I agree with the unanimous view of the House in relation to this Bill. The Law Reform Commission made many proposals and, in some instances, the Government have gone further than the commission. Most litigants will be broadly in favour of the Bill and I am sure the same applies in relation to district justices, Circuit Court judges and the High and Supreme Court judges. There may be a viewpoint that members of the legal profession may not be totally in favour of the Bill because higher costs are paid in the Circuit Court than in the District Court. The same applies to the High Court in relation to the Circuit Court. However, I am sure the vast majority of solicitors and barristers will be in favour of this Bill.
In extending the jurisdiction a number of points should be looked at. Up to now District Court cases have had a jurisdiction of £2,500 which is now being extended to £5,000. In a District Court, if there is a running down action, some justices require you to have an engineer to prove your case and a doctor to confirm your medical report. However, in some instances district justices are reluctant to authorise the payment of fees to an engineer for attending court. If the plaintiff is successful in his action and succeeds in getting an award, the engineer who gave evidence gets a very reduced fee for attending court, preparing maps and all the other work involved. The fee is deducted from the award or, alternatively, the solicitor pays it from his costs. It is an unsatisfactory situation. Everybody wants to have goodwill at the conclusion of a case and it is in everybody's interests that a proper schedule of fees is laid down for doctors producing medical reports, court attendance and so on. There should also be a proper scale of fees in relation to engineers for the preparation of maps, photographs and attendance in court to give a professional opinion. There should also be a reasonable level of remuneration for a solicitor for looking after cases, which should apply at all levels of the District Court.
Similarly, in the Circuit Court there are difficulties in obtaining fees for professional witnesses coming from different parts of the country. There should be a review in relation to the level of fees paid to professionals required to attend court. Sooner rather than later overall agreement will have to be reached whereby written medical reports will be accepted in the courts. One cannot direct a judge how to run and administer a case but the Law Reform Commission should examine this matter closely to see if medical reports could be accepted without doctors attending personally. Doctors are very careful in relation to what they write in medical reports and their professional opinions are often backed up by their practices. A medical report should be accepted and if there is a counter argument by a doctor on the other side both reports should be furnished to the judge for examination. It is an area in which there could be quite a saving on costs for insurance companies and people involved in court cases.
The increases in jurisdiction are necessary. With the drop in monetary values — to which Deputy Hillery referred — such changes and extensions make sense. It is proposed to increase the number of judges, which is important.
I should like to make suggestions in regard to the small claims court. I am very much in favour of the small claims courts whose jurisdiction is less than £500. Those courts deal with cases relating to household equipment, electrical equipment and items of that nature. When the Minister's colleague, Deputy Geoghegan-Quinn, was Minister of State at the Department of Industry and Commerce many years ago I was spokesman on consumer affairs and I recommended the setting up of small claims courts. Their establishment was a welcome development.
I would ask the Minister to consider bringing minor offences, which are nevertheless important, under the jurisdiction of the small claims courts — for example, failure to pay a television licence. I attend court occasionally and see long lists of people being brought before the court for failure to pay television licences. In 90 per cent of the cases these people are on low incomes and simply cannot afford the licence, but television is educational and is essential for their children. It can take up to an hour to hear these cases in the District Court. An effort should be made to see if it is possible to have them heard in the small claims court.
As regards road traffic offences, such as failure to hold a driving licence, failure to pay parking tickets and so on, consideration should be given to whether it is possible to move these cases from the District Court to the small claims court. My understanding is that the small claims court deals with civil cases. Offences relating to television licences, driving licences and motor tax come under the criminal law because a jail sentence can be imposed on people who commit these offences. Overall the matter should be examined to see if these cases can be heard in the small claims court.
At present there are inordinate delays in hearing cases at all levels — in the District Court, Circuit Court and High Court. I will give some facts about the present court delays. In the High Court, from the date of setting the case to the date of hearing, delays were reduced from two years to ten or 12 months but of late the time span has increased again to about 18 months. That is a long time for somebody to have to wait to have their case heard. As bad as the position is in Dublin, Galway and Kilkenny, it is much the worse in Cork. In Cork cases set down in 1988 are still awaiting trial and are not likely to be heard this year and a delay of more than three years between the setting down of cases and the hearing of those cases in the High Court.
For example, a man with a wife and family to support who has been seriously injured suffers the trauma of having a High Court case hanging over his head for up to four years. During that time medical bills run high, the person may be let go from work and may be receiving payment from a health board or social welfare. It is grossly unfair that, in our administration of justice, people have to wait up to four years to have their cases heard. That is intolerable and something must be done about it. It has a most serious impact on the less well off people, people on low incomes, people with families and young people living alone in flats. It is very important that this matter be examined.
The Circuit Court is functioning reasonably well. Most judges make every effort to complete the list of cases each day, and that is important. Judges, barristers, solicitors and professional witnesses do not worry about going to court but for an ordinary person it is probably the first and only time they will be in a court and it is a very worrying time for them. Some people may disagree but in many instances it causes as much concern to these people as if they were going for an operation. I have talked to people who have told me about their concern and worry in this regard. Many judges appreciate the concerns of these people and try to complete the list of cases each day. The Circuit Courts down the country who set out a list of cases for the week try to complete that list but, nevertheless, there is a backlog of cases in many Circuit Courts.
Overall these courts deal with their business in a reasonably expeditious manner, but expedition is not all that counts in the administration of justice. Our courts must be seen to be fair. People must feel there is a sense of fair play and that justice is administered in an equitable, reasonable and courteous manner.
The District Court could be called the engine room of our courts. I will give some figures on the level of cases heard in the District Court. There are 46 district justices around the country. In 1987, 721,701 cases were heard in the District Courts; in 1988, 729,239 cases and in 1989, 710,084 cases. It is incredible that such a high number of cases are heard in these courts. Some changes have been made as regards the issuing of revenue licences for pubs, and that will reduce the level of work for District Courts.
On occasion people are critical of decisions arrived at by district justices. It is incumbent on people in this House to go and see the working of the District Courts. In the past, journalists attended these courts and became well known for their work there. Indeed, some district justices became equally famous. The reporting of these cases brought home to people the problems of the workings of the District Court. The publicity generated at that time did a lot of good for the administration of justice. Some District Court justices realised the importance of what they were doing. Overall the publicity that was generated was of benefit to everybody.
The number of cases demonstrates the stresses and strains on the District Court. It may be necessary to determine ways in which that workload may be further expanded to accommodate people and try to ensure that cases are given more time. The district courts should not be regarded as conveyor belts on which justice is administered in a rubberstamp fashion. That is not what the district justices or any of the Judiciary want. In general, they are conscientious people and, in common with everyone else, at times they suffer from blood pressure, concern and exhaustion. They try to act in a reasonable, fair and diligent manner but they operate under a great deal of pressure.
The pressure is particularly heavy in the large urban centres where the major crime occurs, where the major problems are experienced and where the major social deprivation exists. The increased jurisdiction to the District Court will increase the workload of that court.
I shall outline the way in which ordinary district courts in rural towns and larger provincial towns operate. All cases are called for 10.30 a.m. or 11 a.m., whichever time is preferred in a particular sitting area. On any one sitting day the court might have to deal with such diverse matters as family law, civil law, television licence cases, cases involving indictable offences, applications for auctioneers' licences, for gaming licences, for lottery licences and for salmon and trout dealers' licences. Such cases would be called along with criminal cases. There would be indictable cases in regard to criminal business and in regard to civil business there would be eviction procedures and so on. The list of the various kinds of business dealt with by a district court is so long that it would take quite some time to go through.
I am concerned that all cases to be heard on any day are called for the starting time. We have heard much about the Government's anxiety to cut expenditure. One simple way to cut expenditure in the courts would be to separate the hearing of civil cases and family law cases on one day and the hearing of criminal business cases on another day. At present all cases are called for the one time, and some district justices hear family law cases first while other district justices hear them last.
When a family law case is heard before other cases it is particularly hard on the husband and wife — indeed, on everyone involved — that when they go to court on a particular morning the place is full and everyone in the locality has confirmation that the couple have a problem. The lack of privacy is unsatisfactory. It is also difficult for families when such cases are heard after all other business. The husband, the wife and perhaps the children and other family members are all at the court from the beginning of the day, and they are seen at the court. In provincial towns many people attend court sessions. These may include people who are out of work, elderly people who want something to do and so on. In a small town it becomes well known that a couple have a problem. Family law cases are supposed to be private, that is why they are held in camera. Therefore, they should not be heard on the same day as ordinary cases. There could even be a special time fixed for family law cases to be heard. That would not be a simple procedure to implement, but it is important.
I have been in courts and seen gardaí waiting for one, two or three hours to give evidence. There is often in attendance a superintendent or two, perhaps a garda inspector, four or five Garda sergeants and 40 or 50 gardaí, some of them being paid overtime. They all sit in court through the hearing of civil cases. People could be arguing about a car crash, about the price of an animal, about an alleged trespass offence or some other matter. All those members of the Garda Síochána have to sit and wait until their case comes up. That issue needs to be examined. The expenditure involved in having so many members of the Garda Síochána waiting for cases to be heard is extravagant. It is a waste of scarce public money. A solution to that problem needs to be found at the earliest possible opportunity.
That problem applies mainly to the District Court but it applies also to the Circuit Court. A comprehensive review should be carried out by the Department in co-operation with District Court clerks, county registrars, members of the legal profession and the Garda Síochána. The setting up of a small committee to review the system would be beneficial to everybody and would make for a vast saving of funds. I cannot see any difficulty in that regard, and the Judiciary of the District Court, the Circuit Court and the High Court would be very much in favour of such a proposal.
The provision in the Bill for the serving of summonses by post is one I completely accept. However, that service would have to be by registered post, otherwise it would not be wise or safe to introduce it. For instance, a problem that could arise would be people denying receiving the correspondence. Deputy Barnes said it would be essential to make summons service by post by way of registered mail so that no one could deny receiving the correspondence. I go along with that.
I note that a new Bill is being prepared in relation to the legal profession. It is important to have new legislation in that regard. I am confident that the Bill will be welcomed by the legal profession. I trust that whatever reform the Government put forward will be the subject of consultation and agreement. Ongoing consultation would be required in that respect.
We should move slowly in relation to changes concerning the Bar and proposals of the Restrictive Trade Practices Commission. The Bar Council are well able to make their own case so I shall not make it for them. Deputy Kitt made several points in that regard this morning and described the issue reasonably well. However, the matter is not quite as simple as the Deputy put it — engaging the services of a barrister is not quite as easy as hailing a taxi. Most solicitors' practices have at their disposal a number of barristers who brief them on a regular basis. Goodwill builds up between both parties. In celebrated cases in the past members of the Bar have acted for people without receiving fees or payment of any kind. In every profession there is a large percentage of people who are involved for monetary gain. However, there are excellent people in the legal profession who are prepared to act for litigants they feel have a genuine case. I am not aware of anybody in Ireland to date that had a case they wanted heard in court who has been deprived of access to the court for want of finance.
We have civil legal aid and I am not trying to score a political point when I say that it is badly funded, because no Government in this State has funded civil legal aid sufficiently. Funding is inadequate and there are major problems. To make changes in the Law Library and in the solicitors profession without having some type of civil legal aid in place would be very unwise and could do a lot of damage. I would, therefore, ask the Minister to be very careful about moving along those lines. That is all I have to say on that; it will be debated again.
I am happy with the proposal to increase the weekly amount for maintenance from £100 to £200. The child allowance increase from £30 to £60 is also welcome.
I have spoken about our courts in general. One of the main problems at present is overwork in the District Court and that must be looked at. While looking at the courts we cannot ignore the situation in regard to crime. A number of people have dealt with this. People working for the papers in general have no particular political leanings. They are doing a job on behalf of society. The same is true of people working on radio and television. They too are carrying out a function on behalf of society.
However, it is not too often that two of our national leading newspapers are in total agreement on any subject. The headline in yesterday's Evening Herald referred to our “revolving door” jails while the heading on the Evening Press was “Jail My Son Widow Pleads”. On “Radio 2” this morning Gerry Ryan spoke about crime in Ireland. The Star newspaper is also carrying out a review of crime. I am not politically motivated in making this point. I am putting this forward in the interests of everybody in Ireland.
We cannot be complacent about what is happening. Crime is one of the most important issues affecting us all. In a case before District Justice James McDonnell the mother of a boy said that the courts had given him "a licence to steal" by not putting him away in an appropriate detention centre. She said bag snatchers like her son "always seem to pick on defenceless women as the easiest prey". He will be charged with 60 handbag snatches from women motorists in the Summerhill area and 65 gardaí will have to attend to give evidence. It is serious that any boy would be involved in that level of crime. What is more serious is that he was released on bail yesterday. To go a stage further, District Justice James McDonnell said he had no option but to release him on bail as Trinity House was full. That is serious.
This morning on "Morning Ireland" I heard the Prison Officers' Association spokesperson, Mr. Dennis McGrath, speaking about the "revolving door" jails. There are 300 people signing on each week at our prisons. That is a serious matter because people do not get sent to jail for simple offences. In general people sent to jail have committed the most serious crimes. There are roughly 300 people signing on at our jails on a weekly basis. That should concern everybody because these people whose crimes range from road traffic offences to burglary, joy-riding and assault, are the very people who are holding communities to ransom and who terrorise estates on a nightly basis. That is not something that can be ignored. It is very serious and we have to take cognisance of it.
It was reported in yesterday's Evening Press also that 150 people had fled a besieged Limerick housing estate. Can you imagine in Ireland today people having to flee their homes because they are being terrorised? This is Ireland 1991. This is no time for complacency. It is a time for urgent attention to this matter. When one councillor was asked for a solution he said that the Army should be brought in to take control. That is dangerous talk. I would be concerned about that. The Army is an aid to civil power; it is a last resort. If this situation is not tackled there is a potential danger which I do not need to spell out. The facts speak for themselves.
Up to 1983 there was an increase in crime. Between 1983 and 1988 there was a decline. In 1988 and again in 1989 there was an increase and the provisional figures for 1990 will show a further increase. There were 257 house break-ins in Shankill last year and 135 house break-ins have taken place in Shankill in the first three months of this year. I hope the Garda will be able to take action in that specific case.
On the "Gerry Ryan Show" this morning a number of honest people rang up. One was Mary, a widow whose house was broken into. Since that time when she goes into a room in the house she locks the door of the room behind her. This woman felt that the trauma of the break-in would affect her for life. The next woman who rang up had been in bed when a man opened the door and walked in with a pal who did considerable damage downstairs. They loaded her electrical equipment and her jewellery into their car and they stole her car from outside of the front door. This woman believed she would have been able to identify the youth but she said that a garda told her that if she went ahead with the case, the robbers would be back again. Another lady said that when her house had been robbed and damaged, she not alone moved house but moved out of the city.
These trends are very worrying especially when one considers that 150 people have fled from a besieged Limerick housing estate according to yesterday evening's paper. A woman from Carlow described how a man with a hammer walked into her house and robbed her. This man was caught and convicted and got a three month custodial sentence, but he was the only one who was caught and sentenced. In all of the other cases outlined the people were not caught and punished.
I do not advocate heavy sentencing, or locking people up and throwing away the key, but something must be done to tackle this worrying problem. The situation is particularly bad in Limerick and in Dublin.
When talking to a taxi-man of about 60 years of age I was told that the man's house was like Fort Knox and that he is afraid to walk the streets or open his hall door at night. This man has been a taxi driver in Dublin for 36 years and he is not given to exaggeration. He said that in all his years he has never seen anything like the situation in Dublin at present.
It is important to examine policy with regard to custody and sentencing. District Justice Hubert Wine has been on the bench for a long time. He has experience and is not given to exaggeration either. He is a level headed man. District justices, in general, do not like to make pronouncements from the bench. They prefer a quite life. When District Justice Wine was dealing with a 13 year old youth now appearing on 36 charges, the youth tried to escape but was recaptured by a garda, having narrowly escaped injuries, having run into the path of a passing car when trying to escape. The boy was being charged with stealing two ladies' handbags at a break-in at Loughlinstown Health Centre and at a house in Ballybrack. According to the Irish Independent of 31 May:
It was as District Justice Hubert Wine was remanding the accused and urging the Government to get down to providing a place of detention for juvenile delinquents, that the youth bolted from the court.
Justice Wine went on to say:
Last week in this court I made an appeal to the Ministers involved, which I thought was constructive because of my belief that the authorities have absolutely no idea of the magnitude of what is involved in this shocking problem of juvenile delinquency.
The justice then went on to say that he had not received one word in reply, that all he had asked was simply that the Minister should draft a letter to every court to ascertain the magnitude of what is involved. Has there been a communication with District Justice Wine in this matter since then?
If this "revolving door" policy exists it has to stop. The real danger is that the situation will get totally out of hand. I welcome the setting up of the crime committee yesterday, but on its own it is not sufficient. We must provide the requisite number of Garda Síochána to tackle the spate of crime. We must provide the necessary detention centres and the backup facilities in our District Courts. There is a small fire burning at the moment but the fire is getting worse. It is a very dangerous fire that will get out of hand unless it is tackled.
The courts have to be equitable and use common sense. The elderly people living alone must be protected, families must be protected and people walking the streets must be protected. It is up to the Government to make sure that the necessary resources are provided to resolve the problem.
Prior to 1986, assaults on gardaí were regarded as serious crimes and were indictable offences. The Director of Public Prosecutions at the time decided that assaults on gardaí which did not result in actual harm should be treated as ordinary common assault. Any assault on a garda should be treated as serious and should be indictable as distinct from common law assault. This matter should be re-examined. I trust the Minister will consider the points I have made as they relate to matters of the utmost importance.
Will the Minister give the House information about the money being spent on the present system? I understand that there has been a decline in expenditure on our prisons. I am not certain about this and I should like the Minister to clarify the position in this regard. Members of the Garda Síochána, justices and people in general are demanding that criminals who continue to commit crimes on a regular basis should be placed in detention centres. It is essential that this is done and I ask the Minister to give this matter his full attention. I welcome the Bill.