Courts Service (No. 2) Bill, 1997 [ Seanad ]: Second Stage.

I move: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time." There will be an acceptance on all sides of the House that this Bill will bring about the most fundamental and radical reform of the administration of our courts since the foundation of the State. It is a measure to which I have given priority as part of the extensive programme of law reform I have undertaken since my appointment as Minister.

There has been a recognition for some time that, no matter how well we had been served by our courts in the past, the administrative infrastructure was in need of extensive restructuring so that it would be well placed to cope with the ever changing demands being made upon it which in turn reflected changes in society generally. This Bill will lead to the changes that are necessary to bring about a forward looking courts service which will be as responsive as possible to the needs of its customers as we head into the new millennium.

It is particularly appropriate in a week that has seen the passing of one of our finest jurists, the late Mr. Justice Brian Walsh, that I take this opportunity to place on the record our appreciation of how well our Judiciary and the staff who have supported it through the years have served us. In this respect, I extend my deepest sympathy to the family of the late Mr. Justice Brian Walsh. He was blessed with a clear mind, a tremendous jurist, a great servant of this country and a patriot in the true sense.

On my appointment as Minister one of the features I found most welcome was the high level of enthusiasm on the part of the Judiciary and its staff for establishing the new modern courts service to which this Bill will lead. This level of commitment augurs well for the successful operation of the new agency.

It is right to recognise that significant improvements have taken place in recent times in the operation of our courts. These have resulted to a significant degree from the appointment of additional judges and support staff who have brought about dramatic decreases in delays which for too long were a regrettable feature of courts administration. That success serves to underline the need for providing an appropriate infrastructure for the courts to respond efficiently to the ever increasing and changing demands being made upon them.

The Government recognised at an early stage that parties involved directly with the courts and the general public are entitled to receive a quality service from the courts. This was the reason the Government gave the undertaking in its Action Programme for the Millennium to set up an independent courts service to manage the courts system more efficiently. I am pleased to bring before the House the legislation required to give effect to the undertaking in the action plan.

The purpose of the Bill is to provide for the establishment of an independent body which will be known as An tSeirbhís Chúirteanna or, in English, the Courts Service and which will generally assume my current functions in relation to the administration of the courts. The policy of the service will be determined by the board of the service and day to day management will be the responsibility of a chief executive who will be appointed by the board. The Bill, therefore, represents a significant move from the existing courts administrative structure. To ensure that the new measures are implemented as quickly as possible, provision has also been made for the establishment of a transitional board and the appointment of a chief executive designate with a view to preparing for the full establishment of the service.

I want to briefly remind the Deputies of the background to the development of these measures. At the end of 1995 the Working Group on a Courts Commission, chaired by Mrs. Justice Susan Denham, was established to review the operation and financing of the courts system and, in particular, to consider the matter of the establishment of a Commission on the Management of the Courts as an independent and permanent body with financial and management autonomy. The group's third report entitled "Towards the Courts Service" provided an outline of a legislative scheme to establish a courts service and this has served as the framework for the Courts Service Bill.

I took the opportunity in the Seanad, and wish to do so again here today, to pay tribute to Mrs. Justice Denham and the members of the working group who have invested, and continue to invest, a considerable amount of time and energy examining and reporting on the operation of key elements of the courts system. Their valuable work has provided a firm foundation for the legislative framework for the new Courts Service and I am sure the House will join me in giving due credit to Mrs. Justice Denham and the working group.

A further development I would like to mention with reference to the measures contained in the Bill concerns the changes which are taking place in the organisational structure of my Department. As Members will be aware, there is a significant ongoing programme of organisational change in the area for which I am responsible. Under the Strategic Management Initiative in my Department, the role of the Department is shifting decisively from the day to day provision of support services in various areas and concentrating on its core policy functions. This Bill is just one of the measures that arises against that background.

Fundamental to the development of these new services will be the retention by me of political accountability to the Oireachtas for the discharge by the new bodies of their functions. At the same time a key feature in the delivery of these services will be conferring full responsibility on the new agencies for the management of their respective services, including the achievement of agreed objectives, service levels and financial performance. This approach to political accountability and management responsibility is reflected in the provisions of the Courts Service Bill.

I turn now to the main provisions of the Bill. Section 4 is the pivotal provision as it brings an tSeirbhís Chúirteanna into existence on "the establishment day". That day will be appointed by order of the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform under section 3. However, section 1 and Part VIII provide for the establishment of the Courts Service Transitional Board one month after the passing of the Act.

Section 11 establishes the board of the Courts Service and provides for its membership in accordance with the recommendations of the working group on a Courts Commission. The board will have 17 members and will be widely representative, particularly of bodies or interests, having a direct functional relationship with the courts. This level of representation is appropriate and, indeed, necessary in a body which will be located at the top of the courts service structure and which will have responsibility for formulating the policy of the service. It is right that the Judiciary, staff of the service, practitioners and users of the courts, who have a very real interest in the future of the courts system, should be represented at the decision making level.

The Chief Justice and the Presidents of the High, Circuit and District Courts will be members of the board or will nominate another judge for that purpose. An ordinary judge of each of those courts will also be elected to the board by his or her judicial colleagues. A judge will also be nominated by the Chief Justice in respect of his or her expertise in a specific area. The other members of the board will be the chief executive, a practising barrister nominated by the Chairman of the Bar Council, a practising solicitor nominated by the President of the Law Society, a member of the staff of the Courts Service, an officer of the Minister, a person nominated by the Minister to represent consumers of the services provided by the courts, a person nominated by the Irish Congress of Trade Unions and a person nominated by the Minister with knowledge and experience of commerce, finance or administration after consultation with bodies representative of such interests.

The board will be chaired by the Chief Justice or his or her nominated replacement. Elected or nominated members will serve for a term of three years which will be renewable on re-election or renomination under section 12. The Minister will be entitled to remove, for stated reasons, a member of the board nominated by the Minister. The Minister must first consult the nominating person or body concerned in connection with the removal, for stated reasons, of members nominated by the President of the Law Society, the Chairman of the Bar Council or the Irish Congress of Trade Unions.

Under section 14, the board must meet at least once every three months and that section provides in a standard form for the procedures of the board. As regards the workings of the board, section 15 empowers it to establish committees which may comprise persons who are not members of the board but who have expertise relevant to the work of a committee. This flexibility would allow the board to examine in a specialised way particular aspects of court operations.

I stated earlier that the essential purpose of the Bill is to transfer the current functions of the Minister which relate to the courts to the Courts Service. This is reflected in section 5 of the Bill which draws out the broad parameters of the service's functions. The section provides for a general mandate to manage the courts, but it also provides that the service shall provide services for the judges, information and facilities to the public and courtroom accommodation.

I wish to highlight briefly the service's function of providing facilities for those who use the courts. The interface between our system of justice and the public is in the physical setting of courthouse facilities and conditions. These are of vital concern to members of the public such as victims of crime and family law litigants who come into contact with the courts. Considerable improvements have been made in this area, such as the opening last week of the new courthouse in Tallaght which I was especially pleased to perform, but it is essential that the process of the modernisation of courthouses be kept up to pace. I am confident the service will be fully aware of the need to target resources towards the provision of modern accommodation to meet the requirements of all court users.

Section 29 transfers functions from the Minister to the courts service with effect from the establishment day by adaptation of existing statutes which are set out in Schedule 2. The section provides that the Schedule can be augmented by way of an order made by the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform. The section also provides that any other statutory function relevant to the work of the service may be conferred on the service by a Government order. A significant series of provisions encompassed by Schedule 2 relates to powers to appoint certain officers or deputy officers of the courts and their direction in relation to matters of administration which the Bill confers on the service. The existing arrangements whereby the Government appoints the Master of the High Court, the taxing masters and the county registrars remain unaffected.

Section 6 confers powers generally on the service to enable it to perform its functions under the Act and certain powers are specifically mentioned, including the power to hold land and to enter into contracts and arrangements. The purpose of this section is to ensure that the new service will have the capacity to carry out its functions as effectively and efficiently as possible and I am satisfied that aspect is properly covered in the Bill.

Sections 13 and 20 deal respectively with the board's functions and those of the chief executive and they point up a key relationship within the overall framework of management of the courts service. Under section 13, the board will be responsible for the policy of the service and for overseeing the implementation by the chief executive of the board's policy. Section 20 provides that the chief executive's function will primarily be to manage and control on a day-to-day basis the business, administration and staff of the service. By virtue of section 20(2), the chief executive will be accountable to the board in the implementation by him or her of the board's policies and the performance generally of his or her functions, including all functions conferred on him or her under the Bill or by the board.

A central feature of the measures contained in the Bill is the establishment of clear lines of accountability and responsibility in the statutory framework for the courts service. Under the Bill full responsibility for the management of the courts system will be conferred on the courts service while political accountability for the activities of the service will continue to rest with the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform. In this context, however, I should make it clear that there could be no question of such accountability arising in relation to judicial decisions which are, of course, made completely independently under the Constitution, a fact which is underlined in section 9 of the Bill.

Section 8 requires the service to submit an annual report to the Minister of its activities and the Minister will lay that report before each House of the Oireachtas. The Minister will be in a position to direct that additional information be included in the annual report. The section also imposes a general requirement on the service, acting through the chief executive, to provide information to the Minister about the policy and activities of the service. It is vitally important to ensure the Minister and Government of the day as well as the Oireachtas have a clear insight into the way the service is operating.

The Bill provides additional steps to underpin the policy of ensuring the optimum level of accountability. Section 7 requires the service to submit three year strategic plans to the Minister for his or her approval following which the Minister is required to lay the plans before each House of the Oireachtas, with or without amendment. This requirement is based on corresponding provisions contained in the Public Service Management (No. 2) Act, 1997, and arises from the same policy objectives, that of enhancing the management and effectiveness of public services, in this case, in the area of the courts. The underlying principle of strategic management is to promote the provision of an excellent service to the public which ensures that resources are used in an effective and efficient way. I am satisfied those principles will be reflected in the operation of the service as a result of the obligation placed on it under section 7 to plan ahead strategically, not least due to the specific requirement that the strategic plans have regard to the need for the best use of the resources of the service.

I would like to draw the attention of the House to the provisions of section 7(2)(d) of the Bill which provides that the strategic plan of the courts service shall have regard to Government policy on promoting bilingualism. It requires in particular that regard be had to the need to ensure that an adequate number of staff of the service are competent to provide service in Irish as well as English. I explained to Senators that the purpose of the provision is to ensure that the board of the service will have the effective delivery of services through Irish on its agenda. The provision is a very significant and practical one which, I am satisfied, conveys the importance which I attach to the courts service being in a position to deal appropriately and effectively with people who wish to transact their business in Irish.

Supporting the efficiency and effectiveness criteria is section 13(2) of the Bill which, in the context of the discharge by the board of its functions, requires the board to have regard to the best use of the resources of the service, and any Government or ministerial policy or objective relating to the functions of the service. This section also enables the Minister to inform the board of any such policy or objective.

The Bill also provides for lines of direct accountability for the service to the Oireachtas. Under section 19, the chief executive of the service will be the accounting officer for the service and as such will appear before the Committee of Public Accounts. A wider general obligation on the chief executive to attend before an Oireachtas committee when so required by a committee to account for the general administration of the courts service, including its strategic plan, is contained in section 21. This section is based on the corresponding provisions of the Committees of the Houses of the Oireachtas (Compellability, Privileges, and Immunities of Witnesses) Act, 1997.

The Working Group's Fourth Report, The Chief Executive of the Courts Service, was published last year. That report provided a comprehensive framework for the role of the service's chief executive which is reflected in the provisions of the Bill. Section 17 provides that the chief executive will be appointed by the board and the appointee will, as I mentioned earlier, be the chief executive designate who will have been appointed by the transitional board. The terms of appointment of the chief executive will be fixed by contract, which will be renewable, on terms and conditions determined by the board and approved by the Minister with the consent of the Minister for Finance. The effect of section 18 is that the chief executive will not be subject to the provisions of the Civil Service Commissioners Act, 1956, and will not, therefore, be appointed as a civil servant.

The chief executive's role in the management of the service will be critically important. Perhaps the key component of this task will be the management by the chief executive of several hundred staff members who will become part of the Courts Service. To achieve this task, it is essential that the existing courts system, which is dispersed between several court offices and the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform, is brought together into a single cohesive structure.

The existing system which served us well in days gone by was not designed to meet the demands arising from the large volume and complexity of much of the business that is now coming before the courts. In that context, section 22 which declares that the service shall have a unified organisation and structure, is a critical reference point for the form the new service will take.

Section 23 provides that the board may appoint staff and determine their grades with the approval of the Minister and the consent of the Minister for Finance and staff of the service will have the status of civil servants of the State. That Civil Service designation is consistent with the role of the service which will be a statutory agency of the State, independent of the Government.

There are two main groups of Civil Service staff currently involved in the work of the courts. The first group — the vast majority of such staff — is located within the courts and it includes registrars, court clerks, clerical and many more grades of staff. Section 24 provides that such staff, who are specified in Schedule 1 to the Bill, will transfer to the Courts Service on the establishment day. The second group of relevant staff — staff of the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform engaged in functions relating to the administration of the courts — will transfer to the service by way of designation by order of the Minister. Designation of such staff will take place after consultation with organisations representing staff interests.

For all staff transferring to the Courts Service, section 25 provides that a lesser scale of pay or less beneficial terms and conditions of service than those applied prior to the transfer will not be imposed unless this is done in accordance with a collective agreement negotiated with recognised staff representatives. The procedure for varying scales of pay and terms and conditions of staff by the service will be by agreement of the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform and the Minister for Finance, following consultation with a recognised trade union or staff association concerned.

I take this opportunity to pay tribute to all court staff who have given such an excellent service over many years under the existing courts organisational structure. I know I can look forward to the continuation of that excellent service to the State under the new arrangements on which we are embarking. I also pay tribute to the role played by staff associations in the consultations which have taken place on the establishment of the service.

Section 31 provides that county registrars will be part of the Courts Service, but only in so far as their functions relating to the administration of their court offices are concerned. To this extent, county registrars will be responsible to the chief executive under the provisions of section 20(1). Deputies will be aware that county registrars also exercise a wide range of quasi-judicial functions which are expressly excluded from the effect of section 31 as this section is subject to the provisions of section 9. Section 9 protects the independence of judges in the exercise of judicial business and persons, such as the Master of the High Court or county registrars, exercising quasi-judicial functions from interference by the service, the board or the chief executive. Section 41 makes similar provision in respect of the transitional arrangements under the Bill. The Bill does not affect the non-court related functions of county registrars such as their duties as returning officers.

Local authorities are currently responsible for the provision of courthouses throughout the country in accordance with the provisions of the Courthouses (Provision and Maintenance) Act, 1935, with the exception of the Four Courts complex and a number of other venues in the Dublin area which are the responsibility of the Commissioners of Public Works. However, my Department took over financial responsibility for courthouses from local authorities in 1990. Consistent with the function of providing, managing and maintaining court buildings which the Bill confers on the service, section 26 provides for the vesting in the service of land which includes court buildings which are currently vested in or leased by local authorities or the commissioners. Under-pinning these provisions is a procedure for consultation with the local authority or the commissioners before the transfer of land to the service. Where a building is in mixed use, for instance, a county council office which also houses a courtroom, it will be necessary for the local authority to give written consent before the building may be transferred. While I have mentioned the Four Courts, I should make it clear that, exceptionally, I do not envisage the transfer of the Four Courts to the service under the vesting arrangements provided for under section 26. Given the unique history of the Four Courts and the significant place it holds in our heritage and culture, it would be appropriate that the service should lease these premises from the Commissioners of Public Works in an arrangement similar to the one in place with An Post in respect of the GPO.

Section 27 provides for the transfer from the Minister, the commissioners or a local authority to the service of property other than land used for court purposes. Section 28 provides for the transfer from the Minister to the service of all rights and liabilities under a contract or commitment relating to court functions.

Part VII makes provision for miscellaneous matters which require attention with a view to the establishment of the Courts Service. In line with a recommendation of the Mrs. Justice Denham working group, section 30 provides that the chief executive shall be a member of the court rules committees and this section provides for the delegation of his or her membership to a member of staff of the service.

Section 32 is a standard type provision disqualifying members of the board or of the staff of the service from serving as such once they become nominated as a member of Seanad Éireann, or elected as Members of either House of the Oireachtas or of the European Parliament.

In addition, steps have been taken under section 33 to maintain the exemption for courthouses from planning permission requirements under the Planning Acts.

Part VIII is concerned with the arrangements to be made in respect of the transitional board and the chief executive designate. The composition of the transitional board will, under section 38, be identical to that of the board of the service under section 11 with necessary modifications to enable a court staff representative and the chief executive designate to be members of the transitional board.

The appointment of a chief executive designate by the transitional board is dealt with in section 40. The transitional board will also, under section 39, have the broader function of preparing generally for the service taking on its court management functions. Section 43 provides for the dissolution of the transitional board on the establishment day.

A key purpose of the transitional arrangements is to provide a mechanism for putting a chief executive in place as quickly as possible in advance of the start-up of the service. The chief executive designate, who will be the first chief executive of the service, will work in partnership with the transitional board within the remit of its power to prepare the way generally in the run-up to the establishment of the service.

I am satisfied that the establishment of the Courts Service on the lines proposed in this Bill is the best way forward to ensuring that the administration of the courts is carried out with the greatest efficiency consistent with the provision of a quality service to the public.

I am happy to have had the opportunity to shape and advance the statutory framework for the establishment of the Courts Service. This Bill represents a landmark development for the administration of justice through the courts system in this State. I look forward to the debate on the Bill in this House. Deputies will no doubt recognise the very significant move forward for the courts system which the Bill represents and I am sure that they will want to contribute in relation to these far-reaching reforms. I look forward to hearing the views of Deputies.

I commend the Bill to the House.

(Mayo): I join the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform in paying well deserved tribute to the memory of the late Mr. Justice Brian Walsh, who was elevated to the bench to undertake a lustrous judicial career in the wake of a very spectacular, albeit short, career at the Bar. His passing represents a landmark in respect of achievement on the bench. Ar dheis Dé go raibh a anam.

On behalf of Fine Gael I welcome the introduction of this legislation, the foundations of which were firmly established by the previous Government. It had been clear for many years that the courts were operating under an antiquated structure whereby decisions of an organisational and administrative nature were made by the courts section of the Department of Justice. Everyone bemoaned the fact that delays were commonplace.

While we paid lip service to the underlying principle that justice delayed was justice denied, little happened in terms of reorganising the courts or appointing additional judges to ensure that justice would be done at the earliest opportunity. For example, civil cases were often delayed for nine to ten years until judgment was passed. However, thanks to the major allocation of resources by the previous Minister, Deputy Owen, court delays have been considerably reduced and diminished. Delays are now measured in weeks rather than months or years. Childrens' courts should enjoy a special place in the judicial system but there were also long, unexplained and unavoidable delays in these courts because resources were not allocated. However, they have now been given special emphasis and additional resources.

No tangible moves were made to address this situation until Deputy Owen, as Minister for Justice, established a Working Group on a Courts Commission under the chair of Mrs Justice Denham. I join with the Minister, as other Members will do, in paying tribute to Mrs. Justice Denhan and the other members of this group for their outstanding work. There can have been few other committees or working groups in the history of the State that accomplished so much in such an important area in so short a time. They approached their task in a highly structured and professional manner and produced several reports on the management of the courts system. The net result of their work is being debated today.

In its third report, the group set out the heads of a Bill which the Government has clearly found useful in drafting the legislation. However, it should also be stated that one of the major problems identified by the working group when it was first instituted was the long-standing problem of delay in the main courts. It is a tribute to the previous Government and its Minister for Justice, Deputy Owen, that it confronted this problem head-on and made many additional and badly needed judicial appointments to all of the courts. As stated earlier, the problem of delay has now been greatly alleviated and the steps taken to solve this problem allow us to approach the current legislation in a much more constructive and positive way than would otherwise have been the case.

The courts perform a vitally important role in society and it is crucially important that they be properly funded, serviced and organised. Among the more striking facts which emerged from the working group's first report is how much revenue — approximately £11 million — the courts generate annually and how relatively little they cost the Government to operate. Net expenditure on the courts for 1996 was estimated at £40 million which represents approximately 0.28 per cent of total Government expenditure. If the new courts service is given reasonable latitude in setting court fees for various kinds of cases, it should be possible for the courts to generate further income and become more cost effective.

In the past, many people, including judges, have remarked on the high level of court fees which can often impose considerable hardship on litigants. Often it is those people in most need of the protection of the courts who find it most difficult to afford the fees. Hopefully, one matter which the new service will examine as a matter of urgency is the feasibility of having a differential scale of fees for different kinds of litigation. A complex of fees for different kinds of litigation deserves closer scrutiny and examination. A complex commercial which is likely to occupy a good deal of court time should be the subject of higher fees than a family law case or a judicial review application on a pressing matter of considerable personal importance to the applicant.

From the draft legislation, I note that initiative and final decision on the setting of fees are retained by the Minister. I shall return to this on Committee Stage. However, in the interim, I ask the Minister to consider if some changes might be made in the proposed wording of section 6(2)(e). We are about to establish a new service consisting of highly specialised and experienced people. Now is the time to carry out such an examination and set down guidelines. Why should these people have to wait for a request from the Minister to recommend appropriate scales of court fees and charges?

I understand that there may be reasons for leaving the final decision on fees to the Minister who is an elected representative and a member of the Government which is responsible to the Dáil. However, I cannot understand why the initiative must come solely from him. There is nothing to be lost and much to be gained by allowing the courts service board, in addition to the Minister, to take the initiative in this regard.

The Bill, in keeping with the recommendations of the Denham committee, provides for the establishment of a courts service. More specifically, it provides for the establishment of a board to take responsibility for the operation of the service and for a chief executive who will be responsible to the board. It safeguards the independence of the Judiciary which is a vital hallmark of our judicial system. Section 11 sets out the membership of the courts service board which will operate under the chairmanship of the chief justice, or his or her nominee, and will consist mainly of judges, lawyers and a number of other individuals. It is vitally important that the court system should be seen to cater for all sectors of our society.

The courts are the great bulwark of protection for the individual against the unwarranted use of public or private power. For many people, the courts are the only available refuge from violence, abuse or injustice. In the past 20 years the family jurisdiction of the courts has increased enormously and continues to do so, particularly with the introduction of legislation to deal with marriage breakdown. Many people who are obliged to invoke this jurisdiction do so at a time when they are at their most sensitive and vulnerable and in most need of support. However, we have been repeatedly informed about the poor facilities in many courthouses where cases are being heard and where people are trying to engage in a process of consultation in respect of family litigation.

A number of courthouses have undergone considerable improvements in recent years. However, the conditions in many of them still leave much to be desired. There are many courthouse buildings in which people involved in cases, particularly those involving family law which are quite sensitive, are left waiting in cold, windswept corridors without any privacy or access to basic facilities. It is incredible that while we boast about the Celtic tiger and our progression as a modern democracy which has developed a highly sophisticated economy that is recognised as one of the prime manifestations of what a small economy can do in a relatively short time, consultations are still carried out on corridors and in corners. People with injuries have to show them to their legal advisers in full public view.

There is visible intimidation when witnesses are confronted by the people about whom they are about to give testimony in situations where they are literally within arm's length of each other and people have to speak in hushed tones because they do not have the dignity or right to physical accommodation in which to have adequate consultation. It is time we addressed this as a matter of urgency and put more resources into basic facilities in courthouses. It is crucial that we remove the "Houston City cattle mart" atmosphere prevalent in so many courthouses.

I am surprised that the composition of the board, as set out in section 11, the key section of this Bill, does not make provision for the inclusion of a person who would be in a position to offer special advice on the experience and the needs of persons involved in family law cases. I accept that paragraph (o) of section 11(1) provides for the appointment of "a person nominated by the Minister to represent consumers of the services provided by the courts". This could be a person who has a special knowledge of family law courts. However, as the section is written, he or she is not required to have such knowledge. The person could be someone familiar with commercial law, personal injuries law or criminal law. It would be a good thing to have a person on the board with experience in personal injuries litigation because this area, like others I have mentioned, is of great importance. It could also be helpful to the board to have a perspective from the insurance industry which picks up much of the tab for litigation. It seems strange, however, that, in a country governed by a Constitution which claims in Article 41 to provide such strong protection for the family, the Courts Service should make no special provision for a direct input from those who are at the receiving end of family court services. I am not talking here just about family law in the conventional sense, namely, cases involving marriage breakdown and child custody, though these alone are sufficiently important to justify the point I am making. What I am talking about is family law in cases involving physical and sexual abuse perpetrated within families, and similar matters. Most of the victims, and most of those worst affected by such violence and abuse, are women and children. However, there is no provision in this legislation to give either women or children any direct voice on the Courts Service board. I find this thoroughly surprising. The Courts Service board could end up with an entirely male membership presiding over a system that has such a profound impact on the lives and welfare of women and children.

Under this legislation, the Irish Congress of Trade Unions will have a statutory right to nominate a member to the Courts Service board. I have no objection to this. It is a good thing that workers should have representation, thus ensuring that those affected by the family law jurisdiction of the courts are guaranteed a seat at the table through an appropriately chosen representative.

I would go further and recommend also that a person to speak specifically on the experience of children going through courts, especially the Criminal Courts, should be on the board. This is sufficiently important to warrant special attention. It is accepted that boards and committees of this kind should not be overloaded with members. One of the points made in the Upper House was that 17 would be sufficient. Some limit should apply, but nobody could argue that one or two additions would make it unwieldy or over-burden the membership. The lack of proportion between the number of judges and lawyers on the one hand and lay members on the other should be sufficient justification for the Minister to review the membership provisions of section 11 of the Bill.

There are other matters which the Minister should seriously consider between now and Committee Stage. One of these is the question of information on the operation of the court system. Section 8 provides for the submission of an annual report by the board. I welcome this, just as I welcomed the opportunity to have full accountability from the Office of the Ombudsman. The annual report of the Office of the Ombudsman is one of the highlights of the perusal of the entire Civil Service and bureaucracy system and has given rise to quite a number of valuable recommendations. Above all, it has given an opportunity to Members of this forum to have an input and give their observations on the efficacy and bureaucracy of the Civil Service and the administration of schemes within the State.

In the context of section 8, a golden opportunity is being lost to deal with one of the greatest deficiencies in our legal system, namely, the lack of hard information. This is particularly evident in the criminal justice system, where statistical information is scattered, chaotic and incomplete and where there is a marked lack of coherence and hard evidence. How on earth can any Minister for Justice purport to formulate policies on matters such as sentencing, imprisonment etc., when there are such yawning gaps in our information system? How can there be a reasoned and informed public debate, which is so crucial in these matters, when publicly available information is scanty, unco-ordinated and outdated?

The same is true in our civil justice system. To give one example, we often hear complaints about the level of awards made in courts in personal injury claims. How justified these criticisms are I cannot say, but one would be hard put to find relevant, reliable information on this, as on so many other matters connected with our judicial system.

It has been patently obvious for years that what we really need is a proper annual set of judicial statistics. Advantage should now be taken of the establishment of the Courts Service to create a research and statistical unit within it. This would involve additional cost, but only a relatively small cost that would bear rich dividends in terms of providing hard information which is indispensable for the formulation of sound policies in relation to civil and criminal justice. It must be borne in mind also that compared with, say, England which spends tens of millions of pounds on such research each year, Ireland is a relatively small country. By international standards the volume of cases passing through our courts is very low. Therefore, the kind of research unit I am talking about would be quite small and cost very little compared with similar units in other jurisdictions.

I referred earlier to the unsatisfactory physical state of many of our courthouses. I am at a loss to see where this legislation places any express obligation on either the Courts Service or the Minister to ensure that courthouses are maintained and improved. What alarms me is the provision tucked away towards the end of section 26 of this Bill which repeals the Courthouses (Maintenance and Provision) Act, 1935, which was very important legislation. It imposed a statutory duty on county councils and borough councils to provide and maintain courthouse accommodation. It dealt with the appointment of caretakers and gave judges power to deal with caretakers who failed to perform their functions. Furthermore, it allowed the Minister to apply for a High Court order to compel councils to fulfil the duties imposed on them under the Act.

The present Bill provides for the vesting of the relevant property in the new Courts Service. It may be that the very general language used in Part IV of this Bill is intended to impose the same duties on the service as were heretofore placed on councils. The maintenance and development of courthouse facilities is too important to be left in this uncertain twilight zone. The Bill should spell out the duties being imposed on the new service and, equally important, the steps that may be taken, by means of judicial review or otherwise, to ensure that these obligations are fully and properly discharged. In the past, members of the legal profession had to seek a High Court order to enforce the State's obligation to keep the local courthouses in a satisfactory state of repair. They were successful in some cases. Waterford courthouse, which is now a fine building, bears testimony to that. As we approach the end of the 20th century and look forward to the new millennium, this should not have to be the case. We should be able to rely on responsible State bodies to discharge this function and there should be a clear statutory direction as to where the duty rests.

I welcome the Bill and will not oppose it in principle. However, I have serious reservations about the glaring omissions I have outlined. Other matters will require more detailed discussion on Committee Stage. These include the conditions attaching to the position of chief executive and the relationship between the board and the executive, which will be appointed initially on a designated basis, and their permanent successors. Is there a reason for not fixing a date for the coming into operation of the permanent bodies? Why are we adopting a "wait and see" approach? I urge the Minister to consider these matters carefully before Committee Stage.

Dr. Upton

I join in the tributes paid by the Minister and Deputy Higgins to the late Mr. Justice Brian Walsh. By any standards, he made a wonderful contribution not only to Irish law but to Irish society. Go ndéanfaidh Dia trócaire ar a anam.

I welcome the Bill. It marks an important step in developing and modernising the courts service, some aspects of which are in urgent need of modernisation and improvement. Some courthouses are in a dreadful condition and totally inappropriate to the dying days of the 20th century. In some areas there are inadequate numbers of courthouses. In places where the population is increasing rapidly, for example some suburbs of Dublin, there is an urgent need for more courthouses. The number of courthouses in some areas of south Dublin is grossly inadequate. The current service is unable to properly meet the growing demand for such facilities. The new courthouse in Tallaght, which the Minister opened last week, will make life much easier for people who need to use that facility.

In other areas of the country it is difficult to justify the continued maintenance of certain courthouses. Many of these courthouses are used very infrequently and the buildings are in a state of disrepair. One can understand the frustration of district justices and others who use these premises, who from time to time have sought to highlight the dreadful conditions under which they and others are forced to work. I hope these inadequacies will be dealt with rapidly when the new agency is established. The administration of the courts will be the responsibility of a separate organisation which will be managed and administered in accordance with the most important concepts and practices of management. I hope the anomaly that exists in relation to inadequate availability of courthouses in areas of growing population is addressed urgently. If that happens, the service will be in accord with what one would expect in a modern European country.

The Bill is also welcome because of the effect it will have on the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform. It will enable the staff of the Department to concentrate on their core activities. In the past they tended to engage in fire brigade action. They were preoccupied with the day to day exigencies of their functions and had little time to think strategically; they stumbled from one crisis to another. While that is understandable, given the sensitive nature of the functions of the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform, it is unfortunate that staff did not have an opportunity to think strategically. The shedding of the courts section from the Department will provide the staff with an opportunity to plan strategically and to think in the long term rather than dealing with crises on a daily basis. It will also allow the Department to contribute, in a much more useful manner, to the debate on justice policy. It is unfortunate that for many years it has been engaged in the dialogue of the profoundly deaf with other agencies and interests on justice matters. As the Department has a considerable body of wisdom it is a pity it did not engage in a more useful and proactive manner in the debate on such issues. I am pleased that is changing and a number of useful documents have been produced by officials in the Department who had the wisdom and good sense to commission other interesting and valuable reports. That is a welcome change. The courts Bill will facilitate the development of those welcome initiatives.

In speaking on the Bill in the Seanad, the Minister referred to the increased degree to which people have recourse to the courts. There is no doubt we are becoming a society which is increasingly given to litigation. It is unfortunate that there appears to be an anxiety to resort to law as a first rather than a last option to solve problems. I have no doubt the much criticised compensation culture has grown out of this tendency. This process has been a profitable phenomenon for certain elements of Irish life, in particular for the element of the legal profession which had adopted an aggressive manner to promote and sell their services. Those people have stimulated and exploited a latent demand which has given rise to a compensation culture, and the public has to pick up the tab. It has also shown up the legal profession in an unfortunate light. For many years that profession was looked up to in awe by the majority of the public. There is a much different perception of it now because of the unfortunate lapses in its behaviour. Some elements of the profession have aggressively sought to develop a market for their products.

I join other speakers who paid tribute to the work of Mrs Justice Denham and her group in producing this report. I welcome the Minister's decision to retain overall responsibility for the functioning of the new service. It is important that the buck stops on the Minister's desk rather than attributing mistakes to some unfortunate official. The Minister must not be disengaged from the process. It is essential that responsibility for technical or relatively small mistakes should rest with the political process rather than with an administrator.

I agree with the views of Deputy Higgins on the composition of the board. I am sure this matter was discussed at great length in certain circles and that a large number of representations were made about the matter. By any standards, the legal profession is very well represented on a board of 19 members. It comprises eight judges, the President of the Law Society and the Chairman of the Bar Counsel. There is also a potential for other lawyers to fill some of the remaining slots on the board. That is not desirable. In effect there is gross representation of those who provide the service with little consideration for those who use it. It is fundamental that we change our thinking process. It is essential that the interests of the customers who have to do their business in unsatisfactory circumstances, are fully taken into account. Have the consumer groups been consulted and their views taken into account in the same way as the concerns of the Judiciary and the legal profession were taken into account? I am not suggesting the Judiciary or the legal profession should not have their concerns taken into account but there is a question of balance and it is clear it has been struck in a manner that is inappropriate and grossly distorted in favour of those who provide the service rather than those who use it. In a modern European country which wants to provide relevant services it is important to change that emphasis.

Who are the consumers of the courts? Are they the defendants in criminal cases, those who give evidence against those defendants, those seeking compensation or those defending compensation claims? To what extent were the various groups consulted and their views taken into account in formulating the board? The Minister faces a daunting challenge as he seeks one individual to represent the various consumer interests while all grades in the legal profession are catered for: the Judiciary, the Presidents of the Four Courts and the judges of the various courts. The representation appears to be inordinately biased in favour of the legal end of the service.

Deputy Higgins referred to the need to collect information on what is happening in the courts and suggested a small research unit be established. I could not agree more. There is a huge deficit in information on what is happening in the courts. Scarcely a week goes by when I do not table questions to the Minister. Invariably the answer I get is that it is impossible to collect the data since it would involve an inordinate amount of work on the part of his staff. I accept there are some questions which would involve an inordinate amount of work and that the Minister has to manage his Department in a coherent way. However there is a long-term problem and it is essential that we become coherent in regard to the manner in which we collect data.

In the modern world it is impossible to manage a system effectively without knowing what is going on. The management information does not exist and it is high time we put in place the facility to collect that information. One cannot formulate a sentencing policy without that information. Given the deficit of information, we are groping in the dark wondering which is the best way to turn. That is highly undesirable and calls for rectification.

The absence of data allows every incoherent bore to tout round his nostrum for the best way to solve the problem. They include the "lock them up and throw the key away forever" brigade and those who take the attitude "talk softly, be sympathetic, open up the doors and there will never again be a problem". There are realities between those extreme positions, but it is impossible to formulate a proper policy without collecting the information. What happens to people who are sentenced? What is their age and who are they? From what economic group and region do they come? Are there regional differences in sentencing? It is impossible to form a coherent policy without knowing exactly what is going on. I sincerely hope the Minister will act on that issue.

I pay tribute to the Minister whose Department has begun to spend some money on research. I understand this year spending in this area is in the order of £40 million and I hope it will be more next year. Without collecting the data it will not be possible to put together a coherent policy. This absence of information has plagued the whole criminal system and has allowed incoherence to prevail. There are methods which are effective and can be used. These vary from time to time according to circumstances and from one country to another. Unless we know what is working and can measure the effect of the different strategies, the different sentencing policies, the policies which do not involve sentencing, the costs etc. we will continue to waste an inordinate amount of taxpayer's money in the criminal justice system and to throw good money after bad. We do not know the effect of various preventative strategies or whether we would be better off investing at a preventative level to a greater extent than in punitive measures.

The Minister is correct in continuing to retain ownership of the Four Courts with the Office of Public Works. It is an immensely historic building. I hope in the longer term the Courts Service will be provided there in perhaps a more modern setting. From the point of view of a modern Courts Service the building at present is not the most ideal. I hope that some of the services there might be provided in a more modern setting or, alternatively, that the buildings be modernised to allow for the provision of better facilities for those who provide the services and those who use them.

While I will make many points similar to those raised by Deputies Higgins and Upton, we have not swapped scripts. However I agree with Deputy Upton on the composition of the board.

The Bill is welcome and long overdue. It is designed to bring a breath of fresh air into an out-moded and out-dated system. It is intended to bring the Courts Service from the l9th century to the 21st century in terms of its procedures, accountability and customer services. It has been welcomed by the professional bodies.

I welcome the setting up of a separate Courts Service outside the control of the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform. This is not a criticism of that Department. Its resources are already over stretched. It has a multiplicity of responsibilities with regard to, for example, extradition, prisons, gardaí, legislative changes etc. The new separate management structure should improve the administration of the courts system and the dispensation of justice. It will help to ensure the efficient and speedy administration of justice. It will streamline and make more efficient the day to day running of the courts. It will allow for monitoring the maintenance of court buildings. It will guarantee the provision of facilities and information for the users of the courts. This will apply to judges, their staff and other court users.

As a layman I believe the changes are not only necessary but are long overdue. The present set-up is inefficient and demoralising. Any person who has to go to court for a basic matter, such as a summons for a parking fine, will know what I mean when I say that the delays involved in court appearances are — if I might use the term — criminal. There is no justification for this or for the condition of many courtrooms. With ever increasing litigation, it has become obvious the courts cannot take the strain. They must be made user-friendly and people who use them should have full access to information and believe the courts are there to serve them. The public demand a level of efficiency and speed of action that is sadly lacking. Justice must not only be seen to be done but must be seen to be done in an efficient manner. This should be reflected in the new administrative structures.

On management of the courts, no one could make a more significant input to the changes than those who regularly use them. Seventeen people will be nominated to the board, including the chief executive, 11 members of the Judiciary, a staff member, a representative of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions, a representative of consumers, a representative of the Minister and a person nominated by the Minister with experience in commerce, finance or administration.

It is important that the board should have a definite established line of communication with the Garda Síochána. At times judges do not appreciate the fact that gardaí put much time into preparation for court appearances. They have been offhand with members of the force who must be demoralised by this. There should be an established consultative mechanism to ensure gardaí can voice their views and make suggestions to ensure the efficient use of Garda input and time. We must enable them to make a positive contribution to the new system. As one of the main groups of court users, their views are of vital importance.

On the provision of support services for judges, the volume of cases has increased dramatically in recent years and it does not look like diminishing. Although extra judges have been appointed, there is still a huge backlog. This is an area in which the Courts Service Board could have a major input.

The reduction of queues should be looked at under a number of headings, including the relocation of court venues. Ballincollig District Court is situated in Midleton, 30 miles away. Would it be more sensible to relocate courts in satellite towns to a city location? This matter should be reviewed as a matter of priority.

There should be supplementary travelling or relief judges in busy areas. Although there are extra sittings, there is still a major backlog. This problem has been addressed in the family law court in Cork where cases are allocated a particular time, morning or evening. This has been welcomed by the Judiciary, staff members and the public. It is an area in which the Courts Service Board must make an impact.

There are other contributory factors. Judges can be too soft and, at times, too accommodating in allowing adjournments. Solicitors set down cases for hearing before they are ready for processing. This necessitates adjournments. There should be positive and active liaison between judges and solicitors in the preparation of trial lists. Proper list management was a major contributory factor in eliminating the backlog in Dublin. It is an area in which we can help solve a problem by making efficient use of existing resources.

On the provision of information on the courts system to the public, people do not enter a courthouse unless they have to. People — guilty or innocent, witness or supporter — fear the unknown. What do they experience when they enter a courthouse? There is no information desk or indication as to where they should go. There should be a manned service in each courthouse and an information display, at least, in smaller courthouses. The foyers of larger courthouses are full of busy people wearing wigs and gowns. They are, unintentionally, intimidating. At smaller, particularly rural, courthouses people gather around the front door.

The current system is not only inadequate it is impersonal. People are upset even before they enter the courtroom. Courthouses must be modernised, made brighter and more functional. It is welcome that the board will have total control and responsibility. In this way we can gain proper and accountable management and ensure proper maintenance and management of court buildings.

I am glad staff will not lose out in transferring to the board. This will mean a new and invigorating start for them and can only enhance their career opportunities. I anticipate the appointment of additional staff who should be specifically selected and trained for the new system. The promotion of staff from other Departments without prior court experience has not always proved to be an ideal method in staffing such a demanding area. We must ensure new practices are introduced by the current experienced staff with the help of young enthusiastic new staff who will have no preconceived ideas about the new set up.

Is it the intention that the Garda Síochána will continue to ensure order in the courts in the new system or will this be a function of the board? This is not specifically mentioned in the Bill.

Proper facilities in all courts are essential. There must be separate accommodation for lawyers to meet their clients without the risk that they may be overheard by people who may be hostile. This would prevent intimidation of witnesses. Ancillary facilities such as tea and coffee making facilities, air conditioning in summer and heating in winter are essential.

Separate court buildings should be provided for hearing family law cases. Currently such cases are heard in the same court buildings as criminal and civil cases. This ever increasing and sensitive area of litigation needs to be handled with care, especially where children are concerned. The break up of marriages and all that this entails requires delicate handling. The hearing of family law cases in camera should always be at the discretion of the sitting judge. I would not like to see us go down the same road as America with trials on television. I am opposed to this. We have all been dismayed by certain aspects of the Louise Woodward case. Media pressure should not be allowed to have a bearing on any case.

I am glad the chief executive will not have the right to interfere with the judicial process. He or she will not be answerable to the Oireachtas. Decisions made by the courts will not have to be justified here.

I am delighted that, at the request of the Minister, the board will be able to recommend appropriate scales of court fees and charges. This will be welcomed by the general public. The board is weighted in favour of the legal profession, particularly judges who will have an inbuilt majority. I take issue with Deputy Upton who mentioned that the Judiciary is over represented. This is right. They have to make the final decisions which impact on those who appear before them. They carry a heavy responsibility and the buck stops with them.

Clients of the service are under-represented. Will the Minister consider offering organisations such as Victim Support a seat on the board to ensure the views of witnesses are taken fully into consideration? The jury is often the forgotten element in the justice system. A reference setting out the goal of achieving standards of best practice in relation to the treatment of jurors should be incorporated.

The Bill requires the board to produce a beneficial, effective and efficient courts system. It should also be economical and strive to achieve the value for money criteria being established under the SMI in the public service. It should focus in particular on clients of the service — the public. Those who must attend court for whatever reason should be put at ease, made welcome and reassured they have an important role to play.

The Bill is intended to update and modernise court services based on the recommendations of the working group established to consider the establishment of a courts commission. The use of information technology is almost negligible. The Bill does not refer directly to a planned and structured upgrading of administrative procedures and records. The most modern methods of information storage and retrieval must be employed if we are to achieve our aims. The technology available, if properly used, can be a significant tool in the elimination of avoidable time delays. We must gear up for the 21st century.

Section 5 refers to the functions of the service which are to manage the courts and court buildings and to provide support services for judges. No cognisance, however, is taken of the need to review the location of some courts throughout the country or the question of whether the number of courts should be expanded in the public interest.

I wish to raise the issue of a High Court in the Munster region. At present, litigants in Cork, Kerry, Donegal and Mayo, for examples, must file originating documents in Dublin. All preliminary issues must be heard in the capital city. If there was a full-time High Court in Cork, all documents could be served locally and all the pretrial issues now heard in Dublin could be heard in the local High Court. The time is opportune to introduce a permanent High Court sitting to Munster. I cannot claim full credit for this proposition because is not a new concept. It was aired by barristers in Cork as far back as the 1970s and 1980s. Believe it or not, their motivation was to reduce the excessive legal costs incurred in Dublin hearings, a laudable aspiration.

The siting of a full-time High Court in Cork makes sense. It should have a full-time quota of judges. There should always be one judge sitting full-time in Cork, although it does not have to be the same judge at all times. The sitting should serve Waterford, Limerick, Tipperary, Kerry and Cork. This would cover the work currently done by the several sittings of the High Court in Munster throughout the legal year. It would also provide for additional High Court work being administered locally in Munster.

The Central Criminal Court should also have sittings in Cork. It is costing the State a fortune to bring witnesses, gardaí and others involved to hearings in Dublin. I have heard it said that a criminal jury trial costs the state up to £25,000 a day. Therefore, a ten day trial would cost £250,000 with an additional cost of another £250,000 if the case has to go to retrial. There appears to be no system to assess the annual costings of trials. From the figures I have been quoted, it would appear that there is a big black hole down which public moneys are disappearing without accountability and this must be addressed.

As matters stand, the High Court sits in Cork for personal injuries cases for nine weeks a year, in Limerick for four weeks, Ennis for two weeks and in Waterford for four weeks. In all, the sittings add up to 19 weeks per annum. There are additional sittings. The High Court on circuit sits in Cork, Limerick, Kerry, Clare and Waterford — that is the Munster region — for six weeks per annum. Notwithstanding the latter availability of the High Court in Munster, serious delays occur. Bringing High Court personal injuries cases to trial in the southern region can be a long drawn out affair. In the current climate of making the courts system more efficient granting a permanent High Court sitting in Munster would add efficiency to the delivery of the administration of justice by the High Court in the region.

With regard to criminal cases there is good reason for a High Court sitting in Munster — rotating between Cork, Ennis, Waterford and Limerick — to deal with criminal cases. I refer to that part of the criminal business of the Central Criminal Court which deals with serious criminal offences committed in the Munster region. The present system constitutes a significant waste of time, including valuable Garda time, and moneys because the most serious criminal cases in Munster must be dealt with in the Central Criminal Court in Dublin. This involves considerable extra cost in sending high numbers of witnesses, civilian and Garda, to Dublin.

At present a litigant from west Cork or deep in the heart of south Kerry can only have his High Court personal injuries case dealt with in Munster. A High Court could be provided to sit in the Munster region permanently to deal with all High Court business. This would give readier access to the High Court at less expense and more convenience to litigants who must have matters legally determined in the High Court jurisdiction. We have the infrastructure in Munster, the courthouses and the accommodation. Munster has had a visiting High Court in personal injuries cases for a long time. This has proved so satisfactory it demonstrates that an expansion of the latter service would be of benefit to the region. A comparative example is the practice that obtains in England. There are permanent sittings of the English High Court outside London in cities such as Liverpool.

The Four Courts, where the High Court sits permanently, is grossly overloaded with work and stretched for accommodation. There is ample accommodation in courthouses in the major centres of Munster to share this load. Having to litigate a case in Dublin is more expensive for a litigant from Munster than if the case could be litigated in one of the cities of Munster. Some expert witnesses, in particular, find it greatly inconvenient and disruptive to travel to Dublin for High Court cases. Litigants are sometimes deprived of the most appropriate expert witness which could, in theory, lead to litigants experiencing difficulty having their cases presented to their best advantage.

We must consider setting up a system to deal with the Army deafness cases. These cases, which I understand to be of the order of up to 10,000, occupy an increasing amount of the time of the High Court personal injuries list. Army deafness cases should be referred to a Circuit Court that would sit in a central provincial courthouse, such as Athlone. The courthouse could be used at a time when it is not in use by its Circuit Court. Separate lists should be prepared and those cases that are ready could be put to trial. This disciplined method of compiling the preparation of the lists would ensure that cases would be dealt with in a speedy manner. One or two judges should be assigned exclusively to the central venue for at least one year. The use of the same judges would ensure a similarity of approach and consistency in the judgments.

This Bill is a potent weapon that will further advance the fight against crime. The Government has a zero tolerance policy towards crime. Its effectiveness is manifest and we have seen a drop in crime levels. Major drug hauls have received wide publicity in the past few months. The Garda has played a major role in reversing what was an upwardly spiralling trend and it is to be complimented. I congratulate the Minister for being the driving force in the fight against crime.

I hope my contribution will be of some help in promoting discussion. Deputies' contributions will be inspired by the knowledge that we must work together to ensure the smooth passage of the Bill. It is fundamental to the continuing fight against crime. I thank the Minister for presenting the House with an opportunity to update the courts services. He has my full support and I hope he will take on board the issues I raised.

It is usual for an Opposition spokesperson to be critical of a Bill being presented by the Government but in this case I welcome the Bill warmly and unequivocally. I congratulate the Minister on its presentation. There are certain issues I wish to raise on Committee Stage. However, this is an excellent Bill, its genesis was under the previous Minister for Justice, Deputy Owen, and she is entitled to credit for the foresight in establishing the working group on the courts service. The appointment of Ms Justice Denham to chair the group was particularly inspired because her leadership, flair and appetite for hard work has driven the project from the start. The mission was to transform the courts in a way that was so innovative and far-reaching that it is not generally appreciated fully. The lack of Members in the House and media attention indicates that the message that this is a significant step forward which will transform the courts service has not been received.

When the working group produced its first report in April 1996 it described the problems facing the management of the courts. These included the lack of a clear reporting structure, adequate performance measurements and objectives; minimum planning; poor use of information technology; fragmentation of administration systems between each of the courts; apparent remoteness of the administration system from the Judiciary; a lack of statistical or financial information and no strategic plan. The majority of these issues are addressed in the Bill and I expect it will lead to major changes in dealing with them.

The establishment of a courts service will ensure the courts will be modernised and managed in a way appropriate to the 21st century. In particular, the establishment of a board comprising representation of a wide range of interests, including the users of the courts, gives the structure a character which is ahead of courts services in many other countries. In effect, Ireland is leading the way. I understand that visitors from other jurisdictions are visiting Ireland to learn more about the proposed structure and its effects. I welcome that the commission's work was expedited so swiftly. We owe a debt of gratitude to its chairperson and members who committed so much time and effort to its resolution. Their work would have come to naught were it not for the prompt response to their efforts by the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform and I acknowledge that. That was a very different response from the one given to the Whitaker report on prison reform, which was shelved and more than 12 years on remains unimplemented. I was disappointed when the Taoiseach indicated that the prison service Bill, which, I hope, will provide for a transformation of our prisons similar to the transformation this Bill will provide for our courts, will not be ready until next year. If ever speed was of the essence, it is in the area of prison reform, but that is a debate for another day.

While some judges may not agree with me I believe the change being brought about is so fundamental that it will alter how our judicial system will operate, not in terms of diluting the independence of the Judiciary — that independence is fully and rightly protected — but in how it is perceived and presented to the public. In effect, justice like health or education, will become a public service. At present the courts are anything but a service to the public. They are intimidating and often alien places run on the basis of élitism and mystification populated mainly by men wearing very strange and archaic garb. Another point worth making, which Deputy Higgins made in relation to the board, is where are women in our judicial system? There are at low levels in it. They seem to spend a good deal of time carrying the boxes of files, but at senior counsel and judge level they are still missing. Mrs. Justice Susan Denham is a shining model of the importance of ensuring we have women at all levels of our judicial system.

That system often operates in dilapidated and uncomfortable surroundings. The structure being established will have the capability to address those failings and to transform the nature of how justice is delivered to the public. It has been described as a breath of fresh air and that is a good description, but it raises issues in related areas. I disagree with the last speaker in that I believe there is an argument for televising court hearings. Newspaper coverage of cases, other than those held in camera, has been permitted for a long time and is an indication of a fundamental principle, people's right of access to information on how our courts operate. I accept there would be difficulties in televising coverage of cases and it will not happen quickly, but it is an argument or debate that will not go away, particularly given that form of information transmission is increasingly becoming part of our lives.

I urge the Minister to examine television coverage in respect of one aspect. If he is setting these new standards for the courts, he needs to apply them in other areas of activity in relation to the Department. He should urge the Government to provide for the televising of tribunals of inquiry set up under the direction of this House which represents the public. The Flood and Moriarty tribunals are of considerable public interest and people would be in a much better position to be informed and to form their own judgments if television access was granted to them. I understand there is no legal reason those tribunals should not be televised or broadcast. The Minister for Arts, Gaeltacht, Heritage and the Islands has a role in this, but the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform has a central role in ensuring justice is not only done but seen to be done.

I was extremely disappointed when I raised the matter this morning of providing information and making it accessible that the Minister chose to withhold information pertinent to the debate over the last two nights on the deportation of people seeking asylum here. It tarnishes what we are debating today if there is still the mindset that only certain information will be revealed as it suits the Government, Minister or Department and other information pertinent to the workings of this House will be withheld and, in effect, concealed. That does not serve this House well nor the thinking and principles laid out in this Bill.

The seven year plan outlined for the courts service is an acknowledgement that many of our courthouses are in very poor condition and operate in an inappropriate manner to meet the needs of the public. There was a good deal of publicity surrounding the opening of the Tallaght courthouse, which is welcome, but its standard does not reflect the overall standard of courthouses. There is a fine courthouse in Bray that is appropriate to the needs of the public. It is a vast improvement on the one operating there before it, but the courthouse accommodation in Wicklow town is not of an appropriate standard. In Blessington the court operates from the rear of a room used for dances and in Dunlavin the court operates in fairly small accommodation. However, the courthouse in Baltinglass is unbelievably neglected and needs to be dealt with, even on the basis of meeting required standards for fire regulations, comfort and sanitary facilities. How much assessment of the standard of our courthouses has been carried out?

During my time as Minister with responsibility for housing I was aware of the importance of those buildings in terms of architectural quality. They are often the single most significant building, particularly in smaller towns, but due to the high cost of maintenance they have not been looked after in the way they should have been. That means not only are we not serving the public well, we are also not looking after the architectural fabric of those towns in the way they deserve. I am concerned that in certain instances, where renovation works have been done to modernise the interiors of those buildings, the work has not been done in a way that is respectful of the quality of those buildings. In certain towns, other than the Church, the courthouse is the most important building and often work to modernise the interiors of courthouses has not been up to scratch. That needs to be addressed in terms of the workings of the courts service. People have made this point in regard to the services provided for the public.

Adequate provision is not always made for juries. Jury service is a public one and is extremely time consuming when many people are busy and work seems to be extending rather than shrinking on a daily basis. I do not know what has happened to the leisure society that was predicted, but we have not seen much of it here. People give up their time to do jury duty and they deserve to be properly looked after.

I welcome the emphasis on the education of judges. Judges do not like to use the word "education", but I welcome the judicial studies for judges. That is an important part of the work of any management of our courts. It is important there is a flow of information to judges to keep them up-to-date with the changes in society generally and that have specific relevance to their work. Judges have been criticised in the past for being out of touch in certain circumstances. Others are well aware they need to keep up with what is a rapidly changing society. It is important that the service provides for the need for judges to keep themselves informed. Changes are already occurring in relation to the specialisation of judges and the way various levels in the courts operate and the presidents of the various courts must be congratulated on that. The flexibility judges have in making judgments and their independence needs to be protected.

I am not happy with the Minister's commitment to introduce mandatory sentencing in the area of drug dealing although harsh penalties must be enforced. There should always be an element of judgment in individual cases. If that element of judgment is taken away from a judge, it will make the problem worse in certain cases. I am sure that is not the Minister's intention but that he made that commitment when he was under pressure. He had to produce something to show he had not totally abandoned zero tolerance but this provision is not good law and I urge him to reconsider it. I would certainly support him if he decided to quietly drop it.

The Bill has set the Courts Service a considerable job of work and the specifications set out will require considerable funding. We all appreciate that it will take seven years to ensure that all the planned work will be carried out. Irrespective of what Government is in power, political commitment will be required to make funds available to carry out various works, particularly in regard to courthouse buildings. The Office of the Ombudsman set a very sorry precedent when it was effectively starved of funding at one point owing to political decisions which were made on very poor grounds.

We have not yet sufficiently provided for information technology or availed of its benefits in all areas of Government. However, we are making some progress in this area. Where the courts are concerned, that type of technology is vital in terms of gathering statistical information which can be of use. As I understand it, as things currently stand, if a person is in prison, there is no correlation between statistics held on him or her by the courts, the Department or the prison and it is impossible to cross-reference information in any way. That is quite extraordinary in this day and age.

I have already paid tribute to the staff of the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform. I also pay tribute to the staff of the courts who have worked conscientiously, very often in very difficult conditions, to bring about this transformation in management. It is difficult for any group of people to cope with change if they are accustomed to working in a particular way. To be presented with a challenge, such as the one posed by this Bill, will effect an enormous change in people's working lives. The courts staff have generally welcomed this change and have been willing to work towards it and I understand that something in the region of 40 seminars have already been held. The general view is that the courts staff are inspired and invigorated by the proposed changes and that is very much to their credit.

Many of us find it difficult to adjust to change. It is not easy to find our route mapped out in an unexpected way. The Bill demands a huge change in work culture and methods. That there is a willingness and desire to get motoring on this is very encouraging. Some people complained that the Bill was not published before Christmas but it is certainly timely now. The goodwill of the staff guarantees the Courts Service will operate effectively and achieve its objectives.

I will not repeat what others have said about costs but they pose the next big challenge. Improved management, accessibility and so on constitute a major step forward but we must ensure that we also deal with court costs and legal fees as these have gone completely out of control. It is impossible to defend a system where, in the case of one hepatitis C victim, for example, the incomprehensible sums of money paid to lawyers were way out of proportion to the sum awarded to the victim. That is indefensible and inexcusable. I presume constitutional change will be required to address this issue but it must be addressed if the fundamental principle of equality before the law is to be protected and ensured.

I welcome the Bill and look forward to Committee Stage.

Fáiltím roimh an Bille um Sheirbhís Chúirteanna (Uimh. 2), 1997 mar is dóigh liom gur Bille stairiúil atá i gceist a thabharfaidh na seirbhísí cúirteanna suas, ní amháin don am atá ann i láthair, ach go dtí an todhchaí.

The Bill is an historic move because the establishment of an independent Courts Service is something which was perhaps overlooked in the early 1920s when the Constitution of Saorstát Éireann and the legislative structure of Government was altered. At that time, the courts administrative infrastructure was vested mainly in the Department of Justice and I do not expect any serious analysis was carried out. Given Ireland's independence, our courts system ended up being closer in structure to the US system than the one we inherited from Britain. This system was restated in Bunreacht na hÉireann, 1937 and the development of a judicial arm of Government continued to be more in keeping with the American system than the British one.

In considering the establishment of a courts commission, it is useful to consider the systems which operate in other jurisdictions. This was done by Mrs. Justice Susan Denham and her working group which produced some superb reports which laid the ground for the Courts Services (No. 2) Bill. In Northern Ireland, the courts services developed as late as 1979 and the service modernised the structure of the courts, unified their roles and completed a major building programme. The service there certainly has much to recommend it although it is not one we can fully model ourselves on because of the position of the Lord Chancellor. Japan followed a system quite similar to our own which, again, is based on the American model and follows the principle of the separation of powers contained in our Constitution. Mrs. Justice Susan Denham pointed to the model of South Australia, adopted there in 1993, as a very useful one but it is even more limited than the farseeing service proposed in the Bill. The Irish Courts Service represents progress towards a modern structure and a dynamic system and that is something which we welcome. It reflects the best of other countries but is created within the context of the Constitution and meets the needs of an Irish community.

The current system evolved from a leisurely era embodied in the writings of Somerville and Ross when justice was administered by Major Yates, the Irish RM. Today, the increase in the number of cases and the pressures of space and time reflect a need for professional organisation and management. A quick glance at the legal diary for any day shows hundreds of cases listed. The list of criminal cases, which constitute only one aspect of the legal system, can include cases for mention, trial, probation report, sentencing and review.

This new service will manage the courts and provide support and services for the judges and as such, fáiltím roimhe. However, it needs to be backed by the total modernisation of the administrative structures of the courts and a full computerised system using the best of advanced technology.

Another function of the service is to provide information to the public on the courts system. It is the essence of an open democratic society that there be adequate channels of information between the organs of Government and the people from whom they derive their authority. Justice, with few exceptions, is administered in public, where the public have right of access to the courts. This right of access is enshrined in Article 34.1 which states:

Justice shall be administered in courts established by law by judges appointed in the manner provided by this Constitution, and, save in such special and limited cases as may be prescribed by law, shall be administered in public.

Most court cases are open to the public, except for those held in camera. People can see justice being administered, an opportunity taken every day by people all over the country. I have often brought school groups to the courts to witness the administration of justice and what an important part of our society it is. However, not everyone can do that. The reality is that most people get their information about the courts from the media. It is important we have channels or systems which enable the communication of information from the courts to the public and the media.

We also need user-friendly courts, for visitors, witnesses, jurors, the legal profession, offenders, Garda and the press. The Four Courts is a wonderful building to visit but very daunting if one is there on business. It is difficult to find the location of courts and the times of the various cases. There is a need for a visible information office to enable users to feel comfortable, if one can feel comfortable in court surroundings.

One of the most interesting aspects of this Bill is that it will provide facilities for users of the courts. There are no public consulting rooms in the Four Courts. The Dublin Circuit Criminal Court, in which all serious crime cases in the Dublin area, except murder or rape, are dealt with has no public consulting rooms for lawyers and their clients. There is no room available for the use of victims who must stand shoulder to shoulder in the corridors with the accused. Amplification is extraordinarily poor. It is difficult to hear the questions being asked and the sentence being imposed. Families involved in family law cases need consulting rooms for privacy. However, these are not available in most courts.

It is a penance rather than a civic duty to be called to serve on a jury. Four hundred people can be called at any one time. Until recently, all those people were crammed into one court awaiting their call to serve. Now they are forced to go to the basement where they are connected by closed circuit television to the judge who calls their names. This is not satisfactory. If the court was a factory, it would be closed down. I hope this Bill will redress the problem.

Jurors receive no compensation for service. Those who are unemployed do not even receive their bus fare to and from the court for up to 14 days before they are called to serve on a case. Jurors on a criminal case are given their lunch while those serving on civil cases are told to leave the court at lunchtime and to buy their own lunch. These are the reasons people opt out of jury service where possible rather than seeing it as a way of helping the justice system.

Many of the conditions are worse throughout the country. Judges have refused to serve because of conditions and some courts are still meeting in dancehalls. There is a need for courthouses in newly built up areas, particularly in the city of Dublin and its suburbs. The new courthouse in Dún Laoghaire is a shining example. The new courthouse in Tallaght, which has been welcomed by Judge Delap, offenders and victims is also a model which ought to be followed. I welcome the aspect of the Bill which will provide facilities for the use of courts.

It is proper that we should have a system to enable us to deal effectively with the services and management of courts, which will enable the more efficient movement of cases. However, why are there are so many cases in the late 20th century? One of the answers to this could be lawyers. Lawyers advertise on the back of most buses, in magazines and newspapers. Hoardings which were once the preserve of Cadbury's and Guinness are now invaded by lawyers promising to cure ills people do not even realise they have suffered. When Deputy O'Malley, as Minister, abandoned the restriction on advertising for solicitors, I do not think he intended it to work out as it did. Now is the time to introduce restrictions again.

The second cause of the increase in the case-load of the courts is the concept of negligence. The explosion of negligence claims in the past decade should give rise to a reappraisal of the concept of negligence at the end of the 20th century. When the case of Donoghue v. Stevenson (1932), which gave rise to the modern concept of negligence, was decided, the welfare state was virtually unknown. The process whereby a snail in a ginger beer bottle would, with time and the applied efforts of lawyers, give rise to claims by thousands of soldiers grounded on the noise made by their rifles was difficult to foresee.

The concept of negligence was unknown to Roman law. Hannibal did not have to muffle his elephants as he crossed the Alps for fear of deafening his legions. Brehon law did not recognise the concept of negligence. A modern day Fionn MacCumhaill running through the woods would be more likely to sue the local authority for twigs sticking in his feet rather than picking them up with his toes. The law of negligence is out of control and needs to be corralled before we are completely fleeced.

The courts are there to right wrongs. It is desirable they should be able to do so in as efficient and effective a manner as possible. Expertise in list management and the management of the courts is not synonymous with expertise in jurisprudence. It is proper that as a modern nation we have a modern, well-equipped courts service. Tugann an Bille an deis seo chun sin a dhéanamh agus failtím roimhe.

I welcome the Bill. I was amused when someone spoke of rewriting history. We should remind ourselves of some of the affairs which led to the introduction of this Bill and the chaotic circumstances surrounding Justice Lynch and the extraordinary Cromien report. The former Minister for Justice, Deputy Owen, reinterpreted the concept of ministerial responsibility and defined in extraordinarily juristic terms the difference between ministerial accountability and ministerial responsibility.

The reality is that there has been a serious problem for a number of years, not specifically during the life of any individual Minister or Government. It is fitting that this Bill should be introduced to bring courts services up to date. I compliment the Minister and all those in the previous Administration who made this possible.

I seem to be the only Member of this House with a problem about the Bill. The courts are not accountable to anyone. I tabled three parliamentary questions last week, not in order to interfere with the courts in any way. Their independence is guaranteed in the Constitution and I do not wish to suggest that should be changed. I was looking for basic, fundamental statistical information on delays in the administration of justice. I will explain the background to this.

We do not have a great regard for the British judicial system. I have been involved in a number of cases in Britain over the years and I have been highly critical of the system. However, last week or the week before in the United Kingdom a High Court judge was forced by his peers to take early retirement because of disgraceful and scandalous delays in handing down judgments and eccentric behaviour. I may be wrong — and if I am no doubt someone will correct me — but I do not recall any indication of concern within our courts about eccentric behaviour or delays in delivering judgments. There are several fundamental problems in our courts, some of which have been addressed. Like Deputy McManus, I welcome the Bill but also agree that this and future Governments must make major funding commitments to bring the courts system up to date. This is not a party political matter and all parties should support it.

I sat in the Supreme Court this week to hear the judgment in the case of Doran and Another v. Delaney and Others. This case illustrates some of the problems in the court system. The case was originally sent to the High Court in October 1993 where it was adjourned until October 1994 because the presiding judge was involved in a tribunal and had to prepare a report for presentation to it. The judgment was delivered in September 1995. The plaintiffs in the case, Mr. and Mrs. Doran, had lost their home and had sought justice in the courts. However, it took them two years to get a judgment from the High Court. The action was a three cornered one against the vendor of the property, their solicitor and the vendor's solicitor. They were successful in their action against the vendor and their solicitor.

The case was appealed to the Supreme Court in 1995. As the House will appreciate, one must have an extraordinary belief in the justice of one's case and extraordinary confidence in the system to take a case against solicitors and law societies. Unfortunately, there was another delay in the Supreme Court from October 1996 to October 1997, until the trial judge produced the report of the Supreme Court on the 16 points at issue in the note of evidence at the High Court stage. It is extraordinary that one judge could delay a case for three years. There is an adage that justice delayed is justice denied. In this case there was a one year adjournment, for which there was no apology, it took one year to give a judgment and it took a further year to produce a report. This is not acceptable.

There may be a perfectly logical explanation for these delays but there is no procedure whereby an explanation for them can be ventilated. We cannot table parliamentary questions on these delays as they will be ruled out of order by the Ceann Comhairle. It is fundamentally wrong in a democracy that an organ of the State or an organ of governance, including the one which has the task of delivering justice, is not required to explain the stewardship of its responsibilities to the public. The only sovereign authority in this nation is the public and they are entitled to know what precisely is going on in the courts.

In case I am portrayed as being negative to the courts, some of which are very fine, I will show the other side of the case. In the Supreme Court, Justices Keane, Barrington and Barnes delivered a crystal clear judgment on all the points at issue within five weeks. The Supreme Court in this case was conscious that the law it made would stay on the books and would define into the future the third party responsibility of solicitors. They reviewed the entire case, which involved an extraordinary amount of documentation, and issued a complex judgment within five weeks. Yet this case had been delayed for three years. During this time this young couple suffered much stress and self-doubt and incurred horrific expense.

I welcome the Bill but I have a number of questions. Section 8 refers to reporting. What precisely does this mean? Will we be able in future to get an indication of the average and most extreme delays in the courts and the quickest time within which judgments can be given? If not, there will be a major gap in public knowledge about the operation of the courts which should concern us all. The provision of this information does not impede in any way the constitutional independence of the Judiciary in the performance of its functions.

At a time when we are talking about strategic management initiatives throughout the public service, a charter of citizens rights, freedom of information legislation and major and fundamental changes in State institutions, it is not unreasonable for the Bill to provide that some statistical information must be given on how long a case will take. Section 8(2) gives the Minister the right to direct the chief executive on what should be in the report. I hope the chief executive will be requested to supply the Oireachtas and, more importantly, the public with basic information about the courts and their administration.

This is not the only case in which there has been a delay. Every Member could give examples of similar cases. Last week a judge referred to the failure of solicitors to push cases ahead. To the extent that this happens, it is in everyone's interests, not least those of the litigants, plaintiffs and defendants, to know the precise reasons for the delay. There must always be accountability to the public. The courts are not always the best judges of their own performance. As Deputy McManus said, they are often perceived as remote and removed from the public, who are afraid to ask questions.

This creates a gulf between the public and the courts. I am not suggesting that courts should be places of common entertainment but it is of profound importance that they are highly regarded by the public. After all, it is judges, particularly those in the higher courts, who are charged with the task of ensuring that we, as legislators, and the Government, as the Executive arm of the State, behave properly and appropriately and that the rights of citizens are vindicated. It is of critical importance that they are seen to play this key role in an efficient manner.

I am also concerned about the Children's Court and particular cases brought under the Children's Act. While it is not directly related to anything in the Bill, it is, however, a matter of general concern which was reflected by two other speakers. There is a need to support judges in these courts and to back up the issue of professional assessment. Members will be aware that cases in the Children's Court are always traumatic and harrowing, particularly when they involve taking a child from the custody of its parents. The courts are all too dependent on professional support from health boards. Health boards themselves, however, are in a difficult position because they are litigants who initiate actions in the first place. As such, they can hardly be regarded as completely independent or dispassionate in the manner in which they handle these cases.

There is a procedure whereby somebody is appointed in the court to adjudicate on behalf of the child and to represent the child's interests, but — having been aware of a particular case in recent times — the reality is that there is a problem. My sympathy goes to the judges who are in a horrific position. They must interpret points of law on highly technical detailed issues relating to children. The guardian ad litem process which is in place is not sufficient to do justice to all sides.

I am concerned about the condition of courthouses. A new courthouse was built in Bray. It is a fine structure which seems to be more than capable of dealing with the needs of a modern court but, before it was built judges, court staff and citizens had to operate in the most difficult circumstances. The situation in Wicklow courthouse is very poor. There is a certain irony in the fact that the local authority has invested a huge amount of money, which is welcome, in upgrading the adjacent historic courthouse in Wicklow. It is due to be opened later this year. There is, however, a need to examine that court building and to invest heavily in it. In its present condition is it not fair to the judges, staff and citizens who visit the court as defendants, plaintiffs or in other capacities.

The situation in Blessington is abysmal and there is an urgent need for investment in the local courthouse. In Baltinglass the tardiness of the State is in juxtaposition to the manner in which the local community has invested a huge amount of time, effort and money in improving the court and its surroundings, yet the State has been lethargic, to say the least.

If the full rigour of the law was to be applied to Wicklow, Blessington and Baltinglass courthouses it is doubtful whether those buildings would meet all the legal requirements.

I have waited for some time for this Bill to come before the House because I wanted to place on record my long standing concern about delays in the judicial system. I am referring to delays which occur because of judges. The courts can and should handle other delays. I welcome the fact that excessive delays by parties involved in cases have been rightly and properly criticised publicly in recent times by judges. It would be in the public interest, as well as being in the interest of judges who do exemplary work, to know if there are undue delays on the Bench. Such delays occur from time to time, although they are fairly rare. When they occur, however, they cause huge hardship and give rise to unnecessary doubts about the judicial system.

As another Deputy said earlier, courts are regarded as alien and intimidating places. The stresses and strains of litigation are more than sufficient for an ordinary member of the public to bear. People should not have to put up with delays, visit their local TD or contact the court registrar to try to progress a case. It should never happen because, to repeat the old adage, justice delayed is justice denied. The court system is not just about interpreting the law, it is about delivering justice also.

I thank Deputies for contributing to the debate and welcoming the Bill. It has been rightly acknowledged that the Bill represents a significant advance for the system of courts administration. The Bill provides a strong framework for the development of a fully modern courts system responsive to the demands placed upon it and providing a quality service to the people.

I appreciate the strong support in the House for this measure. We are anxious to progress this important legislation and, with that in mind, the Bill makes provision for the establishment, one month after its enactment, of a transitional board with power to appoint a chief executive designate and to prepare generally for the start up of the service on the establishment day.

In their contributions Deputies raised a number of points with which I would now like to deal. We will have an opportunity of dealing with these again on Committee Stage.

Deputy McManus accused the Minister of withholding information in the Private Members' debate on immigration matters earlier this week. Any fair minded observer would agree that the Minister made a comprehensive contribution to that debate. Obviously, no attempt was made to withhold information.

Deputy Higgins referred specifically to section 6(2)(b) of the Bill which provides for the service, at the request of the Minister, to recommend appropriate scales of court fees and charges.

Deputy Higgins suggested that the service should be able to do this on its own initiative rather than having to wait for a request from the Minister. We will have this matter examined in detail. I know the Deputy will be raising it again on Committee Stage but we will look at it between now and then for the Deputy.

Deputies Higgins and Upton referred to the composition of the board of the service. Deputy Higgins acknowledged the board is already a large one and that there are limits to what groups can or cannot be represented on it. Some of the concerns in this area may be met by the fact that section 15 of the Bill allows the board to establish committees in relation to particular matters. The board may appoint to a committee persons who are not members of the board but who have special knowledge or experience.

The position regarding court accommodation was raised by Deputies, Higgins, Upton, McManus and others. The Minister, Deputy O'Donoghue, mentioned that he had recently officially opened the new Tallaght courthouse which was provided at a cost of approximately £1 million. The courthouse in Abbeyfeale was recently fully refurbished and was opened this week by the Minister for the Environment, Deputy Dempsey.

Major courthouse refurbishments are also under way at Cork Circuit Court, Portlaoise, Waterford, Roscrea, Rathdowney and Ennis. Work will also commence this year on the refurbishment of a number of other courthouses. We accept that there are concerns with regard to the conditions of courthouses throughout the country. However, we have provided over £12 million this year for their refurbishment. This is the highest amount that has been allocated since the Department took over financial responsibility for courthouses from local authorities in 1990.

Deputies Higgins, Upton and McManus expressed concern that provision should be made for a statistics unit to compile and publish statistical data on court proceedings. Section 5 of the Bill sets out the proposed functions of the court service. The first is to manage the courts and this includes the function of establishing a statistics unit, to compile statistical data on court proceedings. We do not believe it would be a helpful approach to the Bill to try to prescribe in every detail how the courts service should be managed. Indeed, it might defeat the very purpose of establishing a court service if we were to state in the Bill that a statistics unit is to be established, but not state that a finance, technology or personnel unit should be established. That is not to say that we do not recognise the need for comprehensive and up to date court statistics, which has been mentioned by a number of speakers. However, we believe that function is clearly comprehended by the function of managing the courts which is already enshrined in the Bill.

Deputy O'Flynn also welcomed the Bill and set out many of the issues which we believe the new courts service will be well placed to address.

Deputy Hanafin emphasised the need for information on our courts to be available. The Bill recognises the importance of this where, at section 5(c), the service is given the specific function to provide information on the courts system to the public. Deputy Hanafin also spoke about difficulties that have arisen in relation to solicitors advertising for business. The Minister intends to introduce legislation addressing this matter in the near future.

Deputy Roche raised the question of accountability of the Judiciary. Obviously I cannot comment on particular court cases. The Constitution provides that all judges shall be independent in the exercise of their judicial functions. As to section 8, which the Deputy mentioned, the Minister may direct particular information to be included in the Courts Service annual report. This could encompass information in relation to the general timescale in which cases are dealt with.

I thank all Deputies for the broad welcome given to the Bill. I am sure we all look forward to Committee Stage where we can address the issues raised in greater detail.

Question put and agreed to.