I welcome the Bill. I see it as a minimal reform in a couple of areas which need to be tackled. In the context of the enforcement of debts, the provisions contained in the Bill are translating into statute what has been happening in practice for some time in the District Court. It is welcome so far as it makes the enforcement of debts easier and requires fewer court applications to be made. I feel that in dealing with that issue, as we do in relation to other issues, we are tinkering with problems and are not really coming to terms with the basic structural problems relating to our court system and, in particular, in relation to the type of problems that come before the District Court.
I do not believe anybody could have any valid objection to the reforms provided for in this Bill relating to the examination of a debtor in relation to his means and the amendments made to the Enforcement of Court Orders Act. We are in fact tinkering with a system which takes considerable time in operation and does not necessarily meet modern needs. To take up the line that my colleague, Deputy Molony, was developing, whenever elections are about to take place there are two reforms in the context of courts, particularly the District Court, that everybody is massively in favour of. One is the provision of family courts — I will come back to them in a moment — which Deputy Molony and other Deputies referred to and the other is the provision of small claims courts to deal with the non-payment of small debts or where consumers have problems in relation to purchases valued £50 or £100 and seek to enforce their rights against shopkeepers.
We lack a traditional tribunal system which enables people to litigate their problems where necessary, resolve them by a judicial official making a decision between two contesting parties in a way which does not incur a great deal of expense and in a way which takes the minimum of time. My view is that the whole area of small debts should be taken out entirely from District Court jurisdiction, and we should provide small claims courts like those that have been provided in other countries and have been successfully provided in a number of states in the United States. The reason always given for not doing this is that, if we provide a small claims tribunal or a small claims court, it will be massively expensive and increase public expenditure over and beyond what it currently is, particularly in relation to the administration of justice.
That is a fallacious argument because nobody knows how wasteful the current court structure is. District Courts are overburdened with increasing work and, in many cases, archaic procedures which give rise not merely to expenditure in the context of public expenditure but which frequently give rise to unnecessary expenditure by having to employ lawyers to make simple court applications. The person who brings any civil action in the District Court for the enforcement of a debt or proceedings in relation to consumer goods without being represented by a lawyer is at a distinct disadvantage and is extremely unlikely to succeed. We need to look at a way of minimising the financial impact not merely on public expenditure but on the individuals concerned who need some judicial figure to resolve simple disputes relating to small debts. We do not have that, I can recall Government and Opposition election manifestoes going back to 1977 talking about small claims courts. Everybody repeated it again in 1981. We did not have time to repeat it in February 1982, but we certainly got round to it in November 1982. These are fine sounding things at election time but they are never really translated into reality in this House.
Deputy Molony made the point, which is worth repeating, that the legal profession deserve to be criticised for all sorts of reasons on occasion, but a portion of the criticism directed at the legal profession is the fault of this House. It is the fault of politicians and legislators, who are unwilling to reform laws and legal structures, and then they blame the lawyers who have to administer those structures for the faults contained in them. I am saying that as someone who has been fairly critical over the years of certain aspects of the legal profession, albeit I am a member of that profession. Nevertheless, they provide great targets for Members of this House to throw missiles at. If Members of this House got on with reforming basic legal structures, court systems and updating legislation they would alleviate many of the current problems that relate to the administration of justice. In the context of the enforcement of debts procedures at the moment, the whole procedure whereby the sheriff can distrain goods, the whole operation of the city and county sheriff in various parts of the country needs to be examined. That system is not working and usually it does not recoup money due to people on foot of court judgments. Serious questions must be asked as to whether it is worth retaining at all.
I always fail to understand why when we discover ways of resolving problems in one area we do not try to translate them into another. In the context of talking about judgments in relation to small sums of money obtained in the District Court that are not paid and where there is difficulty in enforcement, I have always found it curious that we cannot provide for a system of attachment of earnings to require people to comply with court judgments in the same way that we provide a system of attachment of earnings in the family law area. Take the case of a person who has a judgment registered against him or her for £100, £150 or £200. There are elaborate proceedings provided for applications to be made for examination of the debtor's means and for the courts to make an instalment order. Possibly that instalment order is not paid and the only thing that can then be done then is to make an application to have that person imprisoned. Instead of that could there not be a process, if somebody is in employment, for the courts to make an attachment of earnings order, in the same way they can do in relation to maintenance proceedings, to require that an employer deduct by instalments a portion of the sum due under a court judgment and pay this money directly to the courts who then pass it on to the person entitled to the money. That would seem to me to be a relatively simple procedure which could be implemented.
Deputy Molony talked about the District Court facilities. It should be said that many district justices have to tolerate, in trying to administer justice, facilities that render it virtually impossible for them to perform their functions. In sensitive areas of law, such as family law, as they operate in the District Court, the type of court facility provided creates major difficulties and greatly exacerbates the problems of the people concerned. The other problem in this area is simply not a problem of court facilities but of the inadequacy of the law as it applies in the District Court. Perhaps the Minister would use this Bill to reform other aspects of the District Court jurisdiction that need to be dealt with and that would require relatively simple amendments. I wish to refer in particular to the area of family law and difficulties being experienced in this area in the District Court jurisdiction on the basis presumably that such matters will continue to be dealt with in the District Court.
The Courts Act, 1981, which was introduced by Fianna Fáil extended the District Court jurisdiction in the area of family law matters. It is ironic that Deputy Hyland should express concern about the capacity of the District Court to deal with some of these matters, though I would share some of that concern, in the light of the fact that Fianna Fáil in Government extended the court jurisdiction in this area. There are a number of problems arising currently in this regard but there is one in particular which I should like to draw to the attention of the Minister and his Department. This relates to the powers vested in the District Court to determine court proceedings under the Guardianship of Infants Act, 1964, to make custody orders in relation to children and to grant access orders in respect of children.
If I am wrong the Minister may correct me at a later stage but it appears to me that if the District Court makes a custody order or an access order or any other order under the Guardianship of Infants Act and that if the husband and wife in respect of whom the proceedings are heard or either of them fails to comply with the order there is no means within the District Court of enforcing the order. In my legal experience I have not had occasion to bring applications of this kind but such cases do arise. The situation is different in either the Circuit Court or the High Court because if orders made by either of those courts are not complied with the mechanism of contempt of court may be invoked. Apparently that mechanism cannot be applied in the District Court, so if that represents a lacuna in the system I urge the Minister to give it consideration so that an appropriate amendment could be made to this Bill.
I wish to deal also with another issue to which I shall be devoting much more time later during the debate on the children legislation which will be before us tomorrow and presumably next week or the following week. The District Court deals currently with a large number of court cases relating both to the care of children and to children who come into contact with the criminal law. There are special sittings of the courts, in particular the Dublin Metropolitan Children's Court in which many of the child offenders are dealt with and in which also care proceedings are brought. In dealing with care proceedings before those courts, the courts on occasion will require back-up assistance and this is provided by the various health boards and sometimes by the court welfare service.
It may not be appropriate to explore this matter on this Bill but I am asking the Minister to consider legislation to amend and expand the powers of the probation service, to turn it into a statutory welfare service as opposed to simply calling it a welfare service. It is really a probation service. I have made this request on every occasion on which the opportunity has presented itself since I spoke here first in 1981. The probation service should provide background reports to the courts dealing both with cases of children and of family law. In many family law cases district justices rely on the probation service for the provision of back-up reports or for some assistance from social workers in dealing with couples experiencing marital difficulties. Very often family law cases are adjourned to allow for the provision of such reports. The problem is that the probation and welfare service has no statutory responsibility in this area. It is extraordinary that this service has provided a service to the courts on and off and I emphasise, "on and off" because on occasions the service is so stretched as to be incapable of providing the type of service reqired or can only provide it unevenly. The service is not available in all district courts throughout the country. It is provided occasionally in some of them and more regularly in Dublin.
Regularly we voice our theoretical compassion and concern in respect of these areas of law but with about 2,000 family law cases being dealt with eachyear in our District Court system, it is extraordinary that we do not provide the basic back-up service to district justices to enable them to obtain welfare reports in respect of children who are the subject of custody disputes, or that there is the inability to obtain welfare and social work reports in respect of couples who are experiencing marital difficulties and who seek the protection of the court.
In the criminal area the probation service would have formal statutory involvement. It is time we stopped talking about these matters and did something to rectify them. In the context of family law as such, there is one very simple amendment I would ask the Minister to bring before the House. This is the first Courts Bill to be before the House since 1981. The Act passed then increased the financial jurisdiction of the District Court in respect of family law cases from £50 to £100 per week in respect of the maintenance of a spouse and from £15 to £30 per week in respect of a child.
Money has devalued greatly in the meantime and I presume we will not have another courts Bills for some time. Therefore, would it not make a great deal of sense at this point to extend the financial powers of the District Court in relation to maintenance orders? In order to avoid the financial limits of maintenance orders being eroded too quickly, I suggest that the courts be empowered to order maintenance of anything up to £200 per week for the support of a spouse and up to £75 or £100 per week in respect of a child. In many instances orders of that nature would not be made because the necessary financial means would not be available to the paying spouse. We should not force people into the Circuit Court to get maintenance orders. For example, wives may require £120 a week for support and if they want to get something beyond the District Court maximum they must to into the Circuit Court. There may be difficulty getting access to circuit courts outside of city areas. It could be once every four or five months that one would have the possibility of getting into those courts to make an application. It is a more expensive exercise than going into the District Court.
I ask the Minister to amend the financial jurisdiction to deal with maintenance orders for spouses, maintenance orders for children and affiliation orders. The maximum order an unmarried mother can get from the father of the child for its support is £30 a week in the District Court. Some weeks ago a colleague of mine asked if unmarried mothers could get affiliation payments or have the fathers of their children contribute towards their support. It seemed that my colleague and the Minister answering the question were oblivious of the fact that since 1931 the District Court has had jurisdiction to make affiliation orders but the maximum amount an unmarried mother can obtain at present is £30 a week in the District Court. In the Circuit Court there is no financial limitation but, for the sake of minimising the legal expenses and for the sake of speed in getting into court the District Court jurisdiction should be extended and people should not be forced to go into the Circuit Court. I see no reason why the financial limit should not be increased. It is four years since it was increased and it would make sense to deal with it in this Bill.
There has been talk about the need to change the structures and to revitalise the legal system. They are all fine-sounding phrases but we never seem to get down to the specifics of what we are talking about. Deputy Molony paid tribute to the work done by district justices. Anyone who observes what takes place in the District Court can only marvel at the diversity of legal problems that a justice might have to deal with on any one day stretching from family law cases to criminal law cases, to consumer law cases, to rental disputes. There is a whole panoply of law that comes before the District Court and more law cases come before them than before any other division of our court system.
It is amazing that the system functions at all because, with the best will in the world, no lawyer in practice can be an expert in all areas of law. The vast majority of District Court justices were solicitors before they became justices. An increasing number of solicitors are specialising in particular areas of law and may be expert in labour law or family law or conveyancing law but there are few solicitors who would acknowledge that they have legal expertise in all areas of law. Despite that, what happens in the context of appointments to the District Court? Since the foundation of the State the practice has been that if a vacancy occurs an appointment is made by the person who is being appointed being told one day: "You are being made a district justice" and the following morning that person can be required to go anywhere from Skibbereen to Dundalk, to Dublin, to Tralee, and sit in a district court. The morning after an appointment a solicitor who might have had nothing but a conveyancing practice suddenly finds he is elevated to the position of district justice and has to sit on a bench in a district court in some far flung corner of the country and adjudicate in all areas of law which he or she may never have practised in as a solicitor.