I move: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."
This is a very important Bill: it proposes substantial changes in the law affecting the jurisdiction of the courts and, consequently, the distribution of work as between these courts. It also rationalises the whole area of procedure for family law cases. Apart from these two main proposals, there are a number of other important procedural changes. The overall effect of these proposals will be to make a substantial improvement in the way in which the courts deal with all aspects of the civil law.
The primary aim of this Bill is to increase the civil jurisdiction of the District and Circuit Courts and to confer new jurisdiction on those courts in family law matters. In addition the Bill provides for a number of other important matters related to the courts. These are: provisions to bring the interest rate on judgment debts into line with the rates now generally available and to widen the application of this interest; to increase the maximum amount that can be awarded to relatives of the deceased in a fatal accident as compensation for mental distress; to amend and extend the law which limits a plaintiff's costs where he has taken proceedings in a court other than the lowest court having jurisdiction; and to permit the registration of District Court decrees. The Bill also makes some technical changes in the law relating to the Judiciary.
The limits of the civil jurisdictions of the District and Circuit Courts were fixed by the Courts of Justice Act, 1924, and were increased first in 1953, mainly to compensate for the fall in the value of money. They were again increased by the Courts Act, 1971, not alone to compensate for the fall in the value of money since 1953 but also to allow for future inflation and, in addition, to provide a basic increase in jurisdiction. Inflation has, naturally, severely eroded the real increases provided for in the 1971 Act and, consequently, soon after I came into office I asked the Committee on Court Practice and Procedure to examine this problem and make recommendations as to new levels of jurisdiction. The committee's recommendations are set out in their 20th Interim Report, which was laid before both Houses of the Oireachtas in December 1978. As Deputies will be aware, the majority report of the committee has recommended important changes in the jurisdictions of the District and Circuit Courts by way of substantial increases in the present monetary limits of jurisdiction and the conferring of new jurisdiction on those courts in family law matters. However, the monetary increases recommended in the majority report involve more than a cost of living adjustment. Part of the additional increase would be to anticipate future inflation but in part in reflects a substantial real increase in the jurisdiction of the lower courts. A similar approach is evident in the recommendations in family law matters which involve the conferring of new types of jurisdiction on the lower courts. The Government have accepted the recommendations of the majority report in principle, and this Bill is intended to implement those recommendations in the most effective way. In some respects the proposals in the Bill differ from the committee's recommendations and I shall explain why this is so when I come to the provision in question.
The Government are committed to making it easier for people—particularly the less well-off sections of the community—to achieve access to justice. One obvious way in which to bring legal remedies within the reach of people in lower income groups is to subsidise the cost of legal services to them. This is what the Civil Legal Aid Board were set up to do.
But there are other aspects to the question of access to justice apart from the financial one. The purely practical problems of leaving one's family and work and travelling to Dublin for a High Court hearing can sometimes make it impossible for a person to pursue his case, whether or not he qualifies for legal aid. The proposals in this Bill represent the second essential element in the Government's strategy for tackling the problem of access to justice. By increasing the existing jurisdictions of the lower courts and giving them new jurisdictions, these proposals allow a greater variety and quantity of cases to be taken in the lower courts, courts which are situated more conveniently throughout the country, thus saving travelling time for both litigants and witnesses.
This two-pronged approach to the problem—on the one hand, the subsidising of legal costs, and on the other, the effective reduction of these costs by increasing and extending the jurisdiction of the lower courts—should result in a significant contribution towards the provision of cheaper, speedier and more convenient access to the courts at local venues. The scheme of civil legal aid and advice is already well under way and once the proposals in this Bill come into effect, I am confident that we will have a much improved level of access to the redress of civil wrongs.
One practical effect of the broadening of the jurisdiction of the lower courts, as the minority report of the courts committee brought out, will be to empower them to deal with cases involving substantial legal issues which at present can be pursued only in the High Court. While cases taken in the lower courts—particularly in the District Court—will certainly be more substantial, I do not accept that this will necessarily have the effect of introducing more elaborate procedures in the District Court. Indeed, I am satisfied that the procedures can and must remain simple, thus preserving the District Court in particular as a forum where disputes can be brought to a speedy and just conclusion, with the minimum of formality and expense. I am also satisfied that the lower courts are fully competent to handle the more substantial issues both of law and of fact which will fall to be dealt with by them as a result of the proposals in this Bill.
Inevitably, another practical effect of these proposals is that steps will have to be taken as a matter of urgency to improve courthouse accommodation at a number of venues throughout the country, particularly at District Court level. Deputies will be aware, of course, that legal responsibility for courthouse accommodation around the country generally rests with the local authorities and that particular problems have arisen in a number of areas in this regard. However, a good deal of essential preparatory work in improving the situation has been done and I am glad to be able to tell Deputies that I have in preparation a set of proposals relating to courthouse accommodation which I will be putting to the Government in the near future.
The Bill is designed to enable contract and tort actions up to £2,500 to be taken in the District Court, and up to £15,000 in the Circuit Court. The committee's recommendation in relation to the Circuit Court was a limit of £10,000, but this was in the context of a limit of £1,000 on the amount that a court may award, under the Civil Liability Act, 1961, to the relatives of the deceased in a fatal accident as compensation for mental distress. Many of the cases that would normally fall to be tried in the Circuit Court would be concerned with fatal injuries and since there is another provision in this Bill, which did not emanate from the committee, to increase the maximum amount from £1,000 to £5,000, the Government decided on the higher figure of £15,000 for the general tort limit of jurisdiction. Also, in the Circuit Court, the existing personal property limit of £5,000 in equity cases is being done away with and the existing valuation limit on landed property in such cases is going up to £200. Limits on the other areas of jurisdiction which are traditionally linked with these limits are to be similarly increased.
The Bill proposes significant changes in relation to family law matters. Section 5 of the Bill confers jurisdiction in divorcea mensa et thoro on the Circuit Court. Proceedings of this type, more commonly called “judicial separation”, can be taken only in the High Court at present, and the procedure to be followed there is complicated. By vesting this jurisdiction in the Circuit Court, where simpler procedures can be provided and which is in any event more convenient, we are facilitating persons to avail themselves of the remedy which the law provides. It also proposes that the Circuit Court will have full jurisdiction under the Guardianship of Infants Act, 1964, the Family Law (Maintenance of Spouses and Children) Act, 1976, and the Illegitimate Children (Affiliation Orders) Act, 1930. The District Court's jurisdiction to make maintenance orders for children under these last two Acts is to be increased from £15 to £30 per week, and for spouses under the 1976 Act from £50 to £100 per week. The maximum barring order that the District Court may make is to be increased from three months to 12 months, and that court is to be given jurisdiction under the Guardianship Act for the first time.
These proposals follow the recommendations of the courts committee except in the case of barring orders and maintenance payments which did not come within the scope of the committee's inquiry. In addition the committee recommended that jurisdiction in custody matters under the Guardianship Act should be exercised only by the District Court whereas under the Bill this jurisdiction will be exercisable by both the District Court and the Circuit Court. I have, however, discussed this point with the Chairman of the committee and he is in agreement with what is in the Bill. One reason for the change is to allow a choice of court, and therefore usually a choice of venue, for people who might not wish to have the case heard locally.
A valuable effect of the new jurisdiction limits of the District and Circuit Courts will be to rationalise these limits generally so as to cater for the practicalities of the situation. Deputies will be aware that in family matters an application to court will often need to cover a number of remedies—a barring order, maintenance and the custody of children being the most common. It is important that a single court should be in a position to grant what one might call the appropriate package on one application. When the Bill becomes law it will be possible for the District Court to deal with all these remedies—excluding only a decree of divorcea mensa et thoro—even where the sums sought by way of maintenance are quite substantial. This should cater for the vast majority of cases. The Circuit Court will be enabled to grant the full package without exception or limitation.
There have been press reports of statements made by persons who profess to have the best interests of women and the family at heart, the burden of which is to castigate the family law proposals in this Bill as providing "justice on the cheap". Senator McGuinness is reported as being particularly critical of the proposal to give the District Court jurisdiction in relation to the custody of children, on the ground that the Government's motive in making this provision is solely to save expenditure under the civil legal aid scheme, which, she suggested, we were obliged to introduce as a result of the decision of the Court of Human Rights in the Airey case.
First of all, I should like to make it clear that Senator McGuinness is totally misinformed. The particular proposal referred to was recommended by the Committee on Court Practice and Procedure in their 20th Report long before either the Airey judgment was handed down or the civil legal aid scheme was published. This committee has as its chairman Mr. Justice Brian Walsh, the senior ordinary judge of the Supreme Court, and the majority report on which the proposals in this Bill are based was signed by the chairman, by the Presidents of the Circuit and District Courts, by Mr. B.P. McCormack and Mr. John Fitzpatrick, two eminent solicitors, by Dr. C. S. Andrews, by the late Dr. Juan Greene, by Mr. Kenneth O'Reilly-Hyland and by Mr. R.J. Law—all persons of the highest qualifications. It seems to me to be nonsense to imply that a body of persons so eminently qualified could have arrived at their recommendations without weighing fully the various issues involved. The committee saw definite advantages in making this change including the considerable advantage of litigation at local venues and the additional advantage of appeals by way of complete rehearing to the appropriate appellate jurisdiction instead of the present costly and time-consuming system of appeal to the Supreme Court. Of course, many litigants who are not concerned at all with legal aid will benefit from this change.
Secondly, the Airey judgment which deals with the State's obligation under the Convention of Human Rights to provide adequate access to the courts makes it quite clear that the State has a free choice of the means to be used towards this end; it recognises that adequate access may, in certain cases, be provided or made easier by simpler and less complex procedures and does not necessarily require legal aid in all cases.
For anyone to suggest, as has been reported, that questions of the guardianship and custody of children should be settled only in the High Court demonstrates a lack of awareness of the practical problems facing the two-thirds of our population living outside the Pale in leaving home and work for a journey to Dublin. How much more quick and convenient to have such issues settled at local venues, where in any event the law demands that they be heard privately, but where the procedures are less formal than in the High Court.
It is also an implication of the criticism levelled at these proposals that large sums must be expended on legal costs in order to obtain a just decision; another, more disturbing one, is that decisions of the lower courts are in some way suspect. Such an implied slight on the integrity and quality of the judiciary I must reject out of hand.
Finally, I should like to point out the absurdity of the suggestion which has been made that, because a satisfactory level of courthouse accommodation has been provided for family law cases in the High Court in Dublin, all such cases around the country should be brought in the High Court only. Leaving aside the question of inconvenience for litigants outside Dublin, it would clearly be neither possible nor appropriate to cater, even in the medium term, for all family law cases in the High Court in Dublin. It would certainly be out of the question in the long term. The simple fact of the matter is that where accommodation around the country for the lower courts is not satisfactory this is something which must be put right and I have already indicated what is being done in this regard. It would certainly not be a solution to this problem to take the business away from the local courts.
A policy inherent in many legal systems is that the law encourages litigants to make use of the lowest forum which has jurisdiction. This is obviously desirable from a social point of view since otherwise wealthy litigants would have an advantage over persons in dispute with them who were less well-off. The policy is given effect by the mechanism of requiring the courts in certain cases to limit costs awarded to a successful party — and generally speaking to limit them to the costs appropriate to the lower court which had jurisdiction. The principle of this type of limitation is already enshrined in section 12 of the Courts of Justice Act, 1936, which, however, applies only to certain types of proceedings in the High Court. Section 17 of this Bill extends this principle to all types of actions taken in any court other than the lowest court with jurisdiction to grant the relief given. However, a successful plaintiff will be entitled to the higher costs if the judge hearing the case certifies that it was reasonable in the interest of justice generally, owing to the exceptional nature of the proceedings or of any question of law involved, that the case should have been commenced in that court.
Before leaving the subject of the conferring of jurisdiction on the lower courts in matters which are now exclusively within the jurisdiction of the High Court, I should like to mention briefly the method by which the Bill proposes to achieve the transfer.
This is essentially a technical point which may be more appropriate for discussion on Committee Stage, but I should like to mention at this Stage that the Bill does not — as some other statutes have done in the past — confer concurrent jurisdiction on the High Court and lower courts. In most cases it simply vests jurisdiction in the particular matter concerned in the lower court. Of course, this does not affect the inherent or constitutional jurisdiction of the High Court which, as Deputies are aware, has — I quote from Art. 34 of the Constitution —"full original jurisdiction in and power to determine all matters and questions whether of law or fact, civil or criminal". There could of course be no question of removing such jurisdiction from the High Court but there is no need to preserve it in this Bill or otherwise to provide for it in statutory form.
In their tenth interim report, the Committee on Court Practice and Procedure made recommendations regarding the rate of interest payable on judgment debts. This rate has stood unchanged at 4 per cent per annum for the last 140 years and I am sure that Deputies will welcome the provision at section 19 of the Bill which increases it. As well as increasing the interest rate, this Bill extends its range of application in a number of ways. Firstly, Circuit Court costs and District Court decrees will, for the first time, qualify for interest. Secondly, the most important in my view, interest will be allowable at the discretion of the court on all or any part of a decree for all or any part of the period between the date that the cause of action arose and the date of judgment. This is a logical extension of the principle of interest on judgments, and one which will, I hope, result in a better and more just deal for injured parties who may have had to bear considerable expense out of their own resources while waiting for judgment in their favour.
The new rate of interest which the Bill provides was arrived at by averaging the Associated Banks' overdraft and deposit rates at the time the Bill was being prepared. As Deputies will be aware, the situation affecting bank interest rates has been somewhat volatile during the period of preparation of the Bill so that the figure of 15 per cent was already out of date when the text was circulated. The subsequent drop in interest rates makes it necessary to calculate the figure anew—just at the moment it would be 11 per cent. What I propose is that the matter be kept under continuous review in the course of proceedings on the Bill and that I would if necessary move a suitable amendment.
The Bill also provides that the rate of interest may be varied by ministerial order from time to time, but at intervals of not less than two years. The purpose of this provision is to ensure that the judgment debt rate will not in future become the totally unrealistic figure that it has hitherto been, but at the same time there will be an element of stability about the rate which will make the work of practitioners and court staff alike easier.
Sections 24 to 27 of the Bill extend to District Court decrees the same facilities for registration of decrees in the Central Office of the High Court and the Land Registry or Registry of Deeds as apply to High and Circuit Court decrees. These provisions are based on recommendations in the courts committee's fifth report. With the substantial increase now proposed in the District Court's jurisdiction, this is an appropriate opportunity to extend the registration facilities already available in the case of decrees of the higher courts. The application of the interest and registration provision to the District Court will act as further encouragements to litigants to bring cases in the lowest court having jurisdiction, where otherwise they might have been tempted to go higher in an effort to get the benefit of the facilities for securing payment and obtaining interest available in the higher courts.
For some time now, I have been considering the amount which may be awarded by a court to the relatives of the deceased in a fatal accident as compensation for mental distress. The Civil Liability Act, 1961, introduced the concept of this type of compensation and set the maximum amount at £1,000. That figure of course was never intended to be "compensation" in any true sense of the word — it was more in the nature of a gesture and that is how it has to be because-obviously no amount of mere money could compensate a family for the feelings of grief and distress at the loss of a loved one. Nevertheless I think Deputies will agree that the time has come for an increase. The Bill accordingly provides for a new maximum of £5,000. I have already spoken about the increase which is being made in the tort jurisdiction of the Circuit Court to take account of this.
The provision at section 18 of the Bill relates to the temporary discharge of the duties of the Presidents of the District and Circuit Courts. When the President of either court is unable to act, the existing law provides that his duties will be carried out by the senior judge of the Dublin Circuit or the senior justice of the Dublin Metropolitan District as appropriate. My attention was recently drawn to a situation where the President of the District Court and the senior justice of the Dublin Metropolitan District were both unwell, but because the law did not provide for any further substitution, the less ill of the two had to attend for duty. The provision in this Bill is designed to make sure that, in the case of the Presidencies of both the District and Circuit Courts, this sort of situation will not arise again, by providing that the senior Dublin justice or judge for the time being available will be empowered to deputise. As well as providing for the office-holder being unable to act, the section goes further and provides for a vacancy in either office of President.
There is another technical change being made in the law relating to the judiciary at section 29. The purpose of this provision is to enable the Chief Justice to sit as a judge of the High Court on Circuit without having been requested to do so by the President of the High Court. This provision is being made at the joint request of the Chief Justice and the President of the High Court.
The final section of the Bill provides that the provisions relating to the judiciary, increasing the judgment debt interest rate and increasing the maximum amount for compensation for mental distress, will come into effect as soon as the Bill is passed. Rules of Court are required to make the other provisions of the Bill fully operative, so I have provided for a six-month time-lag in bringing them into operation so as to give the rule-making bodies an opportunity to look after the necessary arrangements.
As I have said before, this is an important Bill: it represents a major step forward in improving the accessibility of the courts and in reducing the cost of obtaining legal redress. Deputies will have realised from what I have said that the Bill is in a very large measure based on recommendations of the Committee on Court Practice and Procedure.
The House will know that a number of other important recommendations of the committee have already been implemented, though there are some that still remain to be considered. It is therefore appropriate that I should take this opportunity once again to place on record our appreciation and gratitude for the outstanding work which the committee have done on this and on other occasions.
I commend the Bill to the House.