Civil Liability and Courts Bill 2004 [Seanad]: Second Stage.

I move: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."

I welcome the opportunity to bring the Civil Liability and Courts Bill 2004 before this House following its passage through Seanad Éireann. The Bill was generally well received in the Seanad. The debate was constructive and helpful and, arising from the debate, a number of amendments have been made to it.

The Bill implements certain commitments in An Agreed Programme for Government, including relevant recommendations of the Motor Insurance Advisory Board, MIAB, and changes the law on civil liability in some other respects. By introducing new penalties for fraudulent and exaggerated claims it tackles the so-called "compensation culture". The Bill also provides for major procedural changes in relation to personal injury actions to reduce the time taken and the costs involved in processing such actions. In addition, the Bill amends thein camera rule, provides for the disposal of part of the funds of suitors and makes provision in relation to the jurisdiction of the Circuit Court in proceedings relating to land, consequent on the ending of the rateable valuation system.

The Bill complements the Personal Injuries Assessment Board Act 2003, which was sponsored by my colleague, the Tánaiste and Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment, Deputy Harney. The PIAB was established to address the situation where liability is not an issue. The measures contained in this Bill are aimed at cases where legal action is instituted in the courts.

I am convinced that this Bill, when in force, will help to alleviate the insurance burden on customers and business and the cost to public authorities of personal injury actions. It can do this without compromising the right of persons injured through the wrongful act of another to be compensated for their loss. Substantial progress has been made on personal injuries premiums which are moving in the right direction. Employers' liability premiums and public liability premiums are also moving in the right direction. Nothing can be taken for granted. Increased competition in the insurance area coupled with the raft of measures taken by the Government, on foot of the commitments in the programme for Government, have produced results. Those results must be sustained and the reforms involved must be driven home and made permanent, not just as some passing phase.

In regard to civil liability, this country faces serious competition as a location for economic activity. One of the chief negatives in Ireland is the civil liability culture, which is probably one of the most "generous" schemes in Europe. This is funded by an insurance premium underpinning which is probably one of the most penal on enterprise and on ordinary citizens in the European Union.

As in the Seanad, I look forward to the views which will be expressed in today's debate and I will be as accommodating as I can be in that regard. I turn to the main provisions of the Bill. Part 2 deals with civil liability and provides for procedural and other changes in actions to recover damages for personal injuries.

Section 6 amends the Statute of Limitations (Amendment) Act 1991 by reducing the limitation period for personal injuries actions from three to two years to ensure that claims are brought forward in a timely fashion. Members will recall that the Bill as published proposed to reduce the limitation period to one year. This provision was discussed in detail in the Seanad where it was argued that the proposed one year period was too short, particularly in cases of medical negligence. From my own experience in the legal profession, I can appreciate the problems which can arise in such cases and, having regard to the views expressed in the Seanad and elsewhere, have agreed to set the limitation period at two years. There is an emphasis in Part 2 on the provision of full information on the claim being made. The reduction from three to two years is made in the context of the obligation to send the initial warning letter, which is an innovation.

At the end of the two year period, it will not suffice to issue a general plenary summons with a general endorsement of claim saying the plaintiff's claim is for damages for negligence. At the end of the period, a pleading will have to be served which rolls up the original summons and statement of claim in civil procedure. The plaintiff will have to state in his or her first court document the entirety of the claim as known to him or her. That is another time constraint which must be taken into account in the context of adopting or changing the Statute of Limitations. As people involved in civil litigation will remember, it was very easy simply to stop the clock with a plenary summons. It will not be possible to stop the clock with a three-line summons from now on, rather it will be necessary to set outin extenso what a claim is all about.

Section 7 provides that where a plaintiff fails to serve a notice on the defendant within two months of the date of an accident or the date of knowledge, he or she may be — not necessarily must be — penalised in costs. Furthermore, the court may, not must, draw such inferences from the failure as appear appropriate. Under the section, there is a general duty to notify and warn the other side that a claim is in prospect, particularly in cases in which solicitors are involved.

In many cases, time limits set down by rules of court are not adhered to which causes delays in the progress of actions. This has been the subject of some criticism at European Court of Human Rights level. Therefore, section 8 makes it a function of the court to ensure positively that parties to a personal injuries action comply with rules of court. Extensions to time limits will only be allowed where both parties agree or where they are necessary to enable an action to be properly prosecuted or defended or where the interests of justice require an extension. An extension will not simply be available as a matter of course to a party from now on. The culture must change in this respect.

It is a common complaint of our current personal injuries system that defendants are often unaware of the details of a claim until late in proceedings. Sections 9 to 12, inclusive, seek to remedy this difficulty. Section 9 provides that a personal injuries action shall be brought by means of a personal injuries summons and outlines the information which must be contained in such a summons. This information includes particulars of all items of special damages claimed, the wrongful acts of the defendant, the circumstances of the wrong and each instance of negligence. In many cases, further information may be required from the plaintiff by the defendant. Section 10 deals with this issue by listing items of information which may be requested and, as a result, must be supplied. Where a claim is made for earnings or other income, the plaintiff is required on request to furnish documents from the Revenue Commissioners or the Minister for Social and Family Affairs. Provision is also made to give the courts power to deal with non-compliance with a request under the section.

The need for full information applies also to defences and counterclaims. In section 11, it is provided that a defence must specify those elements of the claim for which the defendant does or does not require proof. The defence must also contain a statement outlining the grounds on which a defendant claims he or she is not liable for any injuries to the plaintiff. In respect of counterclaims, the section lists those elements which must be included. In essence, a counterclaim must contain all the information required in a personal injuries summons as outlined in section 9. The intention with this section is to ensure that a plaintiff is fully apprised of the details. Section 12 requires that all pleadings contain full and detailed particulars and that such pleadings must be lodged in the relevant court. Deputies will note that I introduced an amendment to this section in the Seanad which provides that all pleadings shall be in a form prescribed by rules of court.

A key element of the Bill is contained in section 13 which is designed to combat false and exaggerated personal injury claims. Under the section, parties to a personal injury action must swear an affidavit verifying the contents of any pleading or further information requested under section 10. I have made a minor amendment to section 13(4)(a). Whereas the Bill originally required that a verifying affidavit be lodged in court not later than seven days after the service of a pleading, this period has now been changed to 21 days. I took this action in response to amendments tabled by Opposition Senators and other views which were expressed to me.

Section 13(5) makes it an offence to make a statement in an affidavit which is false or misleading and which the person knows to be false and misleading. As Deputies will see, this is a serious criminal offence which attracts a ten-year penalty. The offence is not prosecutable summarily except where the District Court accepts jurisdiction. A further aspect of this provision — as outlined in section 13(8) — is that the section applies not only to actions brought following its commencement but also to actions pending at that time where one party requires another to swear a verifying affidavit. Consequently, the reform will become operative from a very early date once the provision is in force.

Section 14 provides that a court may direct the parties to a personal injuries action to meet in a mediation conference to discuss and attempt to settle a case. A chairman of the conference may be agreed by the parties or, in the absence of such agreement, appointed by the court. It is vital in mediation that the confidentiality of all parties is respected. To ensure this is the case, section 14 provides that the notes of a chairperson of a mediation conference and all communications during it shall be confidential and cannot be used in evidence in any subsequent civil or criminal proceedings.

Section 15 provides that, if necessary, the chairman of a mediation conference must prepare and submit to the court a report of the conference. I introduced an amendment to this section in response to points made by Senators which will ensure that any report shall also be provided to the parties involved in the action. The report shall outline whether the conference took place, what issues, if any, were agreed and, where an agreement has been reached, contain a copy of the settlement terms signed by all parties. In cases where a party has failed to comply with a direction of the court under section 14 to participate in a conference, the court may direct that party to pay costs incurred after the direction.

My intention in introducing section 16 is to put in place a system whereby parties state their terms of settlement before a case proceeds to trial. The section requires the plaintiff and defendant in a personal injuries action to serve a notice of offer of settlement on the other party. It remains open to a defendant to state that he or she wishes to offer a nil amount by way of settlement. Such offers of settlement will remain open for a period to be prescribed by regulations. While a judge hearing a case will be aware that offers of settlement have been made, he or she will not be aware of the terms of such offers until after a judgment has been delivered in the action. The court shall, however, have regard to the offers and the conduct of the parties in making the final offers when considering the costs of an action.

The reasonableness or unreasonableness of the behaviour of the parties will be directly reflected in the decision on costs at the conclusion of a case if that becomes relevant. People who play hardball, ham up claims or behave unreasonably and force another party to defend a claim will find themselves in danger of being seriously penalised on costs. That will have the positive effect as members of the legal profession find there is a serious risk to their own interest in a case, which is usually costs, if they play hardball or behave unreasonably.

In section 17, the concept of pre-trial hearings is introduced. A pre-trial hearing is intended to determine what matters, are in dispute and require to be decided at a trial. In section 18, provision is made for a court to direct that evidence may be given by way of affidavit. In many personal injuries actions conflicting evidence from experts must be decided on by the court.

Section 19 allows a court to appoint approved persons to investigate and give expert evidence on any issue the court may direct. The section provides also that any party to a personal injuries action shall co-operate with an approved person. The provision is intended to allow the court to appoint to assist it an expert independent of any expert witness retained by the parties. If it must be decided whether somebody is or is not suffering from chronic back pain, it will be open to the court to appoint a medical practitioner with expertise in that area to prepare an independent view. The justice provided will not simply be adversarial as the court itself will have its own independent view of the matter. While the expert testifying in those circumstances will be liable to cross-examination, the provision will lead to a less adversarial system of expert testimony than currently exists.

Section 20 is an important provision dealing with intervention in a personal injuries action. It provides that where an appeal is taken to the Supreme Court, the court may, where it considers that any matter in the case is of exceptional public importance and the action is one of a class of claims in which the same or similar matters arise, invite appropriate persons to make submissions to it. Such an intervention may come about at the initiative of the court, at the request of any party or of any person who is not a party. An issue may arise in a series of cases which is of exceptional public importance and goes beyond the interests of the parties before the court.

This could, for example occur within the ambit of nervous shock. If, for example, when walking down a street I witness a collision between two people causing fatal injury to one of them and I suffer shock and injury on account of what I have witnessed, the ambit of that right to claim damages has serious implications. Recently, for example, we had a case where somebody working in a hospital accident and emergency unit or a morgue claimed damages after suffering nervous shock arising from a traffic accident.

This gives rise to the question of reasonable foreseeability and proximity. This is not just a matter of a good or bad barrister spending an afternoon in court arguing the toss between a plaintiff or a defendant and coming to a conclusion on this issue. The Attorney General or others may want to tell the Supreme Court that such a High Court decision extends the concept of reasonable foreseeability or proximity too far and will have general repercussions if it becomes a general application.

Section 21 provides that a court should have regard to the book of quantum produced by the Personal Injuries Assessment Bureau when assessing damages in a personal injuries action. Subsection (2) provides that this shall not operate to prohibit a court from having regard to matters other than the book of quantum when determining damages. This is an effort to bring some degree of joined-up thinking to the issue so the book of quantum will not be a document that gets discarded or left behind. It will be a document relevant to court cases and must, therefore, be maintained in a condition suitably relevant to them and PIAB proceedings.

Section 22 deals with the issue of actuarial tables. The section provides that the Minister may prescribe actuarial tables for the purpose of assessing damages for future financial loss in personal injuries actions. The court is required under subsection (2) to refer to such tables in making its assessment of damages. Subsection (3) provides for the designation of a person to prepare such tables.

Section 23 will enable the Minister to fix by regulation the rate to be used by the court to discount future losses to their present value. By doing this, I hope to obviate the need to call expert actuarial or economist evidence in cases where there would be disagreement between the parties as to what the discount rate should be. This would have the effect of creating greater certainty on the subject and of reducing costs.

An essential element of the Bill is the necessity to reduce the number of false and bogus claims for personal injuries. Sections 24 and 25 seek to tackle this issue. Section 24 deals with the issue of false evidence. It makes it an offence to give, adduce or dishonestly cause to be given or adduced evidence that is false or misleading and which a person knows to be false or misleading. Equally, it shall be an offence to give, adduce or dishonestly cause to be given or adduced false information to a solicitor or expert on the other side for the purpose of codding them as to the nature of a case. Section 24(4) provides that this section applies to personal injuries actions pending at its commencement as well as to subsequent actions. It cannot, however, be retrospective in its effect. That an action has commenced before the Act comes into operation does not mean there will be a free pass with regard to such falsity.

Many Deputies share my concern that, in some cases, persons have misled the courts on aspects of their claim and yet have walked away with a substantial award in their favour. This is unacceptable. Section 25 will deal with this situation. It provides that, where a plaintiff in a personal injuries action gives, adduces or dishonestly causes to be given or adduced evidence that is false or misleading and which the plaintiff knows is false or misleading, the court shall dismiss the plaintiff's action unless this would result in injustice being done.

This creates two conditions. From now on, if people tell lies in support of their claim for personal injury, they risk losing everything. This also gives defendants an incentive to examine cases carefully because, if they detect dishonesty on the plaintiff's side, the case can be dismissed in its entirety. This provision is not made to provide a bonus to insurance companies but to deter fraudulent cases. People must understand that if they take personal injuries actions, they will lose out if they come other than with clean hands as genuine claimants. If they come with dishonest intent either to exaggerate or tell lies about their case, they will get nothing.

If, for example, a plaintiff states that as a result of fracturing his or her leg he or she can no longer play golf and subsequently a video is shown to the court of the person playing golf, the person will not only not get the extra damages he or she would have got as a result of not being able to play golf but will also lose the full damages and the case will be thrown out of court emphatically. Costs will also be charged.

Section 26 deals with the issue of collateral benefits. The Civil Liability Act 1961 and the amending legislation of 1964 are amended by providing for the deductibility of charitable donations made by the defendant if he or she specifies in advance that the donation is being made on that basis.

Section 27 provides that any income, in respect of which a claim is being made but which has not been returned or notified to the Revenue Commissioners will be disregarded by the court in assessing damages save for situations where the court considers that an injustice would be done. Therefore, compensation cannot be made for black market income.

I already mentioned offences committed under this Part of the Bill. Such offences are serious. Section 28 provides that, if convicted on indictment for an offence, a person shall be liable for a penalty of imprisonment for a term not exceeding ten years or a fine not exceeding €100,000, or both. A summary conviction, which is not available as of right, carries a maximum penalty of one year in prison or a fine of up to €3,000, or both.

Section 29 provides that the Courts Service shall set up and maintain a register of personal injuries actions, which shall contain the name, address and occupation of the parties to personal injuries actions. The register shall be published on the Internet and in any other form the Courts Service considers appropriate. This will make it clear that a person cannot be a multiple claimant and hope to get away with it if there is any dishonesty involved. A person cannot keep falling over potholes in a variety of different local authority areas and hope the fact of the various claims remains secret. Claiming records will be noted and available.

Section 30 will remedy what might be regarded as a deficiency in the Personal Injuries Assessment Board Act as passed in the Oireachtas towards the end of last year. Section 54(1)(c) of the Act provides that one of the principal functions of the PIAB is to cause a cost-benefit analysis to be made of the legal procedures and the associated processes employed in the State for the purpose of awarding compensation for personal injuries. While Section 54(2) provides that the board shall have all such powers as are necessary or expedient for, or incidental to, the performance of its functions under the Act, it is considered opportune to provide a specific power to the PIAB to require any person, including a Minister or a body established by or under any enactment, to provide it with any information it may reasonably require for the purposes of the performance of this particular function under section 54(1)(c). Subsection (2) imposes a duty to comply with a requirement of the PIAB in this respect. This means that the PIAB can seek a court order against any non-compliant person or body.

Part 3 of the Bill provides for the realisation of the dormant funds of suitors of the High Court, and of the special account for small balances in the High Court and their transfer to the Exchequer for the benefit of projects of the Courts Service. Dormant funds of suitors of the High Court result mainly from unclaimed funds of wards of court, funds invested on behalf of minors, tail balances, bail deposits, civil lodgements as well as amounts of interest accruing on capital sums lodged in court and subsequently paid out. Funds become dormant when there has been no activity over the preceding 15 years, with the exception of small balances which are deemed to be dormant after five years. Periodic efforts made by the Courts Service to refund dormant funds to account holders have met with limited success.

There have been four previous Funds of Suitors Acts, in 1959, 1963, 1966 and 1984. Those Acts allocated the dormant funds to certain social, cultural and court rehabilitation projects such as the Cork Opera House, the Abbey Theatre, the Peacock Theatre, The King's Inns and the Children's Court.

When I originally introduced this Bill in the Seanad, the then estimated value of the dormant funds was €6.4 million. However, the Courts Service had not at that stage completed its full examination of such accounts and in the interim certain amounts became dormant. Several of these were unusually large. I am now informed by the Courts Service that the value of the dormant funds is currently estimated at €9.4 million. The critical point on this occasion is that the funds transferred will be used now and in the future for purposes in regard to the defrayal of costs involved in the provision, management and maintenance of court buildings, as provided for in the relevant section of the Courts Service Act 1998.

Following further consultation with the Courts Service, the Department of Finance and the parliamentary counsel, I intend to introduce on Committee Stage certain necessary and primarily technical and procedural clarifications and additions to this part of the Bill by way of amendments. In particular, having noted comments in the Seanad, it is my intention to provide for a public notification procedure of the transfer of the funds and also to provide for the creation of a proper registration system for the dormant funds. These matters did not feature in any previous funds of suitors legislation, but I believe they are now necessary to assist and inform any persons who might have a claim on the dormant funds.

Chapter 2 of Part 3 deals with miscellaneous court provisions. Among the court provisions included in this chapter are the amendment of thein camera rule and provisions regarding the jurisdiction of the Circuit Court in proceedings relating to land. Section 36 amends the in camera rule, particularly as it relates to various family law statutes. This was the subject of much discussion in the Seanad. I am not happy with the current construction of the section and will table an amendment on Committee Stage to remedy the apparent deficiencies in the section as drafted. As currently drafted, I am concerned that the section could expose people to the fear at any rate, if not the reality, that their private affairs might be made public in a way that is unacceptable. At present, costs bear interest from the date of judgment even though the solicitor has not yet submitted the bill, which is strange. This situation is not fair to the party who, ultimately, has to pay the costs.

Section 37 amends section 30 of the Courts and Court Officers Act 2002. The net effect of the amendment is that interest on legal costs will not be payable until the amount of costs is agreed by the parties or until the costs are taxed or measured. Thereafter the costs will bear interest at a rate specified for judgments from time to time.

Section 38 provides that High Court registrars shall in future act as registrars to the Central Criminal Court when it sits in Dublin. The role of assigning persons to act in this capacity is currently carried out by the Dublin County Registrar. Deputies will be aware that the Central Criminal Court now sits on occasions outside Dublin. Section 39 provides for the carrying out of the registrar functions in those circumstances by the local county registrar or a member of the staff of the local Circuit Court office when the Central Criminal Court is sitting at that location.

Sections 40 to 47, inclusive, address the implications of the Valuation Act 2001 for court jurisdiction in property matters, mainly in respect of the Circuit Court. At present, jurisdiction is determined on the basis of rateable valuation and jurisdiction is granted to the Circuit Court where the rateable valuation does not exceed €253.95. The introduction in the Valuation Act 2001 of a new valuation system which more accurately reflects current property values requires a modification of these provisions. These sections change the jurisdiction limit of €253.95 rateable valuation to a market value of €3 million. The term "market value" is defined in the legislation.

Section 48 and 49 relate to the exclusion of certain witnesses. Section 49 is not now needed and I will propose its deletion on Committee Stage. Section 48 is designed to ensure that witnesses may be excluded from a trial until such time as it is necessary for them to give evidence. This will also prevent them from being informed about what is happening in the court in their absence. This will prevent witnesses being influenced or tailoring their evidence to match what they hear being put to other witnesses in court or what was said earlier in a trial.

The purpose of section 50 is to amend section 46 of the Courts and Court Officers Act 2002, which has not been brought into operation, to remove the possibility of judges being required to deliver judgments within prescribed periods but to preserve the purpose of the original provision, which was the requirement for a register of reserved judgments, which will be accessible to the public. I have concerns that section 46 of the 2002 Act, as it stands, might amount to an inappropriate interference with the exercise of judicial functions. The reason for this amendment is to make it clear that there is no such intended interference.

I indicated some amendments I propose to bring forward on Committee Stage. I am glad to inform the House that, following the approval of the Government, I am also amending the Bill to provide for an increase in the number of the Judiciary — three in the High Court, three in the Circuit Court and two in the District Court, and currently there is a vacancy pending in the District Court. This provision will mean that if the Bill becomes law, the process will be put in place to appoint nine judges in the near future. These increases should go a long way to reduce delays in the courts and to improve their effectiveness.

Among the amendments I intend to table on Committee Stage is one that will provide for certain new possibilities in regard to applications for the issuing of summonses for offences to be tried in the District Court. The amendment will provide for the establishment of an office of the Courts Service, in addition to the ordinary District Court office procedures, to which applications can be made for the issuing of summonses and from which summonses can be issued. The establishment of this new centralised office will not remove the role of the local District Court office in the issuing of summonses in the normal way. It will allow for organisational changes to facilitate the full implementation of the penalty points system — in other words, it will provide for a central application for summons in certain cases where that kind of operation has been carried out. Provision is being made for both the application and the issuing to be carried out by electronic means.

This Bill is enormously significant in the context of personal injuries actions and the other changes it introduces, and I commend it to the House. There are other aspects I would like to have addressed in the Bill. There are aspects of civil liability law which I had intended to amend, and had canvassed in this regard, such as those relating to voluntary bodies, community activities and raising the bar against claims made against those bodies, but, unfortunately, I had to make a choice. Either I acted now to deal with the immediate insurance premium problem and a compensation culture problem or, alternatively, I waited until complex issues of civil law were teased out at great length and all the legal implications were dealt with. I regret that I have had to compromise by leaving that material out of this legislation, but it is something I will be disposed to revisit if the opportunity presents itself.

I am glad the Minister has acted to bring forward this Bill. The background to the need for it is that this country had become immersed in the compensation culture. The Government has been slow to respond to that development which has become pervasive during the past decade or so. Similarly, its response to the related phenomenon of rip-off Ireland has also been dilatory and grossly inadequate. The Government has been in office for more than seven years and it is only now that the reforms proposed in this Bill are before the House.

On a related issue, the Personal Injuries Assessment Board has been established but I do not know whether it will have an impact in this regard. It is only in its start-up phase and it has not had an impact to date. However, a number of other aspects have affected attitudes in regard to a compensation culture. The public drew a connection between the awards granted by the courts and the size of insurance premia. That gradually percolated through to members of the public that there was not only a dipping into a bottomless well provided by God knows who but that there was that connection. That helped to change public attitudes.

We must be careful what we say about judges, but there has been a change of attitude by judges. When I practised as a lawyer there were members on the Bench who were very well known as plaintiffs' judges. All claims are receiving far more scrutiny by judges and, in many instances, have led to the dismissal of cases — in some cases, with the payment of costs. Generally, there has been a more balanced approach to the amount of awards granted.

Prior to this Bill coming into operation and prior to the PIAB becoming effective, we have had a reduction in the level of insurance premia in recent times.

However, to be fair, it has been a reduction from very dizzy heights in that the cost of insurance premia increased perhaps twofold, threefold or fourfold over the past seven or eight years. Therefore, let us not go wild with enthusiasm. If the establishment of the PIAB and the reforms being introduced further reduce premia, so much the better.

I have outlined the background to the Bill. While there are some aspects of it that require comment, I will not be opposing it. Its provisions resulted very largely from reports by bodies such as the Law Society — let me declare an interest as I am a member — which have fed into the thinking behind the Bill. The Bill is to be welcomed and my main criticism is that it is "better late than never".

When talking about the compensation culture, there is a danger of having the pendulum swing too far. I practised as a lawyer and I am not sure my former clients in west Cork, who are now my constituents, have a greater reputation for honesty than those in the rest of the country, but I certainly believe 95% of the claimants were absolutely genuine. There were probably a few who were not and a few who were a bit tough when arranging a settlement or a conclusion to their cases. However, the claims were almost all genuine. It must be borne in mind that there are vested interests, some of which might be very happy to see the pendulum swing too far. I refer to big businesses and the insurance lobby.

One should bear in mind that most claimants are ordinary Joe or Mary Soaps who have suffered what to them may be a huge calamity. They may have been run down or severely injured, through negligence or otherwise. Let us not forget that they have legal and constitutional rights and that we should not go overboard by way of condemnation or exposure or by saying this is a country in which one should not be able to claim for one's just entitlements.

There are probably two issues of controversy associated with the Bill as it stands. I mention the first with some diffidence because it relates to the Statute of Limitations. When I discussed the Bill with my colleague, Senator Terry, I came to the view that the proposed statutory limitation of one year, which is reduced from three years, was much too short and that the Fine Gael Party should propose, by way of amendment in the Seanad, a two year period. It tabled such an amendment and it was accepted by the Minister. That was a fair and balanced approach.

There is still one outstanding issue to which further consideration should be given, namely, the limitation period applicable for medical and clinical negligence cases. These are in a separate category and they are quite complex. From my limited experience in this area, I note that there are difficulties concerning the accessibility of expert evidence. There may even be problems securing a full and proper medical report before proceedings. Sometimes those with few funds may have great difficulty in obtaining medical reports and there might be substantial costs involved. Let us at least examine the legislation to consider whether such medical and clinical negligence claims should be in a separate category.

I am not suggesting anything altogether new in this regard. If one examines the existing provisions, one will note that medical and clinical negligence claims have been placed in a separate category under the Personal Injuries Assessment Board Act. They have been isolated from the normal run of personal injury claims in that they are excluded entirely from that Act. They were probably excluded because they are so complex and therefore should be in a separate category. However, because they have been excluded the limitation period that now applies in practice will be shorter in regard to such claims than it would be for any ordinary personal injury claim. This is because the limitation period pertaining to PIAB cases is frozen during that board's personal injuries assessment process and for six months after it has ended. Consequently — I see the Ceann Comhairle, a medical doctor, casting his beady eye on me — for such unusual and complex claims, the practical effect is that the statutory limitation will be shorter than it would be for any other claim. If I am correct about this there is certainly a case for considering separately the problems that might ensue.

From a practical point of view, if one is trying to make a claim of clinical or medical negligence it involves trying to gain access to hospital records. We know the bureaucratic wall that can be erected in this regard. The patient in question might have been treated at a number of hospitals and by a number of doctors, thus causing difficulties, even with the best legal advice available, in trying to assess who is or should be responsible for the outcome.

I will return to this issue on Committee Stage. The Minister may argue when making his concluding remarks that because the time limit might operate only from the date of knowledge, it will afford extra time. This would not solve the problem. There are instances that would not be covered by the date of knowledge provision in the 1991 Act. This certainly should be re-examined. There are a number of highly controversial cases being taken at present concerning a number of doctors, one in particular from the Drogheda area, and they highlight the need to take a fresh look at the proposal in that regard.

The second controversial issue concerns the proposed changes to thein camera rule. I am glad the Minister has indicated he has been keeping attuned to the debate on this issue because the provision, as currently framed, could lead to very unsatisfactory outcomes. The present section 36 of the Bill is incredibly broad. I see a case for lifting the in camera rule in certain circumstances but it may be necessary to be more specific and to designate who exactly should be entitled to report.

It is all very well to say one cannot report the names of parties to the proceedings but this is a small country and I am quite convinced that the papers could report a case without mentioning names and yet everybody would know who was involved. This is not fair in many instances and there have been some high-profile cases in the family law area in recent times regarding which it was quite clear who was involved in the reports. If I recollect correctly, some concerned members of the legal profession. We must find a better way and I am glad the Minister has indicated that he is open to suggestions in this regard. It may involve a more specific definition and designating who is entitled to make the reports and the kinds of reports that can be made, whether they are law reports or pertain to PhD students doing theses, for example.

Let us look at it again in more detail. Bodies such as Women's Aid have raised issues which they wish to have looked at. They are anxious to ensure that the legislation should include mention of the clear criteria regarding the detail recorded from family law cases. They want some assurances about the consistent application of rules that would apply and they also indicate that there should be a role for specialist agencies which might want to support participants in family law cases. I can see a case for that. Family law cases can cause huge trauma to some of the parties involved who are in a vulnerable position. It might be right and just to provide support for such people and to make formal recognition of the need for that.

Other issues arise which will need to be looked at carefully when the Bill is debated on Committee Stage. I will, possibly, table some amendments for the Minister's delectation on the medical negligence issue and I will await the outcome of those.

Section 12 contains a provision which requires the lodgment of pleadings in the relevant court offices after they are served. Should that provision be looked at again? When I practised law that was the normal practice and mountains of paper built up in the various court offices when one was filing notices and particulars of defence or otherwise. It is my understanding that this no longer applies but that the book of pleadings is filed only when the case goes to trial. Is it going to cause all sorts of bureaucratic problems if all pleadings are filed at the time they are served? The point has been made to me that this requirement might put a burden on the Courts Service. Perhaps the Minister will check whether that is so. This may not be a sensible suggestion.

The issue of offers and the requirement that offers be made both by the plaintiff and defendant should be teased out further on Committee Stage. How effective will it be, in practical terms, for plaintiffs, in particular, to be forced to make an offer of settlement? I can see why a defendant should be required to make an offer of settlement but I wonder how wise it is to require the plaintiff to make such an offer. If one brings a case before the District Court the limit is currently €6,500 and it is €38,000 in the Circuit Court. By going before the District Court the plaintiff is offering to settle his claim for €6,500 and for €38,000 if he goes before the Circuit Court. We need to look at this provision in more detail on Committee Stage.

I have concerns about section 29, which deals with the maintenance of a register of personal injuries actions. This goes back to my earlier point about the danger of the pendulum swinging too far. This section provides for the establishment of an Internet accessible register containing personal details of plaintiffs and defendants in personal injuries actions.

It is not personal details. It is only the name and address.

I suppose that is a personal detail.

That is a very personal detail.

It is written on the plenary summons at the moment.

There are many who might not like to see their names in the public eye to the same extent as the Minister obviously does.

The term "occupation" can mean anything, as we discovered during the election campaign when people stated their occupation as peace negotiator.

I am sure we have many peace negotiators, possibly bringing that term into disrepute.

An implication might develop that the bringing of an action for personal injuries associates the plaintiff with something that is improper, fraudulent or wrong. If that were to be the outcome I would be greatly concerned. I am thinking of the 95% of people who justly claim their proper entitlement and should be encouraged so to do. If this provision were to lead to an impression that such people should be named and shamed à la tax evaders I would be very worried. We must have a democratic system whereby people, with an open mind and heart, are able to go into any court and claim their just entitlements. I would like this provision to be looked at further.

The Law Society brought to my attention a problem which may arise from section 30. This section requires certain persons to provide information. On the face of it, this requirement makes sense and the Minister dealt with this matter in his remarks. While I make no special pleading on behalf of solicitors, they can be in a special category — I speak as a non-practising solicitor. In many instances, solicitors receive documents and records from their clients on a confidential basis. A worry arises that the provision of section 30 might place a solicitor in breach of his professional and legal duty to keep confidential all matters within the solicitor client relationship. I would like to ensure that normal legal professional privilege would not be infringed as a consequence of this section. I will table an amendment on Committee Stage which the Minister might consider for that purpose.

A further aspect of the Bill needs to be highlighted and I do not do so in an adverse way. I warmly welcome the proposals regarding mediation. Mediation is not the complete answer to court claims but I have always believed that it has a huge role to play in court claims, particularly in nudging parties towards a fair and just settlement and in saving unnecessary costs. The legal profession is usually blamed for the mounting costs of expert witnesses, engineers, doctors and others. However, solicitors have a job to do and they want to get a fair and just award for their clients. I believe the mediation proposals in the Bill will be fully supported by the legal profession. It will suit lawyers to have claims properly dealt with at an early stage on the basis of a fair mediated settlement, but it might not totally suit the silks who may miss their day in court. The Minister can answer to his colleagues from that point of view. I warmly welcome any provisions which will encourage the mediation process.

The proposals are, in general, positive and worth supporting. Some of the points I raised may be teased out further on Committee Stage. I am happy to support this Bill.

I too will support this Bill. As Deputy Jim O'Keeffe stated, it is a pity we did not get an opportunity to discuss it earlier because of the matters in it that need to be addressed. The Bill addresses the issue of civil liability for personal injuries and seeks to reduce the cost and time taken to settle such actions. That is desirable. The mediation service that has been put in place already is valuable. The Bill also amends thein camera rule on family law, deals with the dormant funds of suitors of the High Court and addresses the implications of the Valuation Act 2001 and the appointment of eight new judges at High, Circuit and District Court levels, a decision taken by the Cabinet at the eleventh hour on 22 June 2004.

We appear to have a great deal of legislation from the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform that is neither fish nor fowl. We have already discussed the Proceeds of Crime Bill 1999, the amendments to which were three times the size of the original Bill. While most of it is desirable, it not a proper way of presenting coherent legislation. Bits and pieces have been grafted on. Civil liabilities cases for personal injuries, court procedures in cases of family law or the appointment of a number of extra judges are quite distinct and discrete activities which should not come under the heading "miscellaneous". To my mind that is unsatisfactory.

The Minister indicated that the in camera rule requires considerable amendment. That should have been the subject of a separate Bill because it has considerable implications for a different sector of vulnerable people and requires sensitive handling and a different consultative process. The aspect of the Bill dealing with civil liability and personal injuries is a matter of costs and putting the best procedures in place.

The Bill arises from An Agreed Programme for Government and I note the Minister is working through the programme in that there is proposed legislation in the areas of equality and law reform. It is good to see a proposed scheme on mandatory mediation for the purpose of improving the early settlement of claims, controlling legal and other costs and putting in place measures to punish the presentation and making of false and exaggerated claims in personal injury cases. As part of this we will have the power to deduct from damages the costs for exaggerated claims.

Unfortunately, there was a long delay in implementing the Motor Insurance Advisory Board recommendations which identified a problem in the culture of personal injuries cases. The non-legal side has been dealt with already in legislation, but the Bill deals with the procedures and the legal costs. The insurance industry traditionally has sky-high costs. Substantial awards have been made, particularly in claims against public authorities. The figures provided by the Motor Insurance Advisory Board show that litigation costs constitute the vast proportion of overall costs, amounting to 40% of the compensation awards in motor accident cases, rising to 46% of the compensation award in cases of employers' liability and to a whopping 56% in public liability cases.

There is an element of ambulance chasing in these cases. There is a presumption that Seán or Mary Citizen sees a cash cow and he or she is out to milk it. There is a presumption that fraudulent claims are rampant, but there are no statistics to substantiate that perception. I would like to see an attempt made to produce the figures that would do so. A small percentage of claims are fraudulent and, as Deputy O'Keeffe stated, from his experience it would not be more than 5%, which means 95% of claims are bona fide. Motor insurance premia have always been very high. Last year that sector of the insurance industry made bumper profits. However, the insurance industry always has the poor mouth.

In November 2003 the Tolka River flooded and I note that insurance companies still demand sky-high premia — they state flood danger as the reason for such high costs — from people living in the vicinity of the Tolka River in spite of the fact that the local authority has invested significant sums in ensuring that the banks of the Tolka River have been and are being strengthened. In the region of €100 million will be spent on remedial works on river banks in Dublin in the next few years.

It is not just the compensation culture of Seán Citizen that is responsible for the high premium levels. The hefty profits of the industry has some bearing on it as well. It is realistic to ask whether fraudulent claims can be made without lawyers knowing about them. What struck me when I saw the Bill for the first time was the penalties of €100,000 or ten years' imprisonment for a plaintiff who makes a fraudulent claim. I thought it was blinkered to see the plaintiff as the threat. I issued a statement at that time that did not find favour with the director general of the Law Society of Ireland.

The Deputy should be careful not to abuse his privilege.

If we were to target the plaintiff, we should also target those people who might be associated with the plaintiffs. The Minister proposes in sections 24 and 25 of the Bill the creation of three new criminal offences, namely, the swearing of false affidavits as to the truth of the plaintiff's or defendant's case; giving or reducing false evidence in a personal injuries action; and giving false instructions to a solicitor. It is noticeable that each of these offences seems to be aimed at litigants.

How does the Minister propose to deal with rogue solicitors running writ factories, with scatter-guns aimed at all potential defendants with deep enough pockets? We all know that in the absence of a comprehensive system of civil legal aid the legal profession has adopted the practice of offering services on a no foal, no fee basis. If a plaintiff does not win his or her case, then the lawyers do not charge. This is at least a notional breach of the old common law rules prohibiting third parties from having a direct economic interest in litigation. Those rules, though never appealed, are largely ignored.

I acknowledge there are benefits in the no foal, no fee adage and practice. Even where the defendant wins a spurious case taken against him or her, the plaintiff is not charged by his or her own legal team. Unless he or she has assets that can be seized, the plaintiff will not have to pay the defendant's costs either. Litigation becomes the preserve of the very rich who can afford it and the asset poor who have nothing to lose.

This state of affairs also gives rise to cases that have no merit but have a nuisance value. A defendant is willing to pay money to settle a bogus action because it will in the long run cost more to defend the case and he or she has no hope of recovering those costs. The lack of a proper civil legal aid scheme means that policy holders and consumers pay the additional costs of an entirely inefficient system of privately-funded litigation that encourages unreasonable expenditure by both sides without risk of penalty. In order to subsidise the cost of the cases they lose, some solicitors may take more than their fair share from the awards given in the cases they win. As well as recovering costs from the losing side, they sometimes charge their own clients a top-up fee paid out of damages.

In 1995, the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform was given power by section 46 of the Courts and Court Officers Act to prescribe scales of costs and fees for solicitors and barristers. To date, no such scales have been introduced. As regards the Minister's recent amendment to the Commissions of Investigation Bill regarding tendering for services in commissions, I presume he might have a change of heart in that matter and begin to prescribe some scales of fees for solicitors and barristers.

The Minister is willing to threaten litigants with criminal penalties for taking unmeritorious cases but he is not willing to control the institutional beneficiaries of litigation which statistics show to be the legal profession. Judges like to point out in a different context that if there were no receivers of stolen property, there would be no thieves.

I can see the secretary general of the Law Society.

What conclusions can be drawn if there is spurious litigation?

The Deputy has no sympathy for the poor plaintiff who cannot afford to take a case unless a solicitor agrees.

I will say some nice things about the Law Society in a minute. One cannot give a lopsided perception that compensation culture benefits only a particular citizen, that Seán Citizen is the only promoter and beneficiary. It is not as simple as that.

The Minister's proposals would deserve greater support if they recognised this reality and if the strict regime he sets out applied as much to professional advisers as they do to lay persons

It does in fact. Section 24 applies to barristers.

They are not the people who are targeted for giving false evidence and false affidavits. We cannot simply say that the behaviour of the legal profession is above reproach. We have seen how the tribunals have worked over the last number of years. Eminent lawyers who are the top lawyers in the country, have been making presentations which are dragged out over long periods of time and which have meandered on without coming to any conclusions. It is as if they had an open-ended brief to cross-examine, to question and to go around in circles in their presentation of a case or their cross-examination. That has been something of a scandal and it has brought the legal profession into more disrepute than anything else. Simply to say that the legal profession is clean and above reproach in the matter of personal injuries cases is a simplification of the situation. They need to put their own house in order.

I am glad to see the practice of advertising the no foal, no fee process was done away with. However, it has only ended since last year. The Golden Pages directory was full of advertisements up to that time for ambulance chasers.

These are new.

They were forced by law.

On the other side it was the same and they were forced——

They cannot advertise. The Deputy is pointing two fingers at the poor lawyers.

It was the Government forcing it on that side. The Government was at fault in forcing them into this unreal competition which forced them to advertise. Since that was clearly seen to be unsatisfactory and nothing to do with competition, it has been done away with again. Thank God it is over.

Deputy Jim O'Keeffe raised the point about the register of personal injuries which will be Internet-accessible and which will provide the names, addresses and occupations of people who have been involved in claims. Does this mean if a person has been involved in one claim, his or her name and address will be posted on the Internet and open to the public for inspection? I am not saying the Minister should not do this but I have reservations. Equally I argue the names and addresses of the legal advisers should be included along with the company——

That would be advertising.

The occupation would be well known. I think that is the only way to go about it. If it is found that one particular firm of lawyers is associated with all these cases, then one is entitled to be suspicious.

That might attract a lot of business.

That is the end of my tirade against the legal profession.

The Lord be praised.

Other Deputies will take up where Deputy Costello has left off.

The Deputy has made constructive comments.

I thank Deputy Mitchell. There is a sense ofdéjà vu about the provision in Part 3 for dormant funds and that is only déjà vu since this morning. It is proposed that the dormant funds of suitors to the High Court be transferred to the Exchequer in a ring-fenced fashion, to be used for a particular purpose. Deputy O’Keeffe may be able to remind me on this matter. I spent this morning in the nice committee room known as the bunker with the Minister on the other side of the room, arguing that it was virtually impossible to ring-fence any stream of Exchequer funding because it would not be tolerated by the Department of Finance which wanted all the funds in a general pot. The Minister argued that one euro was the same as another euro in Exchequer terms. Now he says that the purpose of this new dormant fund which amounts to €9.4 million or €9.6 million at present, will be used for the benefit of building projects for the Courts Service. It will be ring-fenced for particular purposes relating to the courts. This is a windfall sum of money. The Minister gave a commitment he would ask the Minister for Finance about the matter.

Why can we not get a proper response with regard to the ill-gotten gains from the proceeds of crime the Criminal Assets Bureau has taken from criminals and frozen? This money should be ring-fenced in a special fund and spent on undoing the damage caused by crime, in many cases drug crime, by trying to build up communities undermined by the criminal activities of drugs pushers and other types of criminals. We would do something beneficial and the public would be able to see that the money was being spent in a meaningful fashion. We will return to uses of such funds when the Proceeds of Crime (Amendment) Bill comes before the House again.

The third area covered by the legislation is the in camera rule. We have all received submissions setting out the concerns of bodies such as Women’s Aid about how the proposal would operate. There is no doubt that demand for more information about proceedings in the family courts is overwhelming. The in camera rule has operated to the detriment of the operation of the family courts. A veil of secrecy surrounding the courts has had a negative effect. Domestic violence, child abuse and other issues arise in the family courts, which operate almost as a star chamber about which the public has no knowledge. While this is due to legitimate concerns, it also means that no proper statistics or reporting are available. It is possible the family courts operate in an arbitrary manner because we do not know how the judicial process is working.

People using the family courts system do not have support because no one, apart from those involved at a specific time, is allowed into the court. Witnesses, for example, must leave the court immediately after they make statements. Resource or support persons are not allowed to accompany witnesses who may, for example, have been subject to rape and may be very distressed. The system must be opened up. The question is how to do this while maintaining privacy and confidentiality. For example, who will conduct the reporting the Minister envisages? Will it be a court reporter? Will the courts issue daily reports to the press? What standards will operate? Will the Courts Service or the Minister appoint a person to report the proceedings or will the media, the newspapers with an interest in these matters, retain somebody, for this purpose? What method of publication will apply and how will it operate? Many questions must be clarified before we can proceed.

I would prefer, therefore, if the section onin camera hearings was included in separate legislation. Where will the sittings take place? How will decisions be made? The legislation is very vague on these matters. Many of the concerns indicated to us by Women’s Aid and other organisations are valid and must be reflected on Committee Stage.

The final part of the Bill deals with the appointment of eight judges, a figure which has since increased to nine because, as the Minister indicated, a vacancy has arisen at District Court level. Not long ago, the House passed legislation specifically for the purpose of appointing two new judges to the High Court. The procedure for making such appointments is archaic if specific legislation must be passed to make two appointments. It appears we are unable to make provision for the appointment of judges without passing legislation on every occasion. Perhaps the way to deal with the matter is to graft such appointments into legislation already before the House.

It is also amazing that only a few short months ago two judges were required and now the Minister has deemed it proper to appoint a further eight or nine judges. From where did this requirement suddenly come? Everybody to whom I have spoken has indicated that additional judges are required on the Bench in all the areas indicated. I have no difficulty with that but that was also the case a couple of months ago when the Oireachtas was passing legislation to enable the appointment of two High Court judges. We asked questions on the matter at the time but did not receive adequate answers.

I will return to one or two elements of the Bill. I acknowledge in particular the good work of the Law Society of Ireland. I received a fine document from its director general, Ken Murphy.

Is he the same person the Deputy was talking about a moment ago?

Yes, he can take a little more cut and thrust than the Minister. A number of sources have taken issue with the timeframe for the statute of limitations and whether it will be one, two or three years. Most people agree that the Seanad probably got it right that a compromise of two years was appropriate. A strong case has been made, however, for extending the statute of limitations for certain medical and clinical personal injury cases because they are more complex. The Law Society regards this as the major issue to be addressed. Mr. Murphy, in his letter, states:

.... the Society remains concerned that a two-year period in respect of injuries arising in medical and clinical negligence is too short. Such a short period will have negative consequences for individuals with more serious injuries, such as those resulting from medical negligence.

The letter then refers to a "Prime Time" programme, which discussed medical negligence and its complexities. The Law Society argues that a special period in excess of two years — effectively three years — will be required to address the complexities of such cases and in those circumstances, I am inclined to agree.

I received a similar letter from the Limerick City and County Bar Association. It stated that it is, "ironic that the reduction in the limitation period will impact on people who have the most serious category of personal injury." People with the most serious and complex types of personal injury need the maximum amount of time. The association argues that the current three-year level is necessary in such cases. Perhaps the Minister will consider an amendment with a view to improving this provision.

While I do not intend to address the various sections in detail, I will table a number of amendments on Committee Stage, mainly on procedural issues related to the time and cost of dealing with personal injury claims. While I have no objection to the vast majority of the provisions, some improvements are necessary. The legislation would achieve greater balance by recognising that, in addition to the litigant, the insurance industry, the legal profession and the litigation process must also be examined closely.

Unless that is done, this new legislation to streamline the process will ensure costs are as high as ever and the compensation culture will continue to cause problems. That must be addressed.

I wish to share time with Deputies Ó Snodaigh, McHugh and Healy.

No Member disagrees with the need to improve legislation relating to civil liability. The Government, State agencies and local authorities have paid a high price in the past for public liability claims, a number of which were spurious. I was a member of a local authority for almost 11 years and it was frightening that no insurance was available and a sinking fund had to be realised each year to cover potential public liability claims.

However, such claims are a heavier cross to bear for the voluntary sector. The Oireachtas Joint Committee on Arts, Sport, Tourism, Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs received presentations from several voluntary bodies. They highlighted their insurance burden and the discouragement to people becoming involved in voluntary activities run by agencies that provide social services, which the State is unwilling or unable to provide. This burden is too heavy to be borne by individuals or groups and an attempt to amend legislation in this regard is welcome.

The legislation focuses on whether the three-year limit on claims should be amended. The Seanad has decided two years is adequate. However, that may be arbitrary. While the intention is to discourage claims, the effect might be to increase the number of claims made within a shorter period. We must wait and see if that transpires. I expect the effect of the change will be minimal but it will discourage spurious claims that might be made.

Deputy Costello referred to the Law Society's recommendation that the time limit relating to medical negligence claims should be considered separately so that a longer time limit would apply. I agree with the recommendation. For example, following the birth of a child a medical condition could be identified but the cause may not be identified until years later. Such a time lag is not addressed in the legislation, which only refers to the date of knowledge of the event. There could be a significant time lag between establishing a medical condition and its cause. A similar scenario could apply to people who engage in certain manufacturing processes and who acquire medical conditions such as cancer as a result. While the cancer may be identified early, the cause might not emerge until some time later. If the Bill could be amended to acknowledge the difference relating to medical negligence claims, it would be better.

I refer to dormant accounts and the Minister's conversion to hypothecation. He has been unwilling to acknowledge that money could be set aside and ring-fenced for other purposes in the past under the tax code. However, he is setting out a welcome principle in the legislation that could be applied to all areas of public expenditure. I question whether hypothecating the money for the general upkeep of court buildings is the number one priority for which such funding could be used. Deputy Costello made other suggestions in this regard. The cost of the upkeep of court buildings needs to be examined but funding should be improved because local authorities have carried too heavy a burden in regard to court maintenance. As a result, court buildings have been poorly maintained because such work is not a priority for most local authorities.

This is a double-edged sword. The Bill is intended to reduce the number of claims and the size of awards but the effect of the dormant account will diminish over time because it will not take account of inflation and the Minister will become more reliant on Exchequer funding. This is a sop to those who use our badly maintained buildings to create the impression that funding will be available, even though it will diminish over a long period.

Opinion differs on whether the changes to thein camera rule are positive. The changes are good and their extension should be examined. While the rule is in place to protect participants in family law cases, particularly children, it has often been counter-productive in that documents that could have helped judges making decisions have not been made available. Very often the rule protects the defendants and not the victims, particularly in serious domestic assault cases. Legal academics believe a negative aspect of the in camera rule is the lack of access to documents to analyse trends in family law cases. In addition, garnering knowledge about current cases is hampered because of the rule.

The Bill should also be amended to address the limits placed on people attending family law cases as a result of the rule. Friends and relatives of the parties involved in a family law case may be present to give moral and emotional support but their exclusion often causes unnecessary fear and intimidation, which would not happen if they were permitted to attend the court. The rule prevents them getting involved but consideration should be given to agreements which allow people to attend as a support to participants in cases. An avenue should be opened to allow such people to involve themselves in the case.

The increase in the number of judges is another element of the legislation. However, I will conclude on the Minister's legislative programme for the long term. He is proposing to introduce many Bills, a number of which will address changes to the Courts Service. The constant stream of short Bills might effect important changes and improvements in the law but it creates a great deal of confusion as to how the law is presented and interpreted subsequently. Surely a case can be made for several consolidating legislative measures. If there is a need for consolidated legislation anywhere it must be in the Minister's Department.

Perhaps the several dozen Bills, which are still on the Government's legislative programme and with which we are to deal in the lifetime of this Dáil need to be re-examined. Instead of dealing with numerous small Bills we should deal with a small number of larger Bills to tidy up legislation in the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform.

While I have some reservations about the provisions, which amend the Statute of Limitations in section 6, I will explore that further on Committee Stage. I note the Minister said he intends to set the limitation at two years but I would like to explore that further on Committee Stage.

I welcome the Bill generally and the provisions of section 31 on the controlled relaxation of the in camera rule in the family law courts in particular. I hope this finally allows for much-needed gathering of statistical information and analysis of the operation of those courts in particular and of family law in general, as that information will help direct other changes in the future. I address that section of the Bill in particular because, while everyone has the right to safety and security in their own homes, domestic violence is truly a scourge of our society.

A significant percentage of violent crimes are committed in the home by family members. This violence can be directed towards a spouse, a child or an elderly parent and it is unacceptable in any form, regardless of the perpetrator. However, domestic violence against women is a particularly pervasive problem in society. It affects more than one in five women and, coming up to Christmas each year, we have a campaign to promote and highlight those statistics. Domestic violence devastates at least as many lives as other anti-social crimes or drugs and it needs to become another priority for the Government. That is why I welcome the small change suggested here by the Minister because this issue deserves more attention than it normally gets either from the Government or politicians of all parties. Ending domestic violence in our society requires significantly more resources than have been, allocated by any Minister for Finance.

The family law courts play an essential role in protecting women and children from abuse in domestic violence cases through the granting of barring orders, safety orders, judicial separations, divorce orders, maintenance orders and custody and access orders. Two years ago we amended the legislation governing barring orders, which was welcome.

For many years groups advocating change in this area, such as Women's Aid, have been seeking reform of thein camera rule in a way that protects the privacy and anonymity of those using the courts. In addition, women experiencing violence should not be deterred from accessing the family law courts. The Minister will be aware that Women’s Aid has strongly welcomed the Bill and Deputy Costello mentioned their lobbying on the issue. The group has identified many ways in which the Bill can be strengthened and perhaps on Committee Stage the Minister will take on board our amendments.

I agree with Women's Aid that the legislation must include specific guidelines on exactly what kind of detail will be recorded in family law cases and what details will be recorded which will be specific to domestic violence cases. At present the Bill is not clear on who will record that information or whether all cases are recorded and, if not, what will determine which cases are selected. I agree with Women's Aid that there needs to be more detail to allow for consistent application of this rule from court to court throughout the State, including clear rules on who is permitted to attend. Crucially, the legislation must provide recognition of the right of women experiencing domestic violence to be accompanied in court by registered specialist domestic violence support agencies such as Refuge and the rape crisis centres.

The Minister will also know that the National Network of Women's Refuges and Support Services has expressed serious reservations, stating the Bill falls far short of what is necessary to ensure that those most in need can avail of the protections afforded by family law. It has therefore made detailed recommendations on how the Bill can be strengthened in the interests of women and children, specifically recommending that if we are to make progress in improving our system, then the following significant features of all family law cases must be recorded: the age, gender, ethnicity, nationality and family status of applicants, the age and number of children involved, the number and nature of the applications made, whether any previous orders exist, whether domestic violence was alleged or was part of the application, if there was legal representation and whether that was private or legal aid, if there was Garda or health board intervention and the outcome of the application. In applications under the Domestic Violence Act 1996 we need to collect the data on the nature of the alleged violence — whether it was physical, sexual, emotional, psychological, social or financial, whether children were abused, whether a weapon was used, whether orders were breached and the outcome of the application, including any sanctions imposed by the criminal courts.

I agree that all of this is necessary to properly evaluate the effectiveness of the safety and sanctions aspects of our system and to pinpoint necessary changes. I fully endorse all the recommendations made by these groups, which will significantly enhance the social effectiveness of the legislation. The Minister is not known for his humility or accountability but, as this is one of our last acts of this parliamentary session, let us try to get it right. We should not have to come back on Report Stage with huge changes and a great many amendments. On Committee Stage I will allow the Minister to put forward amendments and I hope he accepts ours. Far too often on the Committee Stage of justice legislation what we have in front of us has changed substantially when we leave the committee. That is not because of the Minister accepting Opposition amendments but because the Minister tables such a raft of amendments. If more time were spent on those changes before Second Stage, we would have a better run on Committee Stage in dealing with the legislation rather than with Government amendments.

It is not so long ago that Deputy Costello and I called for more judges to be appointed. At the time, we were dealing with an increase in the number of High Court judges by two and we suggested that there should be a larger increase. The argument at the time was that it would cost additional money in salaries and pensions, which all had to be taken into account. We agreed to that suggestion being shelved for the time being but I welcome the Minister's acknowledgement of the need for additional judges and that he will increase membership of the Judiciary by three in the High Court, three in the Circuit Court and two in the District Court. I hope that will deal with the ongoing delays in our courts system and make it more efficient in dealing with not only the aspects of domestic violence which I mentioned, but the other aspects, the court cases with which this legislation will deal and other criminal justice cases.

I welcome the publication of this Bill and I am grateful for the opportunity to speak on it. It addresses issues which were a cause of concern to, and aspects which impacted on many people. When addressing legislation such as this, and where to a large degree one is balancing the rights of the plaintiff against those of the defendant, one needs to be extraordinarily careful and as far possible to enter deliberations with an open mind and give due regard to everything. In situations where one can have powerful and influential lobby groups or vested interests, one needs to guard against being unduly influenced by vested interests. Having said that, in the case of interested parties who represent practitioners, one must have regard to their views because they are at the coal face and their members have first-hand experience of dealing with various aspects.

As a member of the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Enterprise and Small Business, which spent many hours investigating the high cost of insurance, reviewing submissions and meeting interested groups, I have a particular interest in this Bill. The joint committee in its first report, which was issued last year, sought to have certain issues addressed in this Bill. From my reading of the Bill, practically all if not all those issues have been addressed and for that I thank the Minister. Although the issues have been addressed I note the Minister did not arrive at the same conclusions as the committee on many of the items. That is understandable. Perhaps during the passage of this Bill, the Minister may accept some compromises.

Although the Law Society of Ireland could be regarded as having a vested interest in this Bill, it must be recognised as the body which represents many practitioners in this area and therefore due regard must be given to its views. Its view that it is inappropriate, to introduce reductions in the limitation period for medical and clinical negligence cases needs to be fully considered. Medical and clinical cases are the most complex type of personal injury cases and, as such, there is an argument that the limitation period within which claims can be brought in such cases needs to be longer than that applicable to less complex cases.

The provision to deal with the issue of notification to a defendant who may be facing a claim is welcome. It is totally unfair and is indicative of sloppy procedure that a defendant may not find out until late in the limitation period that he or she is facing a claim. At that stage, much of the evidence, which could have been used by the defendant in his or her defence may have been destroyed. The locus of the alleged accident may have been altered. Video evidence of the activities in the vicinity may have been destroyed and, consequently, evidence in such cases may be very theoretical whereas if the defendant was on notice within a reasonable time frame, the locus and video evidence could be preserved and the defendant would have an opportunity to make a record of the locus before disruption occurred.

The issue of fraudulent or false claims has been highlighted by many as being one of the factors contributing to the high cost of insurance. It is inexplicable that although there wasprima facie evidence in many cases that fraudulent claims were being made, no action was taken to punish such fraudsters. The gardaí put this down to a lack of resources. Whatever the reason, action was not being taken and there is an acknowledgement that an industry was being made out of the practice of pursuing, orchestrating and concocting fraudulent claims on the basis that if they failed, no harm was done, nothing was lost and there would be no penalty. It is to be warmly welcomed, therefore, that there is a provision requiring parties to swear an affidavit verifying the contents of pleadings. The consequent provision that a person making a false or misleading statement in an affidavit shall be guilty of an offence is also welcome. This provision should have the effect of reducing the number of fraudulent claims.

The new section 29 contained in the Bill as passed by the Seanad is a cause of concern. I recognise demands have come from some quarters for the preparation and maintenance of a register of personal injuries actions. However, implicit in that demand is a belief that people who make personal injury claims are somehow doing something improper, fraudulent or objectionable. That is not true for the majority of claimants. The majority of such people, have suffered an injury and are, therefore, entitled to compensation. I referred to fraudulent claims previously and I believe that rather than a general register being compiled, provision to compile a register of fraudulent or false claimants would suffice in this instance and perhaps to placate Deputy Costello, the names and addresses of their legal advisers could be published.

I thank the Minister for honouring his commitment to amend the Bill to include a provision to require the courts to have regard to the book of quantum when addressing damages in a personal injuries action. The Minister also indicated that the section relating toin camera hearings is being revised and we await the amendment to this section. The Bill addresses many burning issues and is welcome.

I welcome the Bill. Many of the sections deal with matters proposed by various interested parties over the years and, as such, I welcome them. There is a number of areas about which I have some concerns. I will briefly address the question about which everyone speaks, namely, the compensation culture. I worked in the public service at local authority and health board levels for nearly 30 years and dealt specifically with this area during many of those years. As has been said by other speakers, my experience is that the majority of claims are genuine and are made by honest, decent people who are neither fraudsters nor are exaggerating their claims. Undoubtedly, there is a minority of false claimants. A climate is being created, to a large extent by insurance companies which wish to tar every litigant and claimant with the same brush.

In that regard, I have concerns about the register of personal injuries actions. That provision reminds me of some local authorities, which are currently publishing the names, addresses and details of claimants and litigants. I hope that on Committee Stage, some method is found to address this matter. It is being used as a naming and shaming procedure in respect of people who are, in the main, genuine and who have taken legitimate cases which they were entitled to bring and which were found worthy before the courts.

While I understand the Minister has extended the limitation period from the one year as originally proposed in the Bill to two years, my experience, particularly in the hospital service where I worked for 21 years and in medical negligence cases, is that a period of two years is not enough to allow cases to be brought. Many litigants are not anxious litigants in the sense that they would not wish to bring cases if it were at all possible. They often leave it as late as possible to do so. They often find, particularly in medical negligence cases, that the information required is not available with the time limit. It certainly would not be available within the one year time limit and, in my experience, nor would it be available in the two year limit.

I would like to see it being maintained at the existing three-year limit. I have come across some industrial cases concerning injuries arising from exposure to asbestos. That type of case is not being dealt with properly within the two-year limit, so the matter should be re-examined.

I welcome the relaxation of thein camera rule, which I hope will help in family law cases. Consistency is required in regard to these and other cases generally. A procedure should be put in place for training newly appointed judges because there is substantial inconsistency in sentencing for similar cases dealt with by different judges.

I wish to share time with Deputy Andrews.

Is that agreed? Agreed.

Subject to what I have to say concerning some of its provisions I welcome the legislation, which is long overdue. For at least 20 years it has been widely known that there has been a compensation culture of grossly exaggerated claims in many cases and false claims in quite a number of cases. The Bill represents the first attempt to comprehensively address this culture, which has caused many other spin-off problems. I compliment the Minister for having introduced the Bill.

Over the years when I was practising law I tried to identify some of the reasons this compensation culture crept into our country. At the most basic level there is no doubt that an element of greed lies behind all such claims, but it goes deeper than that. At one stage, insurance companies were regarded by some as representing a bottomless pit that could easily be tapped by claimants. In addition, when this compensation culture arose during the 1980s the country was relatively poor so many people used claims as a means to get by. That aspect should not be overlooked. It is clear, however, that once the culture began it became self-perpetuating in that once a person heard about a successful claim by a neighbour or friend — perhaps through anecdotal evidence in pubs or clubs — they became caught up in it themselves claiming more than their entitlement.

In addition, when the culture began to manifest itself it was encouraged, by certain — and I use that word advisedly — members of the legal profession. The results of the compensation culture that grew up are manifold, but two spring to mind. First, there was the huge increase in insurance premia which drove many companies out of the market and led to many people becoming uninsured including many young drivers who could not obtain cover. A second result of the compensation culture was that the good name of many in the legal profession was called into question and sullied by a few who, unfortunately, for reasons of human nature, became caught up in that culture. The country is now wealthy and we have moved on from that period so we need to call a halt to such activity. The wide-ranging manner in which the legislation is drafted sends out that message clearly and fairly.

I welcome the Minister's amendments to the legislation as initiated and he must be commended for having listened to the substantial arguments made concerning the statute of limitations period. As a member of the Law Society, I must disclose an interest but it is fair to say that all credit is due to the society for having done a decent day's work on behalf of its members. The arguments put forward by the Law Society were self-evident, including that the reduction from three years to one year would undoubtedly have given rise to serious injustice in a sizeable number of cases, although it is impossible to quantify how many. For that reason the Minister is to be commended for introducing that amendment.

Part of the arguments made during the debate on the legislation became lost, by concentrating on the amendment to the statute of limitations, which is secondary to the real intent of the Bill — to defeat bogus, fraudulent and exaggerated claims. Having said that, I still consider that injustices may occur due to the reduction in the statute of limitations period, particularly concerning medical negligence and other complex cases. Since consumer litigation is more prevalent nowadays, it is becoming exceptionally difficult even to identify who the defendants in a particular case are, given the nature of modern multinationals.

Some flexibility should be provided where a plaintiff is making a genuine attempt to claim within the statute of limitations. In the interests of justice and equity if such a claim was to be defeated merely on the basis of having passed the statute of limitations, some discretion should be given to the Judiciary in that regard. The same principles also apply to the two-month notification rule because the same rationale could give rise to an injustice, albeit one that is not quite as serious. That matter should be teased out on Committee Stage.

A distinction needs to be made between exaggerated and false claims. Human nature being what it is, people will not minimise claims, so they will put their best foot forward in articulating the impact and injury they may have suffered. A false claim, however, is an entirely different matter. The legislation represents a tough but fair response to the compensation culture behind false claims. In that context, the Minister is to be complimented on the Bill's provisions, which are practical and wide-ranging. Individual provisions will be dealt with in more detail on Committee Stage, including the general endorsement of claim. It is only logical, right and proper that that should be made known to the defendant at an early stage.

The provision of section 12 concerning the swearing of an affidavit, is a vital component of the legislation. As anyone practising in this area will know, far too often the claimant and plaintiff have been hiding behind the shield of the lawyer, saying it is the lawyer making the claim whereas in reality we all know that a claimant should sign up to the claim and should have no difficulty in swearing an affidavit to that effect. That in itself will encourage — if that is the correct word — the people in the legal profession who prepare these claims to tell their clients that the onus is on them to sign up to and swear their case. Other provisions such as the mediation service are self-evident and logical and must be welcomed.

I compliment the Minister on section 18 in respect of court-appointed experts because, much too often in very contentious cases, judges do not know who to believe because experts on either side can be equally compelling. No one envies a judge's job in this respect and they should be in a position to request an independent third party, whether they are medical or engineering experts, to give his or her view. This aspect of the legislation is especially welcome.

Section 25 represents the key to the Bill. If one component of a claim is proved to be deliberately false or misleading, the claimant should be left in no doubt by his or her advisers that his or her claim will fail. This is why I made a distinction between false and exaggerated claims. The majority of claims have a clear basis in fact but difficulties have been caused by their gross exaggeration. The smallest slip resulting in minor soft tissue damage in the local supermarket can be exaggerated out of all proportion. Claimants should be in no doubt at this stage that we are calling a halt to that culture and practice. The legislation is fair and balanced in this respect.

Although I did not expect it in the Bill, an innovative provision in it allows the judge in any case to exclude witnesses from trials. In more complex cases, certain witnesses feed off the evidence of other witnesses and what might begin as a minor exaggeration of what might have happened in a case is suddenly exaggerated out of all proportion by subsequent witnesses. This is a sensible and practical suggestion.

It is no one provision in this Bill but rather a combination of all of them which represents a tough but fair and balanced response to a culture which has developed in Ireland. No one can say adequate warning will not be given to people or that they will be short changed. However, everyone will know that if they try to take on the system, the sanctions will be tough. The financial sanctions are not tough enough, but that can be discussed on Committee Stage. For all these reasons, the Bill must be welcomed.

I ask the Minister to examine the brevity of the two month warning notification period to the defendant because I have my doubts about it. This is because the majority of genuine claimants are not the sort of people who rush to see their lawyers on the way to hospital. Rather, they take their time to get better before approaching them. I support the Bill and commend it to the House.

I thank Deputy Peter Power for sharing time with me. In many cases in an adversarial justice system, a litigant is under extreme pressure giving evidence. Under cross-examination by a skilled barrister, a litigant can often say things that he or she may not have represented when the pleadings were prepared. Nonetheless, I have no fear that there is anything in the Bill of concern in that respect because, when it comes to the issue of the Director of Public Prosecutions proposing to prosecute an offence or of a judge deciding to award costs to penalise someone, there is wide discretion. However, we must not forget that litigants give evidence under extreme pressure and may not represent their case properly to their own detriment.

In general, I support the Government's policy in regard to the establishment of the Personal Injuries Assessment Board, fraudulent claims and the work the various Departments are engaged in. I am a barrister and have worked on personal injuries cases for both plaintiffs and defendants. In spite of the fact that these provisions will work against the financial interests of lawyers, as Deputy Peter Power pointed out, many abuses are taking place and there is a great deal of fat in the system which needs to be cut out. I am pleased the Minister has conceded on some of the points on which he was lobbied in the Seanad when the Bill was taken in that House.

In the United States, the Statute of Limitations in regard to medical negligence cases is two years. I never believed the Minister was that serious about his proposal to make the Irish Statute of Limitations just one year. Moreover, in the US, the limitation period carries exceptions. For example, in one state there is a continuing care principle, whereby the clock does not begin to run until the patient is out of the care of the doctor, hospital or health board equivalent. In another state, a 90 day extension of the medical negligence Statute of Limitations can be applied for and, in another case, the controls only apply if the value of the case is in excess of a given amount.

The general thrust of this acknowledges that medical negligence is slightly different from other types of personal injury actions which come before the courts. Furthermore, when one examines the discovery rules that apply to medical negligence, there are also exceptions which have been built up over years of experience in acknowledging that it is much more difficult to put together a medical negligence case as compared with, for example, an ordinary personal injury case arising out of a motor accident. We should not ignore the experience which has given rise to such different rules in Ireland and in the US which acknowledge that we have a different set of requirements for medical negligence litigation.

The Law Society has asked the Minister to keep the limitation at two years, with which I agree. If it is not broken, do not fix it. I have not heard the case made in regard to abuse of medical negligence cases. I have been lobbied by the Spinal Injuries Association of Ireland and Headway Ireland on this issue, both of which organisations deal with serious traumatic injuries. Both organisations were of the view, before the Minister conceded to a two year Statute of Limitations, that those types of traumatic injuries are very difficult to bring to the attention of a solicitor because often the last issue with which one is concerned is the litigation that might flow from an injury one has suffered. The Law Society has made its point clearly and I hope the Minister will acknowledge that, especially in respect of medical negligence cases that give rise to these more serious injuries, there is a need for some kind of exception to be written into the legislation.

Another example in regard to medical negligence arises from my own experience in a number of cases, whereby one must always obtain a medical report from someone overseas because, naturally enough, an Irish doctor will not give a medical report stating that a patient was wrongly treated, operated on or not properly informed about the consequences of a procedure. One must therefore often go overseas to get such information which adds time to the process. This again underlines the difference between medical negligence and ordinary personal injuries actions.

I came across a case in which, as the expiration of the statute approached, the only action which could be taken was to serve writs against multiple doctors. Once the issues crystallised later on, it was then possible to identify the correct defendants in the case. Writs then had to be withdrawn against the other doctors and costs were disputed. If the limitation is brought back from three to two years, it will make that problem much worse. There is also the danger that it will create an even greater division between doctors and patients. One of the major concerns of surgeons and general practitioners is the danger of litigation. To contract the time available in which to make a claim would create more problems.

In regard to the letter of claim, like Deputy Power I am not sure if this is necessary. One can imagine a litigant walking into a solicitor's office six or seven weeks after an injury. If the person is a genuinebona fides litigant, he or she will not jump into the nearest solicitor’s office but will wander in later. This will put pressure on a solicitor, especially in the smaller officers. They will have to seek advice on whether it is appropriate for a letter of claim. I agree we should consider removing this requirement, as it is unnecessary.

The general principle underlying some of the weaker parts of the Bill is that the personal injury litigant is a more indolent species than the other type of litigant. The approach suggests that a personal injury litigant should be tough, have a stiff upper lip and take the injury like a man. I find that principle in the requirement for a verifying affidavit. There is no other type of litigation that requires this. Obviously a special summons requires an affidavit. For example, if I sue a person because he or she owes me money for a breach of contract or I sue my neighbour for being a nuisance, I do not have to swear an affidavit that the contents of my pleadings are true. Therefore, why does the personal injury litigant have to do this? I do not have a problem with it but I would like to see it extended into all areas of legal procedures.

The personal injury litigant, the plaintiff in other words, is the lightning rod for all of our legislation in recent years. There are many fraudulent people within the contract law area. A great deal of time is wasted in the commercial courts, as the Minister will be aware from his own experience. I hope there will be a level playing field in terms of the application of this requirement to those in such categories.

Sections 9 and 10 deal with an application that can be made to the county registrar, which I presume will be in the Circuit Court, to strike out cases where particulars have not been complied with in a personal injury summons. We are adding a layer that is not required. I am concerned as to whether that is necessary. It is not a major concern but I hope it will be considered on Committee Stage.

Section 14 concerns the mediation conferences. Having had experience of this type of mediation conference I wonder about them. These were introduced about ten years ago in the Law Library and have never caught on. Effectively, it adds a third person to a settlement which will not cut back on costs. Barristers will be delighted to hear there is work available.

The issue of expert evidence is of concern. Who will examine the experts' evidence in chief? Who will ask them the necessary questions? The court can order that the expert evidence of the court be given on affidavit. Naturally the evidence will favour one side or the other. Somebody will want to cross-examine the expert. There will be a notice of intention to cross examine. Is there a danger of bringing in another layer of bureaucracy? I commend the Bill to the House.

I oppose the Bill, in the main because of its latter section and the announcements made outside the House about the appointment of yet more judges.

In 1987 I published a Private Members' Bill, the reform of the courts administration Bill. I spoke with Ms Justice Denham when preparing her report which gave rise to the Courts and Court Officers Act 1995 and some of my views were taken on board. It disturbs me that when a Member like me rises to put forward genuine, considered and, I hope, well-argued concerns about aspects of the Bill, he or she is much too easily put down as anti-lawyer. I am not against anybody. I am on the side of the public interest. I am here to speak on an issue, which is of serious concern to me and I ask the Minister and the House to address my concerns.

The method of appointing judges remains something of a mystery. It is that aspect of the Bill to which I wish to confine my comments. Those who are interested in appointment and are otherwise qualified apply to the Judicial Appointments Advisory Board which, as a general rule, sends at least seven names to the Government for consideration, as provided for in section 16 of the Courts and Court Officers Act 1995. Where fewer than seven persons apply or where the board is unable to agree recommendations for the names, the names of all applicants are submitted to the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform. This legislation has created the myth of non-party political selection. In reality, with at least seven names to choose from, the Government always gets its man or woman, so to speak. The Oireachtas should repeal this provision to protect the Judiciary from being associated, however inadvertently, with what has become a political smokescreen.

The membership of the Judicial Appointments Advisory Board includes the Chief Justice, who is the chairperson, the Attorney General, the President of the High Court, the President of the Circuit Court, the President of the District Court, a nominee of the Bar Council, a nominee of the Law Society and three others. There is little outside input. The Oireachtas does not vet these appointments so the representatives of the people in the Oireachtas are not consulted.

On 22 June last, the Government, according to a press announcement, sanctioned the appointment of eight new judges "to speed up the hearing of cases in the High Court, Circuit Court and District Court". Speaking in the Dáil the following day I said:

The number of judges has doubled since 1960. They are as capable of being corrupt as any politician, journalist, civil servant or other person, and the expansion of the Judiciary in this way is unacceptable ... The House should conduct an independent assessment of that. It could be done by the Comptroller and Auditor General.

It was further announced at that time by the Government that provision to appoint the new judges would be made by an amendment to the Civil Liability and Courts Bill which is before the House and which the Government hopes will be enacted before the summer recess. This major amendment to the Bill, announced outside the House, is to be rushed through the Dáil and Seanad in a matter of days.

No case has been made to Dáil Éireann for these additional appointments nor has there been any independent assessment of need. Furthermore, the leader of the Bar, the Attorney General, sits at Government. The Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform is a senior counsel and many Members of the Government are personally close to and friendly with judges and senior legal figures. There is nothing particularly wrong with this but there is something wrong with the process which leads to a never-ending increase in the number of judges without any independent assessment of need being presented to Dáil Éireann, and with the reasonable suspicion of specialist pleading by lawyers.

In 1961, there were four Supreme Court judges, six High Court judges, eight Circuit Court judges and 28 District Court judges, a total of 56. In 2003, there were seven judges in the Supreme Court, 27 in the High Court, 30 in the Circuit Courts and 52 in the District Courts, giving a total of 109. Eight new judges are to be appointed. Additional judges were appointed gradually in each of the years 1973, 1977, 1979, 1981,1985, 1991 and 1995. Judges were appointed twice in 1997, with further appointments being made in 2002 and 2003. This has been done without significant change in work practices or accountability to the Oireachtas for the resources, which have had to be provided. While judges are and must remain independent in the exercise of their duties, it is a matter for the Dáil to allocate from taxpayers' funds the resources it deems necessary to fund the public services of the State.

The increase in the number of judges has not been justified to Dáil Éireann. While lawyers and other insiders suggest regularly that the number of judges here is low compared to other European states, I simply do not know whether they are comparing like with like. As a Member of the Dáil representing taxpayers, I should know that. An independent assessment on behalf of the Dáil should be made before decisions in this area are taken. Not only is the Judiciary expanding, more than any other institution it blurs the distinction set out in the Constitution on the separation of powers of the institutions of the State. For example, it was a mistake on the part of the Oireachtas Committee on Justice, Equality, Defence and Women's Rights to allow itself to be called before the court in the Abbeylara case. I do not suggest that issues of natural justice should have been brushed aside, rather the sub-committee should have asked for the permission of the Dáil and Seanad before agreeing to such an appearance. To seek such permission would have made it clear that the summoning of Oireachtas committee members to attend court was not a routine affair.

In setting out the rights and duties of each institution, the Constitution does not accord overall superiority to anyone and no institution should be allowed assume such superiority. The increase in the number of judges should involve new provisions to ensure greater transparency in the way they conduct their business. The resignation of two senior judges in the recent past left many questions unanswered. These include questions about the nature of the relationship between counsel and judges, what takes place in judges' chambers and the ethical provisions, if any, which are in place to ensure that judges are beyond question in the execution of their duties. Some court practices appear to be as out of date as wigs and gowns, by which remark I do not intend to cause offence to people in the Law Library, I simply wish to make the point. Clearly, more reform is needed.

While I am an admirer of the independence of the courts, the Constitution requires that other institutions should be independent also. The Dáil is independent of the courts in the fulfilment of its duties and it is to Dáil Éireann that an assessment on the need for an ever-increasing number of judges should be presented. Such an assessment should not be prepared and presented by the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform or the Attorney General but by the Dáil's own constitutional servant, the Comptroller and Auditor General. The Government of the day should no longer be allowed to adopt a piecemeal approach to the appointment of an unlimited number of judges. As the years go by, it is possible and even likely that we will continue to see proposals for the appointment of more and more judges if current arrangements continue in place. Those who claim we need more judges should submit their case to be assessed on the basis of an independent report, which includes an examination of procedures and practices in our courts.

I have tried to make my case as reasonably and fairly as I could. While I am sure the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform does not agree with my case, it is a reasonable one. We cannot continue to appoint judges in this way. The Minister and the Attorney General are not the people to make these assessments, it is a matter for the House, which involves the use of resources. It is a question of the independence of the House in terms of its duty to assess the needs of another institution. Each institution has certain duties and among those of the Dáil is the duty to taxpayers to ensure that we do the right thing when committing resources or overseeing matters of law. If the Comptroller and Auditor General were to assess the issue and declare a need for 150 judges, so be it. However, I do not accept a procedure whereby appointments are made incrementally, as happened over the years I listed, and in a manner so offhand that announcements are made outside the House and provisions attached to legislation, which has almost nothing to do with the appointment of judges. That is not a proper way to appoint judges.

I wish to make my point as subtly as I can in the presence of the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform. We must be careful to ensure we do not debase the currency. The more judges we appoint, the more potential difficulties we create. The issue must be addressed. I ask the Minister not to proceed with this section of the Bill until an independent assessment of the need to appoint more judges has been made.

I hope the Minister addresses the following in his reply to the debate. Will the Minister tell the House how often the Judicial Appointments Advisory Board meets and how many names have been put forward for each appointment? I have deliberately made a short speech as I wanted to make a deliberate point and perhaps the Minister will reflect on its contents when he has a moment. While we may not agree on everything, I consider the Minister to be a reasonable man and I ask him to listen to what I am saying. This is an issue of public interest. We must all step back from the wood at times if we want to see the trees.

I have raised a valid point. If there is a case to be made for more appointments, let it be made in the way I suggest. An independent assessment should be made on behalf of the House by an officer who has constitutional status and status conferred in law by the Exchequer and Audit Departments Act 1866 and the Comptroller and Auditor General (Amendment) Act 1993, and who can by law have other duties conferred on him by resolution of the House. He is the constitutional person who should make this assessment on behalf of the House.

I listened with interest to Deputy Gay Mitchell's contribution. To make an observation, not a criticism, extra judges are appointed, to whichever court, where the need arises. It has been my experience over the past 20 years that the absence of a sufficient number of judges has created significant backlogs and waiting lists in civil and criminal law. This has cost taxpayers an enormous amount of money. Many of the extra judges have been appointed to the High Court recently as up to seven judges are seconded to do tribunal work which, as a public representative and a lawyer, is unacceptable.

I have a particularly biased view of tribunals, which I made public in 1982. A system of tribunals is the wrong one to operate. They have made fat lawyers fatter. I expounded my views on the airwaves in the 1980s that tribunals are inappropriate except in cases like the Whiddy or Stardust disasters, which involved significant loss of life.

Tribunals that examine issues such as planning corruption, etc., are bad value for taxpayers' money. I hope the Minister takes on board my view of the abuse and disregard of the tribunal system over the past decade. When anything goes wrong now, there is a demand for a tribunal but of what benefit are they? Does Joe Soap or the taxpayer get value for money from them? They do not, whether it is a beef tribunal or any other. It is shameful and regrettable that we accept a tribunal can run for 20 years.

I welcome this Bill and compliment the Minister on it and the forward-thinking and positive legislation his hard work is producing in the Department.

We have introduced the PIAB in an effort to speed up cases and reduce costs and red tape etc. However, I am somewhat uneasy with regard to the cost of court cases. One issue that bugs me, as a solicitor since the late 1970s, is the cosy cartel that exists between certain insurance companies, firms of lawyers and small cliques of barristers, both senior and junior. These cartels have existed unchallenged for at least three decades, to the detriment of the motoring and general public. No doubt, the reason the old PMPA insurance company got bogged down financially and overcome by problems was that this arrangement existed.

I am aware of cases such as one where an injury occurred in west Cork and the case was settled in Dublin. The defendant, gardaí and witnesses involved were never called to Dublin to state the case and it was settled behind closed doors, on what grounds I do not know. In some instances settlements are wrong, and totally exaggerated in others. The Minister must examine the issue of these cosy cartels that exist between large insurance companies and small numbers of solicitors and barristers.

My solution to the problem is to use the same tendering system for lawyers that we have used in the case of some local authorities. The local authority in Cork, of which I was a member for almost 19 years, uses the same system. It adopted the practice of seeking tenders from firms of solicitors throughout the county because of the volume of work involved in purchasing and selling land for housing etc. The local council's practice is carried out through a fair and open tendering process. The firms in Bantry, Bandon or Kinsale etc. are informed the council is embarking on the purchase of land for housing and tenders are sought from them. This is a great idea and should be compulsory across the board.

The PIAB already shows the signs of being a success. All dealings with insurance companies that have obligations to the public should use this tendering process when engaging solicitors, perhaps on a regional basis. Some local authorities use the process for both civil and criminal issues. Why should Cork or Dublin city councils or boroughs, where huge volumes of claims exist against the local authority, select one firm only. Our experience is that the legal teams in the county solicitors' offices in various counties or local authorities were over-burdened by this work and were obliged to hive it out to others. This should be done on the basis of a tender and I urge the Minister to make this compulsory.

The current thinking in Departments and Oireachtas committees is that where lawyers, firms of solicitors, barristers, junior and senior counsel are required, this tendering process should be properly regulated and made compulsory so that we have a transparent system where taxpayers get value for money.

I am not a member of the Committee on Enterprise and Small Business, chaired by Deputy Cassidy, but I am interested in the insurance area, which is a hobbyhorse of mine. That committee invited several insurance companies for discussion and I attended the meeting and raised the issue of using the tender process. However, I regret I got no answer from those companies on the issue. The Irish insurance industry should be open and transparent. That one or two firms in a region such as Leinster can have a monopoly on civil or criminal litigation, from whatever source, is wrong.

I am amazed when I examine the publications showing the various solicitors and counsel who do so well out of the free legal aid system. Inevitably, we see the same half dozen or so names on the list, whether in Cork, Dublin or the west. Are there no other solicitors involved or are they not part of the free legal aid scheme? The system is unfair and a tender process would give much better results.

We are discussing a civil liability Bill but, whether we are dealing with civil or criminal law, the one point I want to make is that to save future costs we must introduce a clear and transparent tender process for legal services. Every Department, agency, health board, Oireachtas committee, local authority etc. should seriously consider this. It is unacceptable for these authorities inevitably to continue to use the same firm or cartel in accident or injury cases.

The Civil Liability and Courts Bill 2004 is a far cry from the 1963 Bill I studied in college. Many changes have taken place over the years to the benefit of taxpayers, motorists, litigants and the legal system. This Bill, following the establishment of the Motor Insurance Advisory Board, is a further step towards ensuring that legal costs are controlled.

I listened to some of the Seanad debate on this Bill and compliment the Minister on it. Section 6 proposes to amend the Statute of Limitations (Amendment) Act 1991, reducing the limitation period for personal injuries actions from three years to two to ensure claims are brought forward in a timely manner. The Minister had proposed to reduce the time limit to one year, something with which I did not agree. However, he must be given credit for listening to the arguments made in the Seanad and increasing the period to two years. A two-year period is fair and is an excellent compromise for deciding what is fair or unfair, particularly in tricky negligence cases or ones where people of tender age or unsound mind are involved in an accident or injury. Three years may have been too long, but one year would have been seen as mean. The Minister was sensible to accept this provision.

I welcome the provision in section 7 that if a plaintiff fails to serve a notice on a defendant within two months of the date of an accident or the date of knowledge, he or she may be penalised in costs and the court may draw such inference from the failure to serve the notice as appears appropriate.

I was a practising solicitor for many years. From a financial point of view, perhaps I should have remained one given that the joys of politics have been kind and unkind to me in that it has taken me 15 years to get elected to the Dáil.

I wish to deal with the defence side of a case. A person who hurt his or her back, fell off a wall in County Monaghan or was involved in a car crash in west Limerick could make a claim and two years and eleven months following the incident proceedings may be issued on behalf of that person. This was the practice in many cases up to recent times but that practice is changing in light of current legislation and court practices.

A defendant in such a case would go to court five years after the incident. It could take six years if the case was being heard in Cork given the delays involved, unless the case was heard in Dublin. However, there are logistical difficulties in arranging for medical and engineering experts to travel to Dublin. On the day of the hearing, the medical report of a consultant, be it a surgeon or some other qualified professional, would be read and the defence would have no prior chance to challenge it. The trend was that the legal representatives on one side of a case would obtain a medical report and by hook or by crook they would not show it to the legal representatives on the other side. That practice persisted and it was an appalling way to conduct business.

Only in extreme circumstances should qualified consultants, whether engineers, orthodontists, consultant surgeons or neurosurgeons, be required to appear in court. We have a shortage of such experts. I am aware of cases where the only consultant surgeon in Bantry General Hospital at the time had to be present in the High Court when it sat in Dublin for one or two weeks, and in many instances he was not required.

The system the Minister is advocating is that the legal representatives concerned should show their hands from an early stage. For example, a legal representative on one side should advise the legal representative on the other side that his client, John Murphy, sustained certain injuries, he should outline the circumstances and inquire if the two sides can agree X, Y and Z to process the case in a fair and proper manner. We should go a step further and require a consultant who is qualified, experienced and independent, whether an engineer or an architect, to submit a declaration or affidavit that the statement is his or her evidence, and in so far as possible, such evidence could be agreed in the pleadings before the two sides go to court. That would save the cost of standby fees for a consultant or GP.

It is a few years since I was in the High Court in Cork when it dealt with civil hearings during three weeks in July in the warm weather and a plethora of 20 or 30 GPs were standing around on call. Consultants and various experts were present like the gathering of a herd. I am sure the Minister was familiar with the old Cork Courthouse. Conditions there were below the standard, which is currently acceptable. When I was practising there the condition of the toilets was such an embarrassment that people used the facilities in a hostelry across the road.

The Minister is endeavouring to address the practice of the cloak and dagger approach, the secrecy that surrounded the legal system and the notion that one side would appear in court with surprise witnesses and reports. We should put that practice to bed for once and for all and move forward into the 21st century and away from the legal tactics and policies that were more appropriate in the 18th and 19th centuries.

One of the most salient features of this legislation is covered by section 13 which deals with combating false and exaggerated personal injury claims. It is about time that a Government, Cabinet and Minister grasped that nettle. Having been a legal practitioner since the 1970s, I was aware of clients who have claimed that their back pain was worse than it was and of men who have fallen off the roofs of houses claiming that they will never work again and we would have gone to make a killing against a local builder. The approach taken in many cases was short-sighted, given that the injuries sustained were not as serious as they were claimed to be.

I recall a retired Circuit Court judge in Cork, Judge Murphy, commenting that some questionable, if not fraudulent, claims came before him. Sometimes it is difficult for a judge to make a call in a case. I am delighted that at long last in this legislation any person who makes such a claim will not only not be financially rewarded but will face criminal charges, which is a positive step.

In section 14, the Minister provides for a new development of mediation in civil law. This system of mediation is common in Canada and Australia. This is a progressive proposal for our judicial system.

I am an associate of the Incorporated Law Society of Ireland which along with the Bar Council may have had reservations about the establishment of the PIAB. When one introduces changes that are futuristic and which drags the legal system, process and thinking into the 21st century, the impact of those changes hurt people in their pockets. It impacts on the train of thought they have had for 30 or 40 years. The suggestions in the Bill are brave. The Law Society and the Bar Council should be prepared to admit that these changes will benefit those august bodies into the future.

I have only covered half of the points I wanted to make but I hope those, I made will be taken on board by the Minister. I compliment him on the legislation. Despite his critics, he should keep up the good work. This is the type of legislation about which, in ten or 20 years' time, law students, legal experts and practitioners, consultant surgeons and orthodontists will say the Minister and the Government did well and they were moving in the right direction.

I wish to share my time with Deputy Neville.

That is agreed? Agreed.

I welcome the Bill in principle but I have little time to broaden the discussion on it. The Bill seeks to deal with the our compensation culture, about which I have had grave concerns in the past.

The issue of dormant account funds is being dealt with in the Seanad in regard to another area. The Minister is also going to try to nobble the use of dormant accounts on this end. Are we using such money to deal with issues that should be dealt with from national funds? I have an interest in ensuring that the courthouses in Clones and Castleblayney are restructured, but I would have thought the payment for such works should come from other funds. I question that part of the Bill and the direction in which we are moving.

A previous speaker spoke about all the good work that had been done. The Minister said that section 30, will remedy a fault in the PIAB Act that was only passed a few months ago. However, I wish to deal with the issue of insurance costs. As a former member of a local authority, I know the insurance costs involved and the attitude towards taking claims against a public body such as a local authority. There is also the issue of claims made in the medical field. Questionable claims have been made against the maternity services and facilities at Monaghan General Hospital. Insurance is a major issue. High insurance costs have had a serious impact on the voluntary sector and, if not addressed, there could be an end to many of the voluntary support structures in place, which will cost the State a great deal of money in the long term. In that sense I welcome the Bill in general.

Insurance claims are still the major problem and insurance charges have certainly caused significant job losses where industry and businesses generally have to compete across the Border. For example, a paintball company owner living and working in Monaghan has to pay €15,000 in insurance while a competitor, who lives in Northern Ireland but also works in Monaghan, is charged only €1,500. How can people possibly compete if this is the case?

Let us consider medical negligence. The Minister states that a time limit of two years pertains to claims for medical negligence. Drogheda hospital is an outstanding example of a case in which claims took a long time to make. I had personal involvement in another case. My brother died in England from asbestos poisoning 15 years after he left the job that led to his infection. It took ten years to diagnose the problem. Therefore, there are specific issues that need to be handled very carefully and a blanket provision does not cover all eventualities. I welcome the fact that the Minister agreed to the Fine Gael motion in the Seanad to change the one-year period to a two-year period.

Can the Minister indicate how many claims are fraudulent? I ask this in the context of all the big advertisements by the legal profession chasing claims. Is there provision in the Bill to ensure that members of the legal profession who encourage the making of claims, and who may be well aware that that certain claims are dubious, can be found guilty of negligence and fraud if such cases are lost? If there is no such provision, can the Bill be amended accordingly? The ordinary sinner should not be the only person found guilty. Accountants must bear costs. Why should solicitors not do so also?

I welcome the opportunity to speak on the Civil Liability and Courts Bill. I particularly wish to refer to the amendment of thein camera rule, as contained in certain statutes relating to family law, to allow publication of reports of proceedings so long as the report does not contain any information which would identify the parties or any child to which the proceedings relate. I have been raising this issue for some time. A key aspect of our justice system is that it is open to public scrutiny and can be evaluated by citizens. Another aspect is that legislators can evaluate and examine how legislation operates in practice through the media reports on the effects of legislation. Publication of information will assist the public and legislators to evaluate the effectiveness of our legal system.

The family courts have taken an increasingly central role in the legal process in overcoming difficulties in relationships, particularly regarding the custody of children. We should examine whether our family courts protect the rights of children to know their parents and to be parented by both parents, regardless of whether they are married or divorced. Family law cases in this area usually deal with parents whose marriages have broken down or who are divorced. Children should be central to the issues examined by the courts.

A child should have automatic access to both parents. We must evaluate whether the family law courts are operating according to this premise. A child should have the right to know and have access to all elements of his or her family tree, including genealogy and medical information. Society and the State should support mothers and fathers equally, for the benefit of society as a whole, in seeking to be equally involved in the shared parenting of their children, both within relationships and marriage and through the promotion of the concept of joint custody of the children as a normal expectation in the cases of separation and relationship breakdown.

I cannot judge what role our family courts play in this regard because of thein camera rule. The removal of this rule will allow us to make such a judgment. It will also discipline the family courts on the basis that society, the media and the Oireachtas will be more aware of the effects of the outcome of cases and how the courts approach very sensitive and serious issues, especially those pertaining to children. Of course the issues are very important to the parents but I am referring to the rights of children in a society that has changed dramatically in the past 40 years and the need for systems and approaches to respond to those changes in a way that is of maximum benefit to children. I believe that in all but exceptional circumstances children should be parented by both parents.

I thank all the Deputies who contributed to this afternoon's proceedings, particularly those who supported the Bill and who made nice remarks about its contents. I appreciate the positive tone of much of what was said, which is not to say that everybody was an unalloyed cheerleader for the legislation. It would be strange if that were the case because this is an adversarial process and Members are mandated by the electorate to ask searching questions of what is put before them and not to accept things at face value.

It was particularly interesting to hear Deputy Gay Mitchell who took pains to put across, in what I would describe as measured tones, the case that no more judges should be appointed at this juncture. He suggested that the Attorney General and I were the wrong people to ask whether there should be more judges and that the Attorney General should objectively assess how many more we need. I fully agree with him in the sense that the process should not be one in which the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform can wander into the House and simply say we need more judges without somebody making an objective assessment at some point in the process as to whether more are needed.

One point that Deputy Gay Mitchell forgets is that government is a slightly more complex process than is assumed and that a person in my position cannot simply place a memo on the Cabinet table and click his fingers to produce more judges because he feels like doing so on the basis of his having looked at the morning newspapers. The critical view of the Department of Finance on whether more judges are needed must also be considered.

On this occasion, in contemplating whether more judges were needed, I had regard to the remarks of Ms Justice Susan Denham of the Supreme Court, chairperson of the Courts Service Board. In reference to a recent case, she made the point that there are fewer judges in Ireland per head of the population than in other European and common law countries. One can talk about European countries but one is not comparing like with like when comparing European judges with Irish judges. They do different things. European judges have an investigative function and they begin their careers at the age of 21 or whatever and rise in the judicial service on the basis of promotion.

It is interesting to note that we share a common law system with a number of other countries and therefore the figures I have available might interest the Members of the House, Deputy Gay Mitchell in particular. In Ireland we have one judge, be it in the District Court, Circuit Court, High Court or Supreme Court, per 32,000 of our population.

In Northern Ireland the ratio is one judge per 29,000. In England and Wales it is one judge per 15,000, which is half as many people per judge as we have. In Scotland it is one judge per 19,000, in Canada it is one judge per 15,000, in Australia it is one judge per 21,000 and in New Zealand it is one judge per 22,000. Among comparable common law countries, Ireland has the highest ratio of people to judge. I make this point because Deputy Gay Mitchell probably needs some reassurance on it. We do not have a massive number of judges per head of the population. That does not dispose of his point in its entirety but it makes the point that we have a low number of judges per head of the population compared with other countries with similar systems.

Our judicial system has changed dramatically since the 1960s, to which Deputy Mitchell referred, and this is reflected across the legal profession. When I joined the Law Library in the 1970s there were, I imagine, approximately 380 barristers. There are now three or four times that number. Penniless barristers abounded in those days as much as they do now so, presumably, the amount of legal work going on in the courts has expanded by the same extent as the number of barristers. Likewise, the size of the solicitors' profession has grown hugely since the 1970s and certainly since the 1960s, to which Deputy Mitchell latched on.

Law, itself, has become immensely more complicated. Far from creating a paperless society, electronic developments, photocopying and the like have made law immensely more complicated than it once was. The number of law books available now is exponentially larger than when I started practising law when there was a handful of Irish legal textbooks. A book shop, which sells law books relating to Ireland now has scores of books, and a number on any particular area. Things have changed.

Another aspect of law, which has changed since those days is the type of procedures which are deployed. When I was in the King's Inns as a student, discovery of documents was an extreme rarity. I imagine Deputy O'Keeffe would accept that in litigation in the 1970s the deployment of discovery was a rarity by comparison with the present. It was something which only Chancery lawyers ever talked about. It seemed to happen in will suits and the like but one did not hear much about it in any other context. Now, the whole litigation process is immensely more complicated.

On top of that, the number of jurisdictions which have been created for the courts has increased hugely. The whole question of judicial review, which was then called State side has grown from something which was quite small to something which is very substantial. When I started practising at the Bar, State side, which is now judicial review, was regarded as an arcane subject which was confined to a minority of barristers and was not the most popular or profitable area of law in which to specialise. Now, virtually every aspect of our complex system of government is the subject, day in and day out, of challenges by way of judicial review not least, for instance, in the area of immigration law and asylum seeking where there is a small industry in challenging decisions and litigating cases.

I considered a number of facts, including the remarks made by Ms Justice Denham, whose judgment I respect and who is not profligate in demanding the appointment of more judges. I was faced with the situation that in the Special Criminal Court the waiting period of trial has grown to a very long period, that many senior members of the Judiciary were embarked upon tribunals of inquiry, which was a drain on the court's resources and that one member of the High Court has become, effectively, the Public Offices Commissioner on a full-time basis and is discharging that function. I know that most Deputies constantly receive representations from clients saying that to get their cases heard requires a considerable wait. I believe in the old maxim that justice delayed is justice denied. We must, therefore, ensure that people have a reasonable prospect of having their cases dealt with at an early date, whether the cases are commercial, personal, family, criminal, personal injury or otherwise.

Deputy Mitchell may be arguing, by implication, that the systems in the Four Courts or in the Courts Service are unduly cumbersome or that the courts are inefficient in carrying out their work. Perhaps there is merit in that argument. The Courts Service is going to extraordinary lengths to modernise Irish law and to bring it from the 19th to the 21st century with only a passing acquaintance with the 20th century and to cope with the huge changes, which are happening in the way law is administered in a very short period of time. I have no doubt there are vast opportunities to improve the way our legal system works but there is a process and a climate of change.

During the local elections I went to a house in whatThe Star would call the leafy suburb of Ranelagh, near enough to where I live. I encountered a member of the Law Library and I asked him to support our local election candidate.

Did the Minister's party have a local election candidate?

I was told — and I do not use the exact term used in reply — that I must be joking. When I raised an eyebrow I was informed that my party leader had already deprived the voter of 40% of his income. This arose from the fact that the personal injuries trade was disintegrating. I remarked that this was strange because the Personal Injuries Assessment Board was only starting and I was only getting the legislation through the Oireachtas. He said it was what I was threatening to do that was having such a dramatic effect on the personal injuries business. It is fascinating that this should be so. One hears much talk about vested interests and the like. When the Irish public hear of my struggles with prison officers regarding overtime, for example, I have no doubt that they would like to know that I suffered equally at the hands of such eminent people for treading on their financial toes in another respect.

So, the Minister's bark is worse than his bite.

My bark is worse than my bite but it seems to work somehow.

I carefully reflected on the debate, which took place on Committee and Report Stages in the Seanad with regard to the medical negligence issue. I thought to myself whether or not I could extract medical negligence cases and put them into a different category. I came to the conclusion that it would be unwise to do so. Many of these medical negligence cases are mixed cases where a traffic accident, for example, develops into a case about failure to get the bone to set in a broken leg. Cases are not easily separated out.

The PIAB does so.

The PIAB deals with cases where liability is not an issue, which is very rarely the case in medical negligence cases.

The precedent is there.

There is a second side to this and that is the lot of the defendant. Senator Mary Henry accorded me some marks for remembering that the idea that doctors have to practise under the threat of litigation when they have solicitors' letters coming to them for a number of years is debilitating for them as well. From my own practice as a barrister, I know what it is like for people to try to carry out their professional work under the constant threat of being brought to court to answer for professional negligence.

Barristers were the only people who had immunity in that regard.

If one were on the wrong side of a professional misconduct claim, it was very debilitating. If one were on the wrong side of a complaint to the Law Society, it was never so funny either.

Solicitors were never affected.

I thank all the Members for their considered contributions on Second Stage. I have just received the annual report of the Judicial Appointments Advisory Board, which will be published shortly and will answer many of the questions raised by Deputy Gay Mitchell. I look forward to the Committee Stage debate when we will tease out in greater detail the amendments we discussed earlier.

Question put and agreed to.