This Bill is certainly belated. I imagine that the chief criticism to be directed at it is that these Courts with which it deals have been disbanded by the Executive Council and by the Provisional Government before it for the best part of a year now, and that there has been hardship on people who were litigants in those Courts, or had cases pending in those Courts, by reason of the fact that steps were not taken sooner for the proper winding up of their affairs. One can only meet that criticism by pleading the necessity for a sense of proportion in times like those through which we have passed, and by pleading also certain practical difficulties that arose in endeavouring to compile the necessary data for the Winding Up Bill.
You had through the country an improvised system of justice which was forged more as a weapon against the British administration in exceptional times and exceptional circumstances than as a definite system which would meet and answer the needs of normal times. It might be well that we would briefly survey that system and the Courts which functioned within it. Taking the lowest type of Court first, you had Parish Courts, having jurisdiction in their respective parishes for the hearing of small civil claims under £10 in value, petty criminal offences, taking evidence and returning serious offences for trial to Circuit Courts, cases arising out of cottier tenancies and monthly and weekly tenancies. Then there was the District Court or Constituency Court, having jurisdiction in the following class of cases:—Appeals from Parish Courts, civil claims from £10 to £100 in value, title cases and cases exceeding £100 in value or damage where no question of law arose, ejectments and actions hitherto brought to the County Courts. Then there was a special sitting of that District Court at which a Circuit Judge attended, and when that Court sat in special session with a Circuit Judge attending, its jurisdiction extended to criminal trials, civil claims not within the jurisdiction of the ordinary District Courts, equity cases and relief, such as certiorari, mandamus, quo warranto, and appeals from ordinary sittings of that Court.
The Supreme Court had unlimited jurisdiction over all civil and criminal cases, and also heard appeals from the Circuit Sittings of the District Courts. There is one matter that would need to be stressed when surveying these Courts and their jurisdiction; that is, that no one of those Courts, from the Parish Court to the Supreme Court, was given jurisdiction by the Dáil in licensing matters. That jurisdiction was explicitly withheld. It was the unanimous and emphatic view of members of the Dáil Cabinet at the time that it was inadvisable and unwise to attempt to assume jurisdiction in matters of that kind. I mention that because when these Courts reappeared during the Truce period they were not as careful and not as pure in their administration as they were in their first youth and enthusiasm. They gave in many places, or purported to give, certificates to people to deal in intoxicating liquor. They had no such jurisdiction. It was specifically and explicitly withheld from them. The only course open to my Department was to refuse absolutely, and in all cases, recognition of those certificates on the grounds that the Courts which professed to have power to give them were acting ultra vires in giving them.
Shortly after the Provisional Government was set up, and when the ordinary Courts, with their complete machinery, had been taken over by the Provisional Government, it was considered unnecessary to have any further duplication of judicial work, and accordingly the Dáil Courts were abolished and a Committee was set up by the Minister for Home Affairs in October last to deal with the outstanding business of those Courts. Deputies will remember the period of dual jurisdiction—or dual lack of jurisdiction, to be more accurate—and all the abuses that grew out of that period. People going into one Court and finding the weight of evidence against them moved into the rival Court for an injunction to stay the other party to the litigation from proceeding further with his case in the Court which seemed likely to decide against them. That anomaly could only be ended in the way in which it was ended, by a frank recognition of the fact that all the official Courts and all the official machinery of justice in the country had passed definitely into the hands of a representative Executive responsible to the Irish people, through their elected representatives in the Dáil, and the hastily improvised Courts that had been set up through the country to tide over an exceptional period were abolished, and the official State Courts were adopted.
The Committee which was set up in October last had considerable difficulty in collecting data throughout the country, but efforts have been made to collect, as far as possible, the records and accounts of the Dáil Courts, so as to facilitate litigants and claimants whose business remained unfinished, owing to the prevailing conditions. Owing to the fact that a number of Court Registrars and clerks adopted a hostile attitude towards the Government, it has not been found possible to obtain complete returns. In February and March last, it will be remembered that notices were published in "Iris Oifigiuil" and in the Dublin and provincial Press inviting parties whose decrees remained unexecuted at the date of the abolition, to forward particulars, with a view to having their decrees registered for subsequent enforcement. A special form of application was prepared and supplied to such parties for the purpose of having their decrees verified by affidavit. The total number of applications received from solicitors and litigants for these forms amounts to 10,000, and about half of the forms so issued have been returned and duly verified. The Ministry has made some progress already with the task of serving notices on the parties affected by these decrees, so as to give them an opportunity of lodging properly grounded objections, if any, to the enforcement of the decrees. The District Registrars and the Parish Clerks have, furthermore, been circularised to lodge final accounts and statements, and, excluding the Six County Area, about half of the District Registrars and about a quarter of the Parish Clerks have carried out these instructions. It will be observed that the Bill is drafted so as to enable the Judicial Commissioners to enforce delivery of these accounts in all cases. It is thought that very little definite objection will be urged to the Bill, and that the principal comment or criticism will be that it has been over-long delayed. Deputies will notice that it provides for the appointment of one Judicial Commissioner and certain Assistant Commissioners, to deal with different classes of business; to deal, in the first instance, with cases that were pending in the Dáil Courts, and Appeals from enforcement of decrees given in the Dáil Courts. The Assistant Commissioners may hear: "Any application for the hearing and the termination of a proceeding which was pending in a Dáil Parish Court or a Dáil District Court, any application for the hearing and the termination of an Appeal from a Dáil Parish Court which was pending in a Dáil District Court when the authority of such Court was withdrawn; any appeal from a registered decree of a Dáil Parish Court or an ordinary sitting of a Dáil District Court; any interlocutory application in any of the above mentioned cases." There will lie an appeal from any one of these Commissioners to the entire body. It is proposed to set up a Registry in which all decrees of the Dáil Courts that have not been executed will be registered, and after inquiry, and in the event of no appeal being made to the Commissioners, these decrees so registered will be binding on the UnderSheriff in the same way as decrees given by the ordinary State Courts, and will be executed accordingly. Certain sums have been due in connection with these courts and their operations which it has not been possible to pay, pending the passing of this Bill, and there are provisions in the Bill dealing with the financial aspect. Section 20 defines the general powers of the Commissioners: "For the purposes of this Act, the Commissioners shall have full power and jurisdiction to hear and determine all matters, whether of law or fact, which shall be duly brought before them under this Act, and shall not be subject to be restrained in the execution of their powers under this Act by the Order of any Court. The Commissioners, with respect to the following matters—enforcing the attendance of witnesses, the examination of witnesses orally or by affidavit, and the production of deeds, books, papers and documents; and issuing any commission for the examination of witnesses; and punishing any persons refusing to give evidence or to produce documents, or guilty of contempt in the presence of the Commissioners or any of them sitting in open Court; shall have all such powers, rights, and privileges as are vested in the High Court for such or the like purposes, and all proceedings before the Commissioners shall in law be deemed to be judicial proceedings before a court of record." Section 18 deals with the accounts of the Courts, and takes power to make payments which are found to be properly due. "Every person whose duty it was to receive or pay out monies in connection with any Dáil Court, or who came into possession of any monies for which he was accountable to a Dáil Court, shall within one month after the passing of this Act deliver to the Accountant a full and true account of all such monies, and pay to the Accountant for lodgment in the Dáil Courts Fund the balance appearing on such account to be still in his hands. Every person who has in his possession any accounts relating to the receipt or payment of any monies for which such person or any other person was accountable to a Dáil Court, shall within one month after the passing of this Act deliver such accounts to the Accountant." Then there is provision for default in rendering such accounts. The Committee which sat, and which was set up in October last, consisted of one of the judges of the Dáil Courts, Mr. James Creed Meredith; Mr. Nicholls, T.D., acted on that Committee also, and Mr. Goff, who is now a District Justice. The Bill is based substantially on the recommendations of that Committee, and it is hoped that it will be found to cover all the business that is outstanding from the winding up of that improvised system of administering justice. There have been cases, unfortunately, where people holding a decree of the Dáil Courts had judgments entered against them in the State Courts, and these judgments were acted upon. There was no remedy for that situation short of the introduction of a Bill of this kind. Steps were taken to put every possible obstacle in the way of that kind of thing happening. Solicitors were written to and urged to stay the proceedings, and were warned that this Bill was being introduced. I think we succeeded in keeping down the anomalies or hardships to a minimum pending the introduction of the Bill.