Before we move from section 21 should like to make two points, one is peripheral to the question of jurisdiction and the other relates to the whole question of financial ceilings in the Bill and my plea for index-linking. The Circuit Court, which is under discussion, deals with claims between £250 and £2,000. The £2,000 jurisdiction was conferred in October 1971 and it represented an increase then of £600. There is no argument about the need to increase jurisdiction at least in line with inflation which, as the Minister knows better than I, is soaring all the time. At present it is at an all time high. This is the most efficient and productive tier of the court system but, in case the Minister might take refuge and solace from this as a way of pushing through his desire to foist extra jurisdiction in this regard without giving the facilities to do it, it should be said that there are a number of reasons why it operates the way it does. In general, the standard of judges at this level is very high and cases can be and are heard within a short time. That is not necessarily the case at all levels. It is possible to have one's case in the Circuit Court heard within two or three months of the cause of action arising. There is no backlog as such at present.
However, that is achieved only by extraordinary dedication by a number of judges. Outside Dublin it is a norm for judges to sit from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. or 9 p.m. As was stated, it is nearly as demanding as the work of a Dáil Deputy. Certainly, it is very exacting. Fair credit goes to the judges who make that possible. While this is commendable in eliminating delays it cannot reasonably be suggested that litigants whose cases come on for hearing at 7.30 or 8.30 in the evening receive as fresh and as alert a hearing as those who are called earlier in the day. The question of the length of adjudication is something that should be considered in this regard. Perhaps, what is for some people a normal working day is too great in areas where one is dealing with extremely sensitive matters affecting fundamentally the future and the lives of many people. In other words, if there is to be a discussion in this respect we should err on the side of caution in asking judges to work fewer, in terms of courtroom hours, rather than greater hours but that is not the case.
In fact, the Circuit Court is packed to capacity and the £2,000 limit is obviously inadequate. This inadequacy means that in cases of a road accident where there are not personal injuries if one of the cars involved is new, the claim is likely to exceed the jurisdiction of the Circuit Court. Obviously, that is absurd. There is a need for a change in the jurisdiction I do not wish that to be obscured but there is no point in asking people who are already working to capacity to do something extra. All that would happen would be that we would have people with nervous breakdowns and the concept and principle of justice would be done a genuine injury. I put it to the Minister that any proposal to increase jurisdiction — this applies throughout the Bill — must take account of the fact that the Circuit Court is already working to capacity.
If there is to be any jurisdictional increase — this is the kernel of the matter — it must be matched by an increase in the number of judges and staff. It would not involve any substantial drain on the Exchequer as the court staff is already available. The question then is how great the jurisdictional increase should be. The increase proposed in the Bill is of such a scale that it represents a very substantial increase in real terms in the Circuit Court jurisdiction. In other words, there is more in the section than merely up-dating with inflation; it means a very real increase in jurisdiction. Some of the increases in jurisdiction will be dealt with in other sections and we will be disagreeing with the Minister in regard to them.
An argument in favour must be presented in terms of decentralisation. In principle that would certainly seem acceptable but it can and may give rise to practical difficulties. If the Circuit Court jurisdiction limit is increased to the limit proposed it will mean that quite substantial personal injuries actions will be heard before the Circuit Court. That means that litigants with substantial personal injuries would be deprived of a right to a jury trial, an important issue in a democracy. Just as serious is the difficulty they are likely to experience in arranging for the attendance of witnesses. It is the normal practice in cases of significant personal injuries that the court has the assistance of expert witnesses. Naturally enough when dealing with serious injuries one needs the assistance of a doctor, a psychiatrist or whatever professional assistance is necessary at the time of the trial. It is not unusual to have a general practitioner and two or three more specialists giving evidence on behalf of each party, for example. Naturally, the same specialists tend to be required to give evidence in a large number of cases. At present that does not give rise to any problems because all these personal injury actions are listed for the High Court. That means that for the bulk of the year the court goes out on circuit to Galway, Limerick and Cork and that facilitates the attendance of expert witnesses, medical and otherwise.
If the proposed increase goes through one could define the situation where, for example, a plastic surgeon might on the same day be required to give evidence of his treatment in Castlebar, Skiberreen, Monaghan and, perhaps, Roscommon. The clashes of commitments that must inevitably arise for professional witnesses will result in major delays. Has the Minister thought about this? In relation to the operation of the Circuit Court's criminal jurisdiction, one difficulty should also be mentioned. An accused has the fundamental right to a trial by jury and I hope that anything any Government may do will not impact detrimentally on that right. However, the legislature has realised that there may be cases when obtaining an independent and impartial jury may cause difficulty. That has been recognised in a number of ways. Obvious examples would involve allegations of violent rape or some type of agrarian dispute where there were strong local feelings.
In these cases an accused might complain that he would not be given a fair trial in an area in which the offence was alleged to have been committed. The prosecution might face similar difficulties in border counties in prosecuting smuggling offences, for example. Both sides have a right, on seven days' notice, to apply to have the hearing of their case transferred to the Central Criminal Court. I would not argue as to the possibility of there being some degree of abuse in this procedure of accused persons seeking to transfer, not because they fear the existence of prejudice on the part of a jury, but because they are aware of and disapprove of the sentencing policy of the Circuit Court judge. However, that is a matter which can be dealt with in another way.
I am asking whether there is a danger, now that we are going to make inroads on this very fundamental right, perhaps by way of a nod and agreement, of the situation being abused but that this is a way out. I suggest to the Minister that he think again in this respect because if there is abuse there is another way of dealing with it. Arguably, I could suggest that the absolute right to transfer be abolished and that instead both the accused and the State be given the right to have cases transferred for a cause shown, but what I am concerned about here is not the thinking behind the increase in jurisdiction but the very serious effect and implications involved.
I would refer briefly to the question of financial limits. It is nonsensical that this House must occupy itself, as happens regularly, on the fixing of financial limits in Bills, sometimes even on the introduction of whole new legislation to deal with financial limits that were fixed years ago and which are totally out of date, whether they be in the area of general fining policy or in the area of sanctions for specific offences. In the case before us it has taken years for the relevant Bill to reach the House. If the new limits are agreed, they will become outdated immediately because of the rapid rise in inflation, a situation that shows no signs of diminishing. Unless we agree to index-linking the limits now, there will be varying standards of justice because the £100 fine or the £2,000 fine of today is worth more than it will be worth in six months' time and it is worth a good deal more than it will be worth in two years' time. In some cases the Minister has taken power, by way of ministerial order to increase the limits, but the problem is that this is very new and has not been used widely.
In the legislation with which I am familiar, there is always argument in this regard. This is a matter which should never be the basis for substantive debate in this House or for new legislation as has been the case up to now. Why not build in a provision for index-linking the fines or the values of any financial limits in this Bill with current economic indicators which would increase automatically thereby endeavouring to ensure that what is justice for one person today is justice for another tomorrow or next year or at any other time? Surely that is merely commonsence instead of having a situation in which there is a good time to be fined and a bad time to be fined. The situation has become so ludicrous that it is no longer worthwhile for the Garda to take people to court. This is particularly true of fines in respect of litter offences. The same applies so far as the planning laws are concerned. The financial sanctions are irrelevant.