Access to Justice: Widening access, removing barriers, improving the process

 

1 October 2021

 

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Chief Justice Clarke, distinguished guests, I am honoured to join you today on the topic of improving Access to Justice.

 

I am not just honoured to join you for this conference – but for one of your last official engagements, Chief Justice.

 

I have no doubt you are looking forward to a well-earned break after you stand down on October 10th. You will, I am sure, have plenty of time to relax and indulge in some of your passions.

 

Unfortunately, there are not that many race venues in my own county of Monaghan to invite you to. There are plenty, of course, in Meath. Perhaps Minister McEntee, when she returns from maternity leave, will gladly host you for an afternoon’s racing! I might add that I would be only too glad to attend, too.

 

On a serious note, Chief Justice, it is fitting that we are discussing Access to Justice at your seminar in the final days of your term. You have given the State great service, not least during the pandemic as you steered the judiciary  through the most difficult of circumstances working closely with the Courts Service.

 

The last year and a half have been remarkably complex and important for us all at both the personal and professional levels, with the difficult impact of the pandemic coinciding with an ambitious Modernisation Programme for the Courts.

 

I want to commend the judiciary and the entire staff of the Courts Service for what has been achieved during this challenging period.

 

I also want to personally commend the Chief Justice, Presidents and all of the judiciary for the leadership you have shown in embracing the new practices and technologies that are at the core of modernising our justice system.

 

On today’s topic, I know, Chief Justice, that widening access to justice, removing barriers, and improving processes are subjects very dear to you. It is also an agenda that is a priority for me as Minister for Justice, for Minister McEntee and for the Government.

 

Widening access to justice means many things. It means that all our citizens can readily access  the legal system and services when they need it. This may be at times of difficulty in their lives; or when they may be enforcing a contract or buying a home. But it also means ensuring that our legal system and the people working within  it better represent the Ireland of today.

 

As part of our overall plan to increase diversity across the justice sector, I firmly believe there must be greater gender balance and diversity across the legal sector. We can achieve this through reform of legal education - by breaking down barriers which prevent a wider pool of people entering the legal profession.

These barriers that aspiring lawyers continue to face at the outset of their careers must be addressed for once and for all.

Widening access to justice means additional judicial resources, as well as reformed procedures and work practices, to reduce delays in our courts. It also means ensuring that those who need to access justice feel comfortable in engaging with our legal system – those who need recourse to the Family Courts, for example, and victims of Domestic, Sexual and Gender Based Violence.  It means embedding and building upon the many reforms implemented during the pandemic to achieve a truly Digital First legal system.

 

Technology has played a significant role in keeping business going through the courts during the pandemic. In-court technology allows for the remote appearance of witnesses, prisoners and other parties to a physical courtroom setting; the digital display of evidence; and digital audio recording of proceedings.  Significant investment has enabled these new technologies to be installed in courtrooms around the country.

 

And your Modernisation Programme continues apace and is a credit to all who work in the Courts Service. In acknowledging the achievements and new initiatives, I also want to commend the excellent cooperation that takes place on a daily basis between the courts and my Department.

 

We continue to appreciate the expert assistance and insights that you share with us on the daily operation of our judicial system. These are invaluable, not just in policy formulation and in the preparation of legislation - but also in terms of maintaining public confidence and engagement in our joint endeavors.

 

Legal aid is central to ensuring equality of access to justice, regardless of financial means. Justice Plan 2021, published by Minister McEntee commits us to a review of the Civil Legal Aid Scheme this year. We have long held the aspiration that justice should be blind not only in application, but in opportunity.

 

In May, it was announced that the Legal Aid Board will no longer include the Housing Assistance Payment in their calculation of entitlement to civil legal aid. T

his will have a positive impact for those who are of modest means and are in receipt of HAP or any other housing support measure provided by a Government department or any other public body.

 

The General Scheme of a Criminal Legal Aid Bill is being prepared and it will transfer the administration of the Criminal Legal Aid Scheme to the Legal Aid Board.

 

The Report of the Review of the Administration of Civil Justice, chaired by Mr. Justice Peter Kelly made over 90 recommendations across a range of areas to strengthen the administration of justice.

 

I have no doubt that, when implemented, these recommendations will transform the civil justice system for those who work within it and people who use it. An implementation group has been established to oversee and monitor execution of the recommendations.

 

An implementation plan is being finalised and I will to bring it to Government and publish it by the end of the month.

I can tell you today, however, that some of its key actions include:

As I mentioned earlier, tackling the scourge of Domestic, Sexual and Gender Based Violence is a priority for me, Minister McEntee and the Government.

 

We have had lengthy discussions at Cabinet on the issue and everyone, including the Taoiseach, is determined to help victims and get tough on perpetrators.

 

Minister McEntee’s Supporting a Victim’s Journey Plan is a detailed roadmap on how to implement the recommendations of the O’Malley Review.

 

Supporting a Victim’s Journey will protect and support vulnerable witnesses during the investigation and prosecution of sexual offences. We are working to create a system that supports victims and empowers them to report offences - knowing they will be supported, informed and treated respectfully throughout the criminal justice process.

 

We hope to provide for court procedures that support a faster and less adversarial resolution of family law disputes in specialised centres.

One of the Plan’s key recommendations is the development and rollout of training for all personnel a victim may come into contact with as they navigate the justice system.

 

This includes An Garda Síochána, the Director of Public Prosecutions, the legal profession and the judiciary.

 

It is recommended that all judges presiding over criminal trials for sexual offences and all lawyers appearing in such trials should have specialist training.

 

I know training has already begun under the Judicial Council and I urge all members of the judiciary to avail of this training as soon as possible.

 

Separately, the Bar of Ireland’s existing Continuous Professional Development (CPD) programme incorporates training for barristers dealing with vulnerable witnesses.

 

In September 2020, Government approved the drafting of a Family Court Bill to provide for the establishment of a District Family Court, Circuit Family Court and a Family High Court as divisions within the existing court structures. The General Scheme of the Bill is awaiting pre-legislative scrutiny by the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Justice.

 

The drafting of the Bill will be progressed as a matter of urgency, with a view to the Bill being published by the end of February 2022.I believe these are landmark reforms which will develop a more efficient and user-friendly family court system that puts families at the centre of its activities, provides access to specialist supports and encourages the use of alternative dispute resolution in family law proceedings.

 

The development of sensible, comprehensive and sensitive family law procedures, particularly for vulnerable families, will be central to the new system.

 

When we speak about widening access to justice and breaking down barriers, Chief Justice, reforms such as these are exactly what we mean.

 

These reforms will be supported by the construction of a purpose built family law court complex at Hammond Lane. Hammond Lane is a key project in the National Development Plan and I know is the priority project of the Courts Service. We hope construction will begin in 2023, and the doors of the complex will open in early 2026.

 

In order to help the Courts deal with Covid backlogs and address areas of immediate need, the Government recently approved of the largest increases in the number of judges in living memory.

 

I know this was welcomed by many of you.

 

The five extra judges will also help with Ireland’s participation in the Schengen Information System and strategic infrastructure development issues.

I was also pleased that in broader terms, a Judicial Planning Working Group has already convened to review the number and type of judges required in the coming five years. The Group will also examine other areas such as work practices.

 

This is in line with the commitment in the Programme for Government to consider the number of and type of judges required to ensure the efficient administration of justice over the next five years. The Group is to report in the spring of 2022.

 

I have also commissioned the OECD to prepare an independent review of the judicial resource needs, including benchmarks against international comparators, so that we have the numbers, skills, and processes to ensure access to justice over the next five years. I expect that report to be complete within the year.

The coming year will also see us hopefully enact the Judicial Appointments Commission Bill to bring greater transparency to the system of appointing judges.

 

The Government approved the General Scheme of the Judicial Appointments Commission Bill in December 2020, and the Bill is at an advanced stage of drafting.

The new Bill will put the Chief Justice at the head of the new Commission. 

It will replace the Judicial Appointments Advisory Board. 

There will be an equal number of lay persons and judges and the Attorney General will be a member in a non-voting capacity. Chief Justices  have chaired the Advisory Board for 25 years and retaining this ensures that the selection process is absolutely rigorous and meets the need to have a strong, independent judiciary.

All persons who wish to considered for appointment to judicial office, including serving judges, will be required to apply to the Commission.  No other process will be in place.  The Commission will assess and deal with applications from serving judges and develop appropriate procedures for their assessment.

I believe the Bill will deliver substantial reform, providing for a modern and transparent system to deal with judicial appointments in the State.

 

In considering access to justice, we must also be frank. Legal costs in Ireland are prohibitive and act as a barrier to people to exercising their rights before the courts.

 

My Department issued a request for a tender of research to undertake an economic analysis of models or approaches to reducing litigation costs in Ireland.

As you are aware, the Kelly Review Group was split on whether scales of costs should be binding or non- binding. The research is expected to assess which of these approaches, or others it might identify, will achieve the aim of reducing costs for legal service users: citizens, businesses, as well as costs to the State.

 

The tendering process is still ongoing and it is expected to award the contract to a successful bidder in the coming weeks. Once this research is complete, my officials will consider its findings and use them to inform the development of proposals in this area.

 

Moving to the work of the Judicial Council, I am happy to note that, under the stewardship of the Chief Justice, the work of the Council is progressing steadily and instilling confidence in its work.

 

It is particularly worth noting the extent of the tasks which have already been undertaken, including the adoption of personal injuries guidelines and the extensive work which has been taken across all jurisdiction in the training of judges by judges. 

 

The Judicial Conduct Committee was formally established with effect from 30 June 2020 and I understand submitted draft judicial conduct and ethics guidelines to the Board on the 28th June as per the Judicial Council Act 2019.

 

The Act further states that the Council must then adopt those guidelines within a further 12 month period from that date.

 

Once the guidelines are in place, the Minister for Justice will then make orders bringing into operation those relevant provisions of the Act which have not yet been commenced.

 

I acknowledge the commitment of all involved in the Judicial Council, and I look forward to on-going developments in its work.   

 

Before I conclude, I would once again like to pay, in particular, tribute to the Hon. Mr. Justice Frank Clarke. As Chief Justice and as a judge of the Supreme Court and High Court, he has given a distinguished career of public service. He leaves a proud legacy of achievement.

 

The Hon. Mr. Justice Frank Clarke’s work has been of great importance and relevance to the citizens of the State. His leadership, direction and innovation - in particular, as I said, in light of the Covid pandemic - has ensured that access to justice, particularly for the most vulnerable in society, was maintained.

 

As I noted, Chief Justice Clarke’s substantial role in the establishment of the Judicial Council was essential and has paved the way for the support of and continued excellence among the judiciary in the future.

 

He has also been the first Chair of the Advisory Committee on the Grant of Patents of Precedence which has modernised the path to becoming Senior Counsel.

 

The Hon. Mr. Justice Clarke’s progressive vision and guidance in his role as Chief Justice has been an impetus for great change, progress and modernisation now and for the future.

 

Despite the immediate challenges of recovery and adjustment to the pandemic, the Judiciary and Courts Service have now set a path for a future of the courts system that continues to uphold the importance and centrality of access to justice.

 

We in Government will support you through the reforms and initiatives to which we are committed to in the Programme for Government and Justice Plan 2021.

 

Thank you.