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.