I move: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."
The legal system is central to the notion of what it means to be part of a civilised society, as it has an impact on the lives of all citizens. Key elements of the system, including the courts and the Judiciary, have served this country well. Needs and expectations change over time, however, and provisions in successive courts Acts reflect the demands and pressures on the legal system. Unsurprisingly, the Courts and Court Officers Bill, 2001, also reflects an awareness of the need to reshape certain elements of the system and to change our approach in certain key areas. It contains a number of measures relating to the legal system, some more wide-ranging than others. The measures cover three broad areas, the Judiciary, the courts and the Courts Service.
Turning first to the Judiciary, Deputies will recall that the Courts and Court Officers Act, 1995, made solicitors of ten years' standing eligible for appointment as Circuit Court judges. This was seen at the time as an innovative step as it was perceived that such judges would bring valuable insights to the Circuit Court, given the particular role solicitors play in the legal system. In a further reforming measure, Circuit Court judges of four years' standing were allowed to become eligible for appointment to the High Court or the Supreme Court. In effect, therefore, an indirect mechanism was provided whereby solicitors appointed to the Circuit Court bench might, over time, ultimately serve on the bench of both courts.
Given the fundamental role played by the Judiciary in our legal system, it is not surprising that the pace of change in this area should be gradual and incremental in nature. Having said that, the debate on the 1995 Act focused attention on the question of qualifications for appointment as judges of the High and Supreme Courts and a working group was subsequently established to consider the matter. A key recommendation of the group was that suitably qualified solicitors should be eligible for direct appointment to the Supreme and High Courts. The Government had no hesitation in accepting the recommendation and one of the factors, among many, which influenced the decision was the contribution made by solicitors appointed as Circuit Court judges under the 1995 Act.
It would not be an exaggeration to say that Part 2 of this Bill contains one of the central policy elements in this legislation, namely, that practising solicitors of not less than 12 years' standing should be eligible for direct appointment to the High and Supreme Courts. Over time, this provision should widen the pool of suitable candidates for appointment to the superior courts. The greater diversity in profile which may result will enrich further the judicial bench. It is of crucial importance in this context that solicitors are willing to exercise the general right of audience before the superior courts which they have had since the enactment of the Courts Act, 1971. In the absence of such a willingness and given the nature of the new provisions I am introducing, those provisions will be largely devoid of effect.
We are fortunate to have a Judiciary which is respected for its integrity, fairness and independence and my Government colleagues and I do not wish to see this position compromised by a complacent belief that the system in place at any given time is good enough for all times. With that in mind, this Bill contains certain new provisions relating to the manner in which the eligibility for appointment of candidates for judicial office is assessed. The Bill also provides for public scrutiny of the manner of such assessments.
Deputies will recall that to provide for increased clarity in the manner in which judges are appointed, the Courts and Court Officers Act, 1995, established the Judicial Appointments Advisory Board. A key function of the board is to recommend to the Government the names of persons suitable for appointment as judges. While the advice of the JAAB cannot be binding on the Government for constitutional reasons, the Government has direct regard to the names recommended in advising the President on the appointment of a judge and it is a matter of record that all appointments made to date have come from the recommended list.
It is clear that the JAAB has an important task in making its recommendations. Accordingly, in line with the incremental approach which I referred to earlier, additional elements of transparency and accountability are being introduced into its procedures. Section 10 of the Bill provides that the JAAB will make an annual report to the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform, to be laid before the Houses of the Oireachtas. The report will set out details of the board's activities and performance of its functions. It may include information relating to the number of persons considered by the board for appointment to the various judicial offices in the period concerned and the gender, professional qualifications and experience of those people and those appointed to judicial office. The report may also include information relating to the procedures used by the board for examining applications and the criteria used by the board to select persons to recommend to the Minister.
The Bill also provides for an important safeguard relating to the Judicial Appointments Advisory Board's report. Steps will be taken to ensure that the report will not include information which discloses or could disclose the identity of persons considered by the board in relation to appointment to judicial office, but who were not appointed. Section 7 of the Bill gives a new responsibility to the JAAB, specifying that when recommending a person for appointment to the superior courts, the board should hold the opinion that the person has an appropriate knowledge of the decisions of the superior courts and an appropriate knowledge and experience of the practice and procedures of the courts. The JAAB will have particular regard to the nature and extent of the person's practice in so far as it relates to his or her personal conduct of proceedings in the Supreme and High Courts. The conduct of proceedings, which is under scrutiny, can be as an advocate, as a solicitor instructing counsel, or both. These provisions simplify considerably the recommendations of the working group on judges' qualifications which, on closer examination, were seen to be needlessly complicated.
The working group placed considerable reliance on the fact that litigation experience in the superior courts, based on whether a solicitor is regularly engaged in the conduct of relevant proceedings, should be a condition precedent to appointment. The rigorous scrutiny to which the various recommendations of the working group were subject during the course of the drafting process suggested that this concept could give rise to uncertainty about the appointment of solicitor judges and result in any such appointments being vulnerable to challenge in the future. The Bill now proposes to make relevant litigation experience a matter about which the JAAB should form an opinion before recommending an applicant as eligible for appointment. Notwithstanding the departures from some of the working group's recommendations, I am deeply grateful to members of the group for their work and for the time they devoted to their deliberations. Without their thoroughness and diligence, it would have been more difficult to develop many of the proposals in the Bill before the House.
One point the working group noted is that an increasing number of practising barristers or solicitors change from one profession to the other mid-career. The working group recommended that such persons should be entitled to rely on cumulative relevant professional experience to meet the eligibility criteria for appointment to the superior courts. Section 6 of the Bill provides for this recommendation and also provides that cumulative relevant professional experience may be reckoned in meeting the eligibility criteria for appointment to the Circuit and District Courts.
The number of judges available to hear cases at any one time is always a matter of controversy. Conscious of the need for increased resources in this area, I put proposals to Government in the last year or so to legislate for an increase in the number of ordinary judges of the High Court. In making these proposals to Government, I had regard to the fact that a number of judges are engaged in valuable duties with tribunals or commissions of inquiry. Furthermore, Mr. Justice Quirke is undertaking significant work with the Public Service Benchmarking Body and Mr. Justice Smith has recently been appointed as chairperson of the Standards in Public Office Commission. I also took account of the views of the former President of the High Court that the workload of that court is such that an acceptable service cannot be provided to litigants with the current number of judges.
The number of cases being set down for hearing, particularly in the area of criminal law, has risen dramatically in recent years. High Court business has been further increased by the introduction of additional areas of litigation such as Criminal Assets Bureau cases. Some significant and lengthy trials in the Special Criminal Court have made it more difficult for the President of the High Court to provide an efficient service for the hearing of other cases.
Irish law supports the right to an early trial and the prohibition of proceedings where there has been an undue delay by the State which may prejudice the chance of a fair trial. The needs of litigants involved in civil and commercial cases also have to be acknowledged. Having considered my proposals, the Government approved the preparation of legislation for an increase in the number of ordinary judges of the High Court. At present, there are 24 such judges. The Government's decisions provide for an increase of two in this number, bringing the maximum number of ordinary judges to 26.
Legislative effect is given in section 25 of the Bill to the initial Government decision to increase the number of ordinary judges of the High Court to 25. I will introduce an amendment to section 25 of the Bill on Committee Stage to take account of the further decision of the Government, which was taken after the Bill was published, that the number of ordinary judges of the High Court should be 26.
Deputies will be aware that the Government recently decided to appoint three additional judges to the Circuit Court to facilitate the work of the tribunal chaired by Mr. Justice Flood. In order to give effect to the decision, I will introduce a Committee Stage amendment which will increase the number of ordinary judges of the Circuit Court from 27 to 30. In addition, I will also introduce an amendment to provide for an increase in the number of ordinary judges of the District Court from 50 to 52 and to provide that there may be up to 14 unassigned judges – the statutory limit is 12 at present. Enhanced pension arrangements for Mr. Justice Morris, who has agreed to chair the tribunal of inquiry into the allegations of misconduct on the part of certain members of the Garda Síochána in Donegal, will also be made by way of amendment to this Bill.
Continuing on the theme of the rights of citizens to easier access to the courts and to the speedy resolutions of matters brought before the courts, section 11 of the Bill provides that a judge appointed to a higher court may complete any partly heard cases which he or she may have been hearing in the lower court. This measure will apply particularly in the case of Circuit Court judges appointed to the High Court. At present, when a Circuit Court judge is appointed to the High Court, any cases which he or she may not have heard completely are transferred to another judge of the Circuit Court Bench and completely reheard. In terms of continuity and the duration of the case, this may be a source of concern for all parties. I consider that this measure, which will not cause any undue disruption of the work of the higher court, is a sensible one which addresses the needs of those most significantly involved in any case, namely, the litigants.
On a separate issue regarding judicial appointments, section 4 of the Bill ensures that a judge of the European Court of Human Rights will be eligible for appointment to the superior courts in the same way as, for example, a judge of the Court of Justice of the European Communities. Section 9 of the Bill clarifies certain administrative arrangements which are relevant where a person such as a judge of the Court of Justice is being appointed to judicial office by the President.
Provision is also made in section 4 for Circuit Court judges of not less than two years' standing to be eligible for appointment to the superior courts, replacing the existing provision where such judges have to be of four years' standing to be eligible. Ten years' service as a barrister or solicitor is required for appointment as a Circuit Court judge. The ten years plus two years arrangement envisaged in this section has a certain symmetry with the arrangements for appointment as a judge of the superior courts in so far as practising barristers or solicitors are concerned in that there is a 12 year practice requirement incumbent on such persons. A new element in respect of the latter which is imposed by the Bill is that the requirement of 12 years' practice for barristers and solicitors who wish to be considered for appointment as a judge of the superior courts must include a continuous period of practice of not less than two years immediately before such appointment.
County Registrars who have practised as barristers or solicitors for not less than ten years prior to their appointment are already eligible for appointment as District Court judges. Under the provisions of section 5 of this Bill, such county registrars will now be eligible for appointment as Circuit Court judges. The opportunity has also been taken in section 5 to simplify the eligibility provisions regarding the appointment of District Court judges to the Circuit Court.
I will now turn to matters which are, perhaps, more germane to the way in which the courts carry out the business of administering justice. It is evident that ever increasing numbers of people are using our courts on a daily basis. I mentioned earlier the citizen's right of access to justice. This right is recognised in the significant increases in the monetary jurisdictions of the Circuit and District Courts in the matters of contract, tort and related jurisdictions. The current jurisdictions of the Circuit and District Courts were set in 1991. The increases now provided for are from £5,000 to €20,000 in the case of the District Court and from £30,000 to €100,000 in the case of the Circuit Court. The Government considers that the jurisdictional amounts provided for in the Bill are realistic levels which are appropriate to today's society.
The fact that cases can now be taken at a lower level than hitherto should mean that all parties will incur reduced costs. This is good for individual litigants and the State where the latter is party to an action. The District and Circuit Courts are located conveniently around the country. Therefore, it is not just legal costs which will be affected. If, as expected, the proposals in the Bill lead to a substantial transfer of actions from the High Court to the lower courts, there will, in addition to the greater convenience, also be savings in matters such as travelling expenses for litigants and witnesses. These proposals will facilitate reductions in the real cost of litigation.
The increased jurisdiction levels are provided for in sections 12 and 13 of the Bill. Sections 14 to 17, inclusive, provide for amendments to other enactments which are necessary to reflect the increased levels. The increased jurisdiction levels proposed for the Circuit Court and District Court are in keeping with Government initiatives in the area of ease of access to justice generally. The Government has decided to establish a statutory board – the personal injuries assessment board – to decide issues of quantum in personal injuries arising from employers' liability and motor insurance claims. The Government has also established the State Claims Agency to apply best commercial practice to the management of certain personal injury and property damage claims against the State with the objective of ensuring that such claims are resolved fairly, expeditiously and economically.
Deputies will be aware that the Courts Act, 1991, allows the Government to revise, by order, the monetary limits of the lower courts having regard to the value of money generally since the limits were previously revised. The legislative provision for an increase in the jurisdiction levels of the lower courts which I am proposing today does not affect the provisions of the 1991 Act.
On a related jurisdictional matter, sections 18 to 20, inclusive, of the Bill provide for increases in the jurisdiction of the courts where certain family law matters are concerned. Essentially, these relate to maintenance payments and certain responsibilities incurred in the event of the birth or death of a child. Again, the increased jurisdiction levels provided for in the Bill are appropriate to and reflective of today's society and cost of living. These increases will assist many deserted spouses in obtaining substantially increased maintenance for themselves and their children under the Family Law (Maintenance of Spouses and Children) Act, 1976. A similar increase in the weekly amount that may be awarded by the District Court for the maintenance of a child under the Guardianship of Infants Act, 1964, is also proposed.
At this juncture, I wish to put Deputies on notice that I will introduce on Committee Stage an amendment to the Bill which will amend the Bankruptcy Act, 1988, by increasing the upper limit at which the official assignee in bankruptcy may agree costs. The revised upper limit will be increased from £1,000 to €7,000 and allow the official assignee to deal with the majority of smaller bills of costs, thus providing for a more streamlined, commercial and economic approach to costs arising out of bankruptcy procedures.
Deputies may recall the passage of the Valuation Act, 2001. The property valuation arrangements set out in that Act, when it enters into force on 2 May, will have implications for the jurisdictions of the Circuit and District Courts in property matters. The Circuit Court has jurisdiction in a wide range of cases where land is the subject matter of the proceedings and the rateable valuation of that land does not exceed £200. There are also a number of family law statutes where jurisdiction is assigned to the Circuit Court on a similar basis. In many of the cases arising under those statutes the family home would be the main asset at issue. The District Court also has a certain family law jurisdiction where the rateable valuation does not exceed £20. An assessment of the jurisdiction requirements in property matters is being undertaken by officials of my Department and the Courts Service, the outcome of which will lead to further legislative provisions in the matter of jurisdiction coming before the Houses in due course.
If the increases in jurisdiction provided for in the Bill are to be effective, it is essential that plaintiffs are encouraged to initiate their actions in the lowest court which has jurisdiction to hear them. This is also desirable from a social viewpoint, as otherwise litigants who are financially better off would have an advantage over poorer litigants. This policy is reflected in statutory provisions in courts legislation which generally limit the costs which a successful litigant may recover in an action to the costs appropriate to the lowest court having jurisdiction to grant the relief given.
The discretion of the courts to grant costs higher than the level of costs appropriate to the lowest court having jurisdiction to grant relief is circumscribed by the Courts Act, 1981. It is proposed at section 16 of the Bill that the limits prescribed in that Act be updated in line with the monetary jurisdiction provisions contained in the Bill. Provision is made at section 17 for an increase in the award which the District Court can make in an action for unliquidated damages which may be remitted to it from the Circuit Court in certain limited instances. Again, the increases proposed are in line with the jurisdiction provisions made at sections 12 and 13.
I have referred to the impact of increased jurisdiction levels in reducing court costs. Another feature of the Bill where reduction of costs is an issue is the significant provision at section 26 to change the manner in which interest is calculated on costs, charges or expenses of certain judgments, orders or decrees. At present interest on undischarged legal costs runs at 8% per annum from the date of the judgment relating to that cost. This is also the rate which applies in respect of judgment debts proper. While it is helpful that interest should apply to outstanding legal costs to encourage prompt settlement between the parties to an action, the rate of 8% per annum which applies is not appropriate given the interest rates which prevail currently in the State as a whole. In future, a nominal rate of 2% per annum will apply from the date a judgment is given to the date when the parties agree costs among themselves or until the date on which a certificate of taxation issues, whichever is appro priate. Thereafter, the interest rate of 8% which applies to judgment debts will apply to the outstanding costs until that amount of costs is paid. Provision is also made in this section of the Bill for the 2% rate to be varied by ministerial order, having regard to the levels of interest generally in the State.
The third broad area addressed in the Bill concerns the Courts Service. An independent Courts Service was provided for in the Courts Service Act, 1998, and the service itself was established on 9 November 1999. Not surprisingly, after two years' experience it has become clear that certain administrative refinements are desirable in the interests of having a more streamlined operating procedure for aspects of the service. A number of provisions in the Bill relate directly to this matter.
Section 31 of the Bill provides that the annual report of the Courts Service will be in respect of the preceding calendar year, rather than the 12 month period commencing on the establishment, or anniversary of establishment, of the service. The Courts Service's first and very comprehensive report was laid before the Houses last summer. For practical reasons, this report covered the period from establishment day to the end of the year 2000. All future reports will, on foot of the new statutory provision, be in respect of the relevant January to December period.
The procedures for delegating within the Courts Service the authentication of particular orders or instruments are clarified at section 32. Similar clarification in relation to the determination by the Courts Service board of its functions and the delegation of those functions is made at sections 33 and 34. Section 35 explicitly permits the Courts Service board to establish committees, not just to advise it, but also to carry out certain functions of the board. Section 36 introduces some minor administrative adjustments to the existing provisions which relate to the functions of the chief executive officer of the Courts Service.
Planning matters are addressed in section 37 of the Bill, which ensures the Courts Service continues to enjoy the exemption from planning permission requirements provided for in the Courts Service Act, 1998, which predated the Planning and Development Act, 2000. Section 38 concerns the expenses incurred in the provision of accommodation for High Court judges on circuit. The effect of the provision is to ensure the determination of such expenses will be a function of the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform, not the Courts Service.
The remaining provisions of the Bill are largely of a stand-alone nature. For instance, sections 28 and 29 deal with the arrangements governing membership of the various rules committees and allow for the delegation of membership in appropriate instances, while section 24 removes certain anomalies with regard to the service of Circuit Court documents.
In section 27 there is provision for a minor adjustment to the Charities Act, 1973, to deal with problems which can arise in the case of charities established by statute where their objects are no longer relevant. The provision will allow the Commissioners for Charitable Donations and Bequests to deal with such cases in a way which is not possible at present.
The brief resumé which I have given of the Bill's provisions makes it clear that, while it contains certain provisions which are of considerable importance, it also contains many provisions which are more mundane in nature. This is not controversial legislation and I hope Deputies on all sides of the House will co-operate in ensuring its speedy passage. The Bill is essentially practical legislation and I will be introducing a limited number of technical amendments to it on Committee Stage.
The work of the Courts Service is dynamic and ongoing. The Chief Justice and chairperson of the Courts Service board, the Honourable Mr. Justice Keane, recently announced the establishment of a working group to examine and report on the operation and organisation of the various jurisdictions of the courts system. The working group has very wide-ranging terms of reference and will be carrying out its functions in three or more modules dealing, first, with the criminal law and, second, the civil law. I welcome the establishment of this working group and wish it every success in its deliberations. I also look forward to the presentation of its findings in due course.
The key elements of the Bill are: solicitors will now be eligible for direct appointment as judges of the superior courts; there will be increased transparency and accountability in the manner in which the Judicial Appointments Advisory Board operates; and the jurisdictions of the Circuit and District Courts will be increased to reflect more fully the needs of society.
There is no closed list when it comes to activity in this area and, in future, it is more than likely that there will be other court related Bills containing other reforms. I mentioned, however, the incremental approach which is a feature of courts legislation. A modern and complex society such as our own, which is undergoing rapid change, places many demands on our legal structures and it is right that those structures should be examined and, if necessary, reformed to reflect the changing face of society. Nonetheless, the centrality of the justice system in our society means that we have to exercise our stewardship with care and any reforming measures must be preceded by considered debate and clear and rational analysis. That was the approach taken to some of the key provisions in the Bill. It is also the approach being taken in other areas, as evidenced by the Chief Justice's working group on jurisdiction to which I have just referred.
I look forward to hearing the views of Deputies on the proposals contained in the Bill which I commend to the House.