I move: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time".
The Bill provides for increases in the civil jurisdictions of the Circuit Court and the District Court. It also provides for a number of other important matters relating to the courts such as giving the courts power to award deserted wives and the mothers of illegitimate children substantially greater allowances than at present, extending the right of audience of solicitors to all courts, giving district justices power to arrange for the speedy disposal of certain urgent cases of summary jurisdiction and improved arrangements for the service of court documents.
The present monetary limits on the civil jurisdiction of the Circuit and District Courts have with minor exceptions been in operation since 1953 when the original limits as fixed by the Courts of Justice Act, 1924, were increased under the Courts of Justice Act, 1953; the increases were made mainly to compensate for the decline in the value of money. The Committee on Court Practice and Procedure reported on the question of increasing the jurisdiction of both courts in their Fifth Interim Report submitted in 1966. The committee unanimously recommended that the civil jurisdiction limits be increased not alone to allow for the fall in the value of money since 1953 but, in view of the desirability of leaving the monetary levels of jurisdiction undisturbed for a reasonable period, to provide for the contingency of continuing inflationary trends over the next 20 years. The committee recommended, unanimously in regard to the Circuit Court and by a majority in regard to the District Court, that there be, in addition, real or basic increases in jurisdiction. The various levels of jurisdiction recommended by the committee and the present levels are set out in paragraph 2 of the Explanatory Memorandum to the Bill as introduced in the Seanad.
The Government accepted the view that new levels of civil jurisdiction should be conferred on the Circuit and District Courts which would represent a real addition to the monetary limits as well as compensating for past and future inflationary trends.
Taking all factors into consideration, the Government were satisfied that the most appropriate levels of jurisdiction would be, in the case of the Circuit Court, a jurisdiction of £2,000 in contract and tort and of £5,000 in equity and, in the case of the District Court, a jurisdiction of £250 in contract and tort. Both courts are fully competent to undertake the proposed new civil jurisdictions; they already have large criminal jurisdictions and these are not, of course, affected by the Bill.
The effect of introducing the new jurisdictions will be that a wide range of actions which would otherwise be heard in a higher court will now be capable of being heard in a lower court. This will be to the benefit of the public in a number of ways. Litigation will be less expensive because costs in the lower court will be less and, in addition, because of the decentralisation of the administration of justice savings in travelling and other expenses of litigants and witnesses will be achieved. Litigation will also be more convenient because of the greater number of actions which will be tried locally. The Bill will help to bring the costs of proceedings more into line with the amount recovered in the courts having jurisdiction. At present many actions where the amount involved is quite small have to be tried in the High Court, because of the very restrictive limit of jurisdiction on the Circuit Court and the costs in the High Court could be out of all proportion to the amount involved.
The Bill provides that the new jurisdictions shall not come into operation until 1st March, 1972; this is to enable the various Rules Committees to introduce new rules of court on such matters as costs,et cetera, which will be necessary as a result of the increased jurisdictions.
I pass now to the provisions in the Bill in regard to maintenance and affiliation allowances. The Bill provides in sections 18 and 19 for the introduction of new arrangements for the determination of these allowances in the fairest possible manner, that is, by direct reference to financial means of the parties concerned. At present the maximum amount which the District Court may order a husband who has deserted his wife to pay is £4 a week and there is no provision for additional payments for the maintenance of any children of the marriage. The maximum allowance which the court may order the putative father of an illegitimate child to pay is £1 a week. These amounts were fixed by Acts of 1940 and 1930 respectively and they have now become quite unrealistic. The Bill proposes to empower the District Court to order a husband who has deserted his wife to pay up to £15 a week for her maintenance depending on his means and on any means the wife may have. In addition it is proposed to empower the District Court to order the husband to pay up to £5 a week for the maintenance of each child of the marriage under 16 years of age.
With regard to the maintenance of an illegitimate child, the Bill proposes to empower the District Court to order the putative father to pay a weekly sum of up to £5 again depending on the means of the father. Provision is also made in the Bill for the conferring of concurring jurisdiction on the High Court but without financial limits both in maintenance and affiliation cases.
Section 17 of the Bill makes provision for the extension of the right of audience of solicitors to all courts in the land. At present solicitors have a right of audience in the District Court and the Circuit Court but, with minor exceptions such as the Bankruptcy Court, they have no right of audience in the superior courts. The provision if enacted will put solicitors on an equal footing with members of the Bar as regards right of audience and will go some way towards removal of the rigid division which exists in the legal profession. I might add that the principle of a right of audience for solicitors in all courts has been supported by a recent recommendation of the Committee on Court Practice and Procedure.
The next section in the Bill to which I should like to refer is section 15. This section provides special procedures enabling a justice to deal promptly with urgent cases of summary jurisdiction such as prosecutions in connection with foot and mouth disease where speed is of the essence. As sittings of the District Court are held in many rural areas only once per month and as justices do not, at present, have power to hold special sittings to deal with such urgent summary cases there may be a delay of several weeks before these cases are brought to trial. This difficulty will be eliminated by the enactment of the proposed provision.
The provision in the Bill in relation to the service of court documents by registered post are contained in sections 22 and 23. Under section 22 a wider range of District Court documents will be capable of being served by post. Under the existing law only documents initiating proceedings and witness summonses can be served by post. It is desirable that documents such as instalment orders, maintenance orders, affiliation orders and summonses under the School Attendance Acts shall also be capable of being served by registered post and provision is made accordingly. The section also provides for the assignment by the county registrar of summons servers to specific areas in a county and in respect of specified documents. This provision will resolve doubts as to the interpretation of section 7 of the Courts Act, 1964.
The provisions in section 23 which relates to the service of superior court documents have two main aims, first, a far greater use of the postal service for effecting service and, secondly, the removal of the requirement for a solicitor conducting litigation in the superior courts to have a place of business within a radial distance of two miles from the Four Courts and for a personal litigant to have an address for service within the same radial distance. The provisions follow recommendations made by the Committee on Court Practice and Procedure in the Eighth Interim Report with the exception that the committee recommended service by ordinary post. However, the Government considered that the more formal procedure of service by registered post would be preferable for a start at any rate.
Some of the remaining provisions in the Bill call for brief comment. Section 6 provides for the abolition of the right to jury in civil actions in the Circuit Court. This right is very rarely exercised as all appeals from the Circuit Court in civil actions, whether tried by jury or not, are by way of complete rehearing before a judge of the High Court without a jury. The proposal is supported by a recommendation of the Committee on Court Practice and Procedure in their Third Interim Report.
Section 13 declares the District Court to be a court of record. This is merely stating in statutory form what is, in fact, the present position. Section 21 of the Courts (Supplemental Provisions) Act, 1961, makes a similar declaration in regard to the Circuit Court.
It is provided in section 14 that the only evidence of a decision of the District Court shall be an order of the justice. This will put the District Court on the same footing as the Circuit Court. At present full particulars of the decision in every case in the District Court are entered in a minute book at the time of hearing. Apart from this procedure being time-consuming, it often results in perfectly good decisions of the court being upset because of minor textual errors which inevitably arise because of the need to enter the particulars hurriedly. The proposal has been strongly recommended to me by the District Court Rules Committee.
Section 21 provides that either the District Court or the Circuit Court may transfer any civil proceedings to the appropriate higher tribunal. At present this power is available only to the Circuit Court. The need for extending the power to the District Court arises from the fact that in proceedings involving a number of wrongdoers the plaintiff may be suing for damages within the jurisdiction of the District Court whereas there may be a counterclaim for an amount which would be outside the jurisdiction of the District Court. The object of the Civil Liability Act, 1961, is that the liability of all parties to an action should be determined in the one action.
The last section to which I should like to refer is section 20. The section will enable a parent to apply to the court for a legitimacy declaration; under the law at present the application must be made by the child. The section also provides that all such applications shall be heard in chambers. This will avoid embarrassment to the parties concerned and unnecessary publicity.
Before concluding I should like, on my own behalf and on behalf of the Government, to thank the members of the Committee on Court Practice and Procedure for the exceedingly valuable work which they have done and continue to do. Many of the provisions of this Bill were framed in the light of reports submitted by the committee. I hope to introduce further legislation over the next couple of years which will be concerned with other matters on which the committee have advised.
I trust that the Bill will meet with the approval of the House.