I move: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."
The Courts (Supplementary Provisions) Bill is, as its title indicates, Supplementary to the Courts (Establishment and Constitution) Bill and I propose, subject to the approval of the Ceann Comhairle, that both Bills be discussed together on Second Reading.
The object of the Courts (Establishment and Constitution) Bill is to give effect to the provisions of Article 34 of the Constitution by establishing a Court of Final Appeal and Courts of First Instance. Five Courts are being established, namely, a Supreme Court, a High Court, a Court of Criminal Appeal, a Circuit Court and a District Court. Provision is also made for the constitution of these Courts and for the manner in which the judges of these Courts are to be styled. In general, no change is being made in the constitution of the various Courts with the exception of the District Court. In that case the Bill provides for the creation of a new office of President of the District Court. I shall have more to say later on regarding this new office when I am dealing with the Supplemental Provisions Bill, where the powers and functions of the President are set out.
The Constitution, while specifying that a Supreme Court and a High Court must be established, left the Oireachtas free to determine the number and kind of other courts. This is, therefore, an appropriate time to consider the suitability of these courts in present conditions and to ask, for example, whether we should continue to have courts on the lines of the Circuit Court and District Court or whether, say, one such court would suffice for our needs. I think most people will agree that the present system of having two inferior Courts of First Instance has worked well, on the whole, during the period of nearly forty years during which it has been in operation and, moreover, the two Courts enjoy the full confidence of the public. The Government have come to the conclusion that nothing would be gained by making any such fundamental change in the structure of the existing courts and accordingly the Bill provides, as I have said, for establishing courts similar to those now functioning.
Section 7 of the Bill provides that the existing courts will cease to exercise jurisdiction when the Act comes into operation and that when the judges and justices of these Courts have ceased to hold their present offices the courts will be disestablished. Disestablishment of the existing courts is a necessary consequence of the establishment of the new Courts and of the provisions of Article 58 of the Constitution providing for the continuance of the existing Courts "until otherwise determined by law". Disestablishment involves the abolition of the offices of judges and justices and this is also provided for in Section 7. The position of existing judges and justices is not being prejudiced, however, because they, and only they, are being made eligible for appointment as the first judges and justices of the new Courts. Any judge or justice who is so appointed or who retires before the Bills are brought into operation will retain his existing pension rights.
Turning to the Supplemental Provisions Bill, which is a complicated measure of 56 sections and eight Schedules, I trust that the explanatory memorandum which has been circulated will be of assistance to Deputies, particularly when we come to examine the Bill on Committee Stage. The object of the Bill is to regulate, pursuant to Article 36 of the Constitution, various matters affecting the new courts and the judges and justices thereof. In general, this is being done by the application of the enactments governing the existing courts, with whatever modifications are necessary, but in some cases—notably in regard to the jurisdiction of the Circuit Court —the existing enactments cannot be conveniently applied and new comprehensive provisions have had to be incorporated. The system of applying existing enactments, while convenient, has several obvious disadvantages, and I am hoping that when this legislation has been passed work will be resumed on a measure to consolidate all the various enactments relating to the courts. It is contemplated that the consolidation measure will replace the Act which will result from this Bill, so that all the enactments dealing with the courts of justice (other than the fundamental provisions relating to their establishment and constitution) will be set out in one comprehensive statute.
On this stage of the Bill I propose to confine myself to its more important provisions. The first of these is provided for in Section 7 of the Bill and deals with the number of judges of the Supreme Court who should determine an appeal or other matter cognisable by that Court. Under the provisions of the Constitution, the Supreme Court must consist of not less than five judges to decide on the incapacity of the President or on the constitutionality of a Bill referred to the court by the President. In other cases, the statute law governing the existing Supreme Court permits a court of three, four or five judges, so that a court of three or four may even decide whether a provision in an Act of the Oireachtas is repugnant to the Constitution. It will be generally agreed that it is undesirable that a court of final appeal should sit with less than five judges. If it should sit with three judges, it is possible that the views of two judges—a minority of the full court of five—would decide the issue. And if it should sit as a court of four, there is the risk of an even division of opinion.
In such a case the decision of the court below prevails but the successful litigant does not get the costs of the appeal. In the past there have been cases of courts of three and four deciding on constitutional issues and at least one case where a court of three adjourned to have the arguments considered by a court of five. In this situation the Government considered it proper to propose an amendment to the law, in Section 7 of the Bill, which would prevent a matter being determined by a Supreme Court of four judges unless the parties agree. While it would be desirable to have all matters determined by a Supreme Court of five, there would be practical difficulties in giving effect to this and accordingly the section recognises that a court of three may sometimes be necessary.
Next I should like to refer to the new office of President of the District Court provided for in the Establishment and Constitution Bill. For some time past consideration has been given to the need for improving arrangements for the prompt and efficient discharge of the work of the district court and the Government have come to the conclusion, as a result of their examination of the question, that it would be desirable to have a judicial person who would co-ordinate generally the work of the district court and who would deal with complaints regarding unpunctuality in commencing courts or the cancellation of courts without sufficient reason or sufficient notice. In the country areas at least there is scope for efforts to keep justices abreast of current High Court decisions, to ensure some rough uniformity in decisions and penalties and to improve efficiency and punctuality. In the Dublin Metropolitan District experience of the operation of the system of three separate divisions, each in charge of a principal justice, which was introduced by the 1946 Act, suggests that placing responsibility for the allocation of the business of that Court on one person would be a more efficient arrangement.
Against this background the Government decided that it would be in the public interest and in the interests of the better administration of justice that a district justice should be appointed President of the District Court and be given sufficient powers to enable him to achieve the desired objects. The district court is the court to which most of our citizens have to resort to secure justice or before which they must appear to answer complaints. In an average year the district court deals with over a quarter million cases and the Government feel they have a serious responsibility to ensure that these courts are managed efficiently and give the best possible service to the general public.
Generally, it is true to say that almost all the district justices have set a very high standard in the way in which they deal with the business before them. Their courts commence punctually and, if a court has to be cancelled, the earliest possible notice is given to litigants to avoid inconvenience to them. Unfortunately, from time to time there have been some justices who fail to maintain any reasonable standards of punctuality and who show a persistent lack of consideration to litigants when cancelling courts without giving reasonable notice of their intention to do so. This has given rise to unfavourable comment both inside and outside the House.
Last year on the Estimates for my Department and again this year on a Supplementary Estimate for the District Court the failure of some justices to hold courts was raised by the Leader of the Opposition. I have confirmed that over the past few years there were particular justices who showed an unusually high proportion of courts not held. In one case the proportion was as high as 32%. I consider I would be failing in my duty to the public and to all the justices whose conduct in this respect is beyond reproach if I did not bring to the notice of justices my concern at the failure of some of them to observe reasonable standards of timekeeping and regularity in holding their courts.
I have in fact done this but I would have preferred to have been able to utilise the machinery now being provided in the Bill, that is to say, to bring the facts to the notice of the President of the District Court who is being charged with the duty of ensuring the prompt and efficient discharge of the business of the court. It would be a matter for the President then to take the necessary action, either informally or by way of the inquiry provided for in paragraph (a) of subsection (2) of Section 36. From every point of view it is more desirable that a judicial person should undertake the task of improving judicial standards. I want to emphasise again that it is in relation to only a small minority of justices that complaints about unpunctuality and cancellations of the appointed courts are made but of course the actions of that minority do disproportionate damage to the good reputation of justices as a body.
Equally as important as the President's powers of inquiry will be those for securing as far as practicable general uniformity of practice and procedure in the administration of justice and the standards to be adopted in fixing the amount of penalties. The Bill authorities him to convene meetings of justices periodically to discuss matters of this kind. Some time ago, there was evidence of public disquiet at what appeared to be a serious lack of uniformity between district justices in dealing with habitual offenders, notably in what seemed to be the overuse of the Probation of Offenders Act.
When I investigated the matter I was made very conscious of the difficulties of bringing to the notice of justices generally the bad effect on the standing of the Court brought about by lack of uniformity. I found that there was no machinery available. Now, under the provisions of sub-] section (3) of Section 36 the justices will be able to discuss these matters among themselves. There is no question of interfering with the freedom of individual justices to award the penalties they consider appropriate to teh particular circumstances of each case; but the justices will have the benefit of the views and experience of other justices at these discussions and can, if they wish, take them into account when exercising their jurisdiction subsequently. Careful consideration has been given to the question of the constitutionality of this provision and I have been advised that it is not in any way contrary to the Constitution.
Apart from the statutory responsibility being given to the President for the prompt and efficient discharge of Districts Court work in the State as a whole, he is being made responsible, in particular, for the distribution of business among the justices of the Dublin Metropolitan District and for determining the class of business to be transacted in the various sittings in that District. The present three Divisions of the Dublin Metropolitan Justices are being abolished, but the existing Principal Justices of Divisions will hold posts as Principal Justices of the Dublin Metropolitan District and will be consulted by the President of the District Court before he arranges for the distribution of business. There will be no change in the present arrangements in accordance with which the places and times of sittings in country districts are determined by the Minister for Justice, but he will now be obliged to consult the President beforehand. The President will be consulted also in the event of the Minster determining the number of days in each week on which Dublin Metropolitan Justices shall normally sit.
If the idea of a Presodent has been good for the Circuit Court and the High and Supreme Courts it should be good, in greater degree, for the District Court where, owing to the large number of Justices and the diversity of the work, judicial leadership is needed to co-ordinate the work of the Court and so secure as far as practicable uniformity of practice and procedure in the administration of justice without interfering with the discretion of the individual justice.
A new kind of jurisdiction over justices is being vested in the President of the High Court by subsection (4) of Section 10 of the Bill. This sub-section empowers the President to interview a justice privately whenever he is of opinion that the justice's conduct in the execution of his office is such as to bring the adminstration of justice into disrepute. It is designed for the type of case where the formal inquiry by a High Court or Supreme Court judge provided for in Section 21 of the Courts of Justice (District Court) Act, 1946, would not be called for or would not be the best or most appropriate procedure. The view has always been taken—and I think rightly taken—that the elaborate machinery of the 1946 Act should not be set in motion by the Minster for justice unless the allegations against the justice, if proved, would make it necessary for the Minster to move in the Oireachtas for the justice's removal from office. The result has been that there is no redress available to the public or their representatives in less serious cases where, for example, offensive statements are made gratuitously by justices in regard to individuals or organisations or in relation to the legislation passed by the Oireachtas. All that is needed, the Government feels, is for some judicial person of the necessary standing to advise the justice or justices concerned to conform to the standards of behavious followed by their colleagues in the execution of their office. I have little doubt that the friction which has been created from time to time—fortunately not very often—between justices and the public will be reduced, if not entirely eliminated, by the influence which the President will exercise on the conduct of justices generally.
The opportunity presented by this Bill has been availed of to make a number of other amendments in the present law. Section 26 contains a provision requiring at least seven days' notice to be given of an application by an accused person or by the Attorney General to have a trial transferred from the Circuit Criminal Court to the Central Criminal Court. Since 1924 an accused person has had an absolute right to have his trial transferred to the Central Criminal Court if he were charged with an offence the maximum penalty for which exceeded one year's imprisonment or five years' penal servitude. This provision enabled an accused person who felt that he could not get a fair trial from a local jury to have the trail transferred to the CEntral Criminal Court which has always sat in Dublin. Since the passing of the Criminal Justice Act of 1951, however, the necessity for transferring trials to Dublin has diminished as Section 19 of that Act empowers the circuit Judge to transfer a criminal trial from one place in the circuit to another, if he was of opinion that a fair trail could not be obtained in the former venue.
I say that the necessity has diminished rather than ceased because even a change of venue within a circuit may not be sufficient in some cases to enable an impartial trial to be obtained. For this reason, it is not proposed that this right of an accused person should be taken away. The Bill does aim. however, at going a little of the way towards removing some of the abuses to which this provision has given rise. Cases have been transferred, it has been said, for no better reason than to secure an adhournment which had been properly refused, or to suit counsel, or because the accused wanted to postpone the evil day. The abuse is particularly noticeable in Dublin because jurors for the Dublin Circuit Criminal Court and the Central Criminal court are drawn from the same jury book so that an accused in Dublin has not the excuse of a country accused that by applying for a transfer he can avoid having to appear before a local jury. As a result, the intention of the Oireachtas that the Circuit Court should deal with all criminal matters except murder and such serious offences is being nullified and much of the time of the High Court is being needlessly taken up with criminal trials which are proper to the Circuit Court. In addition a great deal of unnecessary expense and inconvenience is being caused to witnesses and jurors who have to be present at the Circuit Criminal Court, there being no provision for prior notice of an application to have the trial transferred; and the period spent by accused persons in custody before trial is being unnecessarily prolonged. Notwithstanding that a strong case could be made for drastically curtailing the accused's rights of applying for a transfer, particularly in Dublin, I am aware from the views expressed in this House when the matter was discussed on the 1953 Courts of Justice Bill that any such proposal would not be generally approved and accordingly Section 26 is confined to providing that the accused or the Attorney General should be required to give at least seven days' notice of intention to apply for a transfer to the Central Criminal Court.
Section 45 provides that Judges and Justices are to be addressed in court in the Irish forms. Under the present law the mode of address of Judges and Justices is left to be determined by rules of court. The rules of the Superior Courts and of the Circuit Court permit the use of "my lord" or of the Irish equivalent. The rules of the District Court authorise only the English title "Justice." I think that most people will agree that we have arrived at a stage when we should cease using terms such as "lord" in the Courts and instead use the Irish forms of address as we have been accustomed to do for so long here in Dáil Éireann when addressing the Ceann Comhairle. The Courts, Judges and Justices have also been styled in Irish in the Establishment and Constitution Bill.
Before concluding, I should like to mention two other amendments proposed by the Bill. The first of these, which is contained in Section 47, provides that judgement debts due on circuit court judgments will carry interest in the same way as judgement debts due on the judgements of superior courts. This provision will apply to proceedings by or against a State authority. The second amendment is contained in Section 52 and has the effect of extending to all proceedings whatsoever (other than the preliminary investigation of an indictable offence) the power of a Justice to state a case for the High Court on a point of law. The extension applies both to an appeal by way of case stated, i.e. a case stated which is applied for after the Justice has made a determination in the proceedings, and to a consultative case stated, i.e. a case stated by the Justice in the course of the proceedings either on application or of his own motion. Under the present law, contained in the Summary Jurisdiction Act, 1857, appeals by way of case stated can be made only in respect of a determination by a Justice of an information or complaint. There is thus no power to have an appeal by way of case stated from any other decision of a Justice, e.g., a decision in a licensing case, such as there has been in Britain since 1879. As regards consultative cases stated, doubts have been expressed as to whether such a case may be stated in a licensing matter and the proposed amendment will remove these doubts. Section 52 also provides for the suspension of any determination made by a Justice on an application being made for a case stated.
I have said so much about the Supplemental Provisions Bill that I may have tended to obscure the fundamental character of the Establishment and Constitution Bill. The courts we have had since the struggle for independence began—both the Dáil Courts and those subsequently set up—have served us well and have always commanded respect. They have fully proved themselves to be what the Constitution intended them to be—Zealous protectors of individual liberty and of the other fundamental rights guaranteed by that Constitution. It is true that, happily, they have been able to operate in relatively stable conditions since the Constitution came into force but I believe that the very existence of independent courts, always prepared to vindicate the citizens' fundamental rights, ahs been an important factor in contributing to the measure of stability we have enjoyed. This is the appropriate occasion for paying a tribute to the existing courts and I am sure all parties in the House will join with me in doing so. I am confident that the new courts will continue to discharge their constitutional responsibilities in the same manner and thus maintain and even increase the respect in which the existing courts have always been held by the community.
I commend both Bills to the House and ask that they be given a Second Reading.