the public health measures required to minimise the risk of transmission of Covid-19 to court users. However, the Courts Service has also assured me that both the Courts Service and the Judiciary remain committed to ensuring that urgent family law matters are dealt with as a priority and services return to normal when public health guidelines allow.
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.