Courts and Court Officers Bill 2009: Second Stage.

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

I thank the House for agreeing to consider this legislation. Since the Courts Service was established in 1999, it has energetically and systematically pursued a programme of transforming the physical infrastructure of the courts. Not so long ago, many courthouses provided their users with a pretty dismal experience. In a relatively short space of time, with unprecedented support from the Government, the service has undone much of the legacy of decades of neglect of the courts infrastructure throughout the country. Forty-one courthouses have been refurbished and ten newly-built courthouses have been completed.

The development and construction of the Criminal Courts of Justice complex, however, is of a far different magnitude and it marks the advent of a new era for the courts in Dublin. It is the largest court building project since Gandon's Four Courts was completed in the late 18th century and is one of the most significant developments in the history of the courts in Ireland. Building commenced in May 2007 with a construction programme of 34 months and a target date for completion of March 2010. However, the building is being completed three months ahead of schedule and is on target to be delivered by the end of November next.

The complex will provide vastly improved conditions for the public, jurors, victims and their families. This is only right. People who come into contact with the criminal justice system, whether as jurors, victims or witnesses in a case, are nervous and intimidated even without enduring the poor facilities and extremely close contact with the accused that unfortunately had become the norm in the Four Courts, which was not designed for the volume or demands of the modern criminal justice system. The new building provides secure segregated accommodation and routes for the public, jurors, persons in custody and staff. The reception area for jurors can accommodate up to 400 people and there also are jury dining facilities and retiring rooms within a segregated area for jurors. Rooms for victims, witnesses and vulnerable witnesses also are provided within a secure and segregated area. I understand that representatives of victims and jurors are delighted with the facilities planned for them.

The new building will concentrate all central Dublin criminal business in one serviced location. This means transferring courts and administrative offices from three jurisdictions, namely, the District, Circuit and High Courts, as well as the Special Criminal Court, to a single new centralised facility. The facility will have a major impact on the criminal justice system, resulting in more efficient logistical management of criminal trials. It also will allow the Four Courts to be freed up exclusively for civil business, which has been a major demand in recent years. Although the Courts Service has met this challenge by making full use of refurbished courthouses nationwide for non-jury High Court lists, on foot of the opening of the new complex the Four Courts once again will be the main High Court venue in the country.

As I noted, the Courts Service has since its establishment set about changing the physical infrastructure of our courts. Change, however, is not only about buildings; it also is about how the courts do business. In this regard, the courts have transformed the way they do their business by embracing new technologies and work practices. One example is the introduction of digital audio recording, which has been installed in 41 courts nationwide over the last year. These courts include all Central Criminal, High Court family law and Circuit Criminal courts. This technology replaces stenography and transcripts can be produced overnight where necessary, thus speeding up the court process considerably. It also provides great assistance in dealing with appeals. The service has also created a unified staff structure that brought together three distinct staffing streams from the Circuit and District Courts, the High and Supreme Courts and the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform. Prior to the establishment of the service, the three streams had separate career structures, promotional opportunities and methods of promotion. The unification provided for a transparent merit-based promotion system, allowing for greater flexibility and expertise for the Courts Service in the management of resources and supporting the courts.

The Bill before the House has enabling provisions to underpin streamlined management procedures in the new complex, which are especially necessary given its scale and which can in future apply to other court venues as appropriate. Part 2 of the Bill has a number of provisions to allow the Irish Prison Service, IPS, to manage the central holding facility for people in custody and have control over all persons held, including those who have not been committed by the courts to prison. The main objective here is to avoid duplication of effort by the Irish Prison Service and the Garda Síochána, as well as to free up gardaí for operational duties.

The Bill allows for the temporary transfer of custody to a holding area officer only for the purposes of facilitating a court appearance by that person or the holding of a court hearing involving him or her. It is necessary to make legislative provision for this change in order that the IPS may be responsible for the custody of persons in holding cells in the courts who have up until now remained in Garda custody. The Bill will not affect the current arrangements for persons detained in the Central Mental Hospital who are required to attend court.

Part 3 makes provision to further improve staff management and flexibility by designating a single administrative office rather than an office for each court jurisdiction. This builds on other changes introduced by the Courts Service over the past few years. It will integrate fully the courts' staffing structures and allows for efficient procedures for the deployment of staff. Part 4 will allow a District Court clerk to take bail recognisance in certain instances without the need for the applicant to return to court and will allow an expansion of the range of persons who can take a recognisance in the case of an appeal from the District Court. Again, given the size of the building, considerable efficiency will be gained from this small change.

I now wish to outline the provisions to the House. Sections 1 to 4 form Part 1 of the Bill and are standard drafting provisions. Moving on to Part 2, section 5 contains a number of definitions. At present, a person may be in custody for a number of reasons, namely, he or she may be charged with a criminal offence by the Garda or may be held by the Irish Prison Service on foot of a court order either on remand or on conviction. Up to now both agencies have shared access to cell areas. However, in the new complex the Irish Prison Service will manage the custody area, thus freeing gardaí for other duties. The main feature of this Part of the Bill is to provide a legislative basis for a person who is in custody to be placed in temporary custody of either the Garda Síochána or the Irish Prison Service. For the main part, this will facilitate the management by the Irish Prison Service of the new custody area. The reverse provision, whereby prisoners of the Irish Prison Service may be held in the temporary custody of gardaí, will be less frequently required but is included to ensure that every possibility is covered.

Section 6 explains that a prisoner or person may be placed in the temporary custody of the Garda Síochána or a prison governor in a place in or adjacent to a court building for a purpose referred to in section 7 of the Bill. Section 7 provides that people can be held either to facilitate a court appearance by that person or for the holding of a court hearing involving him or her. An example of the type of situation this second provision is intended to cover is when persons who are already in custody may be required as witnesses in another case.

Section 8 indicates at what point temporary custody under section 6 commences and ceases. Section 8(1) provides that the temporary custody commences when the prisoner is placed in the custody of the holding area officer and ceases either when the prisoner is returned to the person in whose custody they were prior to the temporary custody or is released by order of the court. Under section 8(2), a person lawfully in the custody of the Garda Síochána may be placed in temporary custody of a governor for the purposes of a court appearance. This temporary custody commences from the moment the person is placed in the custody of the holding area officer and ceases either when the person is returned to the previous person of custody or released by order of the court.

Section 9 provides that a person placed in temporary custody shall be regarded as remaining in the custody of the person in whose custody he or she was before being so placed. The next section requires the prison authorities or the Garda Síochána to hand over to the holding area officer any medication, prescriptions for medication, health information etc. when placing a person in temporary custody. The reverse applies when the holding area officer is returning the person to custody.

Section 11 sets out the duties, functions and powers of a holding area officer in respect of a person who has been placed in his or her temporary custody. Section 11(1) imposes certain obligations on the holding area officer. He or she must prevent a person in temporary custody from escape, prevent the commission of an offence, ensure orderly and disciplined behaviour, bring him or her to a court or court office, ensure his or her appearance before court, and comply with any court order relating to his or her custody, treatment or transfer. Section 11(2) confers on a holding area officer a power of search in accordance with the prison rules in respect of the person in temporary custody if of the opinion that it is necessary to the performance of the officer's functions to do so. This is to ensure that standards of safety are consistent regardless of the origin of the person in custody. Section 11(3) outlines that the holding area officer may use all reasonable force, where necessary, in the performance of his or her functions. Section 11(4) applies the same obligations and duties on a member of the Garda Síochána for the purposes of temporary custody. Section 11(5) is included to avoid any misapprehension. It retains all existing powers of search under the prison rules exercisable by a holding area officer who is a prison officer. Section 12 empowers the Minister to make a number of regulations, for example, governing standards, record-keeping etc.

Moving on to Part 3, section 13 is a standard provision containing definitions. Section 14 sets out the steps for the establishment of combined court offices. Sections 14(1) and 14(2) enable the Courts Service, having undertaken the necessary consultations, to establish a combined court office. As part of this process it will designate two or more court offices to comprise the combined office and set out the business to be transacted in the office. Section 14(3) requires the Courts Service to publish notice of establishment in Iris Oifigiúil. In another standard provision, it notes that if, for some reason, publication is not achieved, this will not affect the validity of the office’s establishment.

Section 15 allows the Courts Service, subject to consultation, to change or remove functions of any constituent office of a combined court office, other than any business relating to the Special Criminal Court. Section 16 provides that the Courts Service must consult with the Chief Justice or president of the relevant court before establishing a combined court office. Section 17 provides a power for the Government to make an order applying these sections to the business of the Special Criminal Court, obviously excluding the judicial business of that court. Section 18 provides for certain legal consequences to follow where business of a court office is transacted in a combined court office.

Sections 19 to 22 provide for the staffing arrangements that may apply in a combined office. For example, section 20 confers on a combined court office manager the management and control, in regard to all matters of general administration, of the combined court office, subject to the general directions of the Courts Service. In the case of the new complex this manager has already been appointed and has been overseeing preparations for some time.

Section 22(2) enables any member of Courts Service staff to act as registrar to the Central Criminal Court, the Court of Criminal Appeal, the Courts-Martial Appeal Court, or the Circuit Court, where those courts form part of a combined court office. This provision will allow for flexibility and maximise use of available staff and accommodation.

Section 23 makes provision to ensure that the continuity of the administration of justice or of the business of a court office affected is not interrupted by the establishment, variation of the functions or disestablishment of a combined court office. Section 24 amends the Courts Service Act 1998 to incorporate in the powers conferred on the Courts Service under the 1998 Act the powers given to it under the Bill to establish, vary the functions of or disestablish a combined court office.

Section 25 is the first section in the fourth part of the Act which covers a number of provisions relating to bail. It amends section 22 of the Criminal Procedure Act 1967 and will have the effect of conferring on a District Court clerk power to take bail recognisances, where the District Court has admitted a person to bail with immediate effect when remanding that person or sending him forward for trial or sentence. This brings the provision into line with existing procedure where a person is availing of bail with delayed effect.

Section 26 amends section 24 of Petty Sessions (Ireland) Act 1851. The effect of this section is to extend the categories of persons who may take bail recognisance, where bail has been fixed by the District Court pending an appeal. The section adds a District Court clerk to the existing categories of persons who may do so, that is, a prison governor and a prison officer.

I am conscious that these provisions are technical and thank Deputies for their patience. The Courts Acts generally are procedural. They comprise over 100 statutes, many dating from before independence. However, in co-operation with my Department, the Law Reform Commission is working on a valuable item of legislation to codify the provisions. This will be of great assistance both to practitioners and anyone wishing to access the courts.

The provisions set out in the Bill will, once enacted, make their own small but important contribution to greater efficiency. I hope Deputies can support the measures proposed. The Bill was initiated because of the establishment of the new criminal court complex near Heuston Station, which hopefully will open before the end of the year.

On behalf of Fine Gael, I welcome the Courts and Court Officers Bill to the House. It will have the support of my party and I wish it speedy passage. I thank the Minister for introducing the Bill. The general theme of modernisation and increased efficiency can be seen as two threads that permeate the Bill and from this point of view it is very welcome. The Bill represents real progress in the approach of this House to the courts system and the Courts Service. An enormous amount of work remains to be done in this context but this legislation is welcome.

In the number of years since the inauguration of the Courts Service, efficiency and modernisation has been the hallmark and I welcome this. The Bill is divided into a number of components, to which I will now refer. The use of Garda time is one such important component. The Minister referred to calls from this House, including Deputies of all sides, and from Chief Inspector of the Garda Síochána Inspectorate, Ms Kathleen O'Toole, for changes to ensure that gardaí spent their time where their expertise could be best seen. This has been heeded in many respects in Part 2, which aims to resolve jurisdictional issues in respect of the role of the Garda Síochána and the role of the Irish Prison Service in escorting prisoners.

I represent the Laois-Offaly constituency, which houses more prisoners than any other. The prison is based in a busy provincial town while the Central Criminal Court and the Court of Criminal Appeal are based in the capital city. Therefore, prison escort is a major issue. It is essential that the Minister resolves questions about who engages in these escorts and under whose jurisdiction the escorts lie. Is it the Garda Síochána or the Irish Prison Service? The Irish Prison Service should be supplied with sufficient resources to ensure that escort duties can be carried out with the efficiency that is essential. It was suggested some years ago that the Court of Criminal Appeal might sit in Portlaoise and that a specifically designed court building would be constructed near Portlaoise Prison. This would increase the efficient and smooth running of the administration of criminal law. It would also obviate the need for emergency escorts and convoys on the main Cork to Dublin road on a daily basis. There are cost implications for these escorts in terms of time and ensuring that the courts operate so that the public is best served. Attempts to gradually move functions that were formerly under the jurisdiction of the Garda Síochána to the Irish Prison Service have been hampered by a lack of resources. I ask the Minister to address this issue in the context of the legislation where reference is made to it.

The Bill refers to civilianisation. I am reminded of a recent report by the Comptroller and Auditor General, which drew attention to the fact that only 144 gardaí have been released from administrative duties since 2005 under the civilianisation programme, although almost 1,000 civilians have been employed in the force since that date. The report noted that the ratio of civilians to gardaí in the Garda Síochána is one in seven, which is particularly low in comparison to other jurisdictions. In the UK the ratio is one in three, in Sweden and Australia it is one in four. The slow rate of progress in this area is remarkable and must be addressed. On the other hand, one can see results where small communities across Ireland are bereft of a Garda service. There is a real need to ensure that where gardaí are available and stationed, the use of their time, experience and expertise is in the best interest of communities. I would like the Minister to clarify the reasons for the slow progress in civilianisation, the blockages and the programme to ensure that the civilianisation programme can be progressed.

The matter of gardaí in court is also of some concern. The Garda budget this year has been slashed to an amount in excess of €30 million. Will the Minister confirm that in excess of €10 million of the Garda overtime budget——

Deputy Flanagan stated the overall figure was slashed to €30 million.

Yes, I believe the Minister is on record as stating it is approximately €30 million.

No, it is €80 million.

The Minister can come back to me with the figures.

It is €80 million.

For the full year?

However, of that overtime, an amount in excess of €10 million has been expended on gardaí going to Criminal Courts and District Courts during their time off. It has been suggested that up to 1,400 gardaí per day spend their time in District Courts and Circuit Courts throughout the country. It is important that the law can be reformed to allow for a court sergeant in charge to engage in the type of duties that will allow for cases to be heard in a way that is satisfactory to the courts and the communities while at the same time obviating the need to have hundreds of gardaí waiting in queues to have cases heard. I look forward to progress in this regard.

The Bill refers to bail and bail recognisance and I compliment the Minister on the changes to be made. It is a sensible move to allow a District Court clerk and other public officials to take bail recognisance in certain cases without the need for the applicant to return to court on each occasion. The expansion of the range of persons who can take a recognisance in the case of an appeal from the District Court is a move towards the smoother administration of justice.

Earlier this week, I was interested to hear the Minister speak on proposals for bail reform and I invite him to expand on and develop his thoughts. The statistics in respect of offences committed by those out on bail are truly frightening. We must remind ourselves that suspects for eight murders carried out last year and 13 committed in 2007 were out on bail. It is estimated that 24 sex offences, all of which were serious, were committed by persons on bail during 2008. Last year, 34 suspects out on bail threatened to kill people, up from 30 the previous year.

The Minister has spoken in the House and outside it on his intention to electronically tag sex offenders. I am surprised the Minister has not made a similar commitment in respect of those out on bail while awaiting court hearings. To introduce electronic tagging for sex offenders and not have a broadly based programme to include many of those out on bail makes little sense given the fact that on the one hand seven out of eight applicants receive bail, and on the other those out on bail commit thousands of offences every year.

The main reason we are enacting this legislation in the autumn of 2009 is to facilitate the new criminal court complex as outlined by the Minister. I compliment him, his officials and his predecessors on this initiative. Everyone in the House will agree that a professional and streamlined criminal court system is essential for the effective and efficient administration of justice. If we get the surge in criminal prosecutions the Minister has promised under the Criminal Justice (Amendment) Act 2009 we can expect this new complex to be very busy, especially the Special Criminal Court. We look forward to monitoring progress in this regard.

The concentration of the criminal courts in a single complex is to be commended. While engaging in a specific custom-built court complex for criminal law we should not lose sight of the other arm of the law that is in need of its own custom-built block, namely family law. In 2007, Fine Gael proposed a constitutional amendment to allow for the establishment of an entirely distinct and separate system of family courts. Family law cases are currently dealt with in the District, Circuit and High Courts. A dedicated family court system which would operate separately to the current civil and criminal court systems would offer those involved in family disputes a lower cost, less complex avenue to resolve their difficulties and problems. It would also help them to engage more with bodies which do very good work in the area of family law, namely, family support agencies and family mediation services, and with the concept of alternative dispute resolution and mediation in particular.

Our current system of family courts is fragmented, having developed piecemeal over many years in an unplanned, haphazard way. Many experts contend, and I agree with them, that a lack of specialist judicial training and a lack of transparency in findings in the family law area often results in inconsistent decisions being delivered. It is two years since the distinguished legal affairs correspondent, Carol Coulter, published an important report on this area and 13 years since the Law Reform Commission published a detailed report calling for reform in this area. The inaction on the part of Government on this matter is less than acceptable. Drawing from my experience of family law matters as a practitioner in provincial Ireland, there is a real need for an initiative in the family law courts, perhaps similar to the one we are now approving for the criminal courts.

In his speech on Bill, the Minister spoke of a greater level of co-ordination and administrative efficiencies and he is correct. I welcome the move towards administrative efficiencies in respect of court offices by the creation of a consolidated court office and this brings me conveniently to the McCarthy report. We have heard a procession of Ministers distance themselves from the McCarthy report as though they had nothing to do with its commission and that it came as a bolt from the blue. I have not heard anything from the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform to date. That is not to state he has not been speaking about it but——

I complimented the McCarthy report in that it encouraged me to continue with Thornton Hall.

——I have not come across his utterances.

There is no outwitting the Minister.

It did not suggest any cuts in Garda numbers or prison numbers. I thought it was a great report.

I remind the Minister that according to the McCarthy report the Government has the capacity to save €23.2 million in the area of "management of the courts and supporting the Judiciary". Leaving aside the Garda stations, to which we can return, with regard to managing the courts and their administration, the McCarthy report proposes reducing the numbers of county registrars from 26 to 15, saving €2 million and we have not heard the Minister on this. It proposes rationalising the District and Circuit Court network and introducing new measures to deliver greater efficiencies, saving €2 million; abolishing the grade of tipstaff in the courts, saving €2.5 million; reducing surplus security personnel at the Four Courts, saving €2 million; reviewing the charging system for civil and commercial courts, saving €5 million; reducing the non-pay baseline of Civil Service officers under the courts programme, saving €1.3 million; and introducing a limited means testing system for criminal legal aid, saving €8.4 million.

It is more than two months since these proposals were placed in the public domain. I invite the Minister to comment on them in specific ways, although perhaps not in the manner in which his ministerial colleagues have rushed to distance themselves from the McCarthy report. He should go on record on these court efficiencies.

I already have.

The debate on this Bill would provide an ideal opportunity for him to so do.

Many of the McCarthy proposals resonate well with the spirit of this legislation and that is why the Minister's intentions might be clarified. In particular, efficiencies can be made in criminal legal aid. Time and again, we read in local and national newspapers about gangsters being brought before the courts, being granted legal aid and speeding away in blacked out SUVs from the complex of the court. This sight truly sickens law-abiding members of communities. The situation which currently obtains is vastly different from that in 1962 when the Criminal Justice (Legal Aid) Act was introduced to provide legal aid to "poor persons" accused of crime.

It seems reasonable to assume that those in receipt of social welfare should be automatically entitled to criminal legal aid but we are all aware there are massive abuses in the welfare system. Indeed, when the Exchequer started to run dry and the Government belatedly introduced fraud and control measures in social welfare, a massive €228 million was saved in the first six months of this year. That gives one an indication of the hands-off approach of the Government to the spending of money.

A rigorous means test for civil legal aid is already in place and it is surprising, in many ways, that there is not a uniform system across the board for criminal cases and civil cases. A completely different set of criteria seem to be employed for both arms of the law.

I am aware the Criminal Assets Bureau does important work in recovering ill-gotten gains from criminals and it is notable that the CAB recovered €2.5 million in regard to social welfare payments during its first ten years of operation. However, CAB is a relatively small operation and, obviously, it must concentrate its attention where it identifies the greatest need to be. I am concerned that it appears criminals are exploiting the system and getting away with it. The €228 million clawed back in the first six months of this year compared to the €2.5 million recovered by CAB in a ten-year period suggests that exploitation of the social welfare system still exists on a massive scale. It is obvious that major criminals are slipping through the net.

The rationalisation of the courts network is an issue to which McCarthy refers in some detail. Rationalisation has, in many respects, been happening throughout the country. I agree with much of it because the modern system of communication is such that people have access to courts now perhaps not in the manner in which they required 100 or even 50 years ago.

The courts which survive McCarthy or Government cuts must be in a position to offer a very modern and efficient service to the public. For example, holding cells in provincial court houses are not available in many areas. We can safely say we do not have any place for Dickensian-type court facilities in modern society.

However, I recognise tremendous improvement in that regard, in particular since the introduction of the property arm of the courts service and a greater level of co-operation between local authorities, the Office of Public Works and the courts service in ensuring the availability of modern and efficient justice system in every large provincial town.

I welcome the Bill. We are recording progress in the area of efficiencies and modernisation. Obviously, there is no room or no time for complacency. The entire justice system, in particular in the civil administration, is in need of updating, modernisation and increased efficiencies. I highlighted some of these areas, including family courts, bail, the civilianisation of the Garda and criminal legal aid. As I have said on numerous occasions, the Minister can reply on the support of the Fine Gael Party in his endeavours in the area of law reform and modernisation and we wish him well.

This is sensible and pragmatic legislation. On behalf of the Labour Party, I am happy to support it and give it a quick dispatch through the House. Those of us on this side of the House and people outside it have been properly critical about how well the fruits of the boom have been used. Many things might have been done better and there are identifiable areas in which there has been considerable waste or misspending of public money. However, credit where it is due.

According to what we know about this new courts complex, it is an exceptional development and a major improvement involving modernisation, efficiencies and savings for the taxpayer. Also, according to what we have been told informally by the Courts Service, it is a particularly splendid building which the public deserves, will make the lives of many people easier and, as the Minister said, will mark a new era in court buildings.

It appears that since the establishment of the Courts Service, there has been considerable modernisation and greater efficiencies put in place. I do not know if all the users see it that way but the changes have been dramatic. The operation of the courts from the point of view of the interested citizen has sometimes seemed archaic, out of date, inefficient and haphazard and rules were applied which would not apply anywhere else in society. Those days seem to have been put behind us and the Courts Service seems to have done a good job.

This latest step is obviously a major one which we can only welcome. I do not know if the Minister sees this as the beginning of specialisation or a parting of the ways between the criminal and civil justice. The fact the criminal courts will essentially be located in one new location will almost inevitably mean that the practitioners will have to opt for one or the other. It has been suggested to me that the Minister might start a barge service along the river, which will have regard to the tides. Given the different levels of the courts which will be located in the new complex, I do not know whether he might need a different quality of barge, depending on the court being ferried. However, this will probably lead to practitioners beginning to opt for one or the other. The Minister's script does not provide any figures for the costs savings envisaged over time by the creation of a single administrative office in one location instead of an office for each of the courts concerned. Are any available? Has the Minister done a cost-benefit analysis of this exercise?

I presume a major area of cost is the use of Garda time and the escort service. Deputy Charles Flanagan believes there may be a case for the construction of a court facility at Portlaoise given the number of prisoners being transported from the prison there. To the layman, it would appear there is considerable waste in this area. "Considerable inefficiency" would probably be a more appropriate term. Still, it is to be welcomed that the Bill will facilitate the coming into operation of a new complex at Kingsbridge which will tackle this. Will the Minister give figures for the costs involved in this?

Deputy Charles Flanagan referred to the Comptroller and Auditor General's report on the progress of the civilianisation programme in the Garda. The Minister must admit it has been very disappointing. The Government simply increased the number of civilians employed which was not the programme's intention. It was intended to free up gardaí from routine administrative duties to concentrate on their first task, namely policing, but little progress has been made in this. Several years ago I read a report from one of the white-collar unions which conveyed an even more baleful picture than the figures compiled by the Comptroller and Auditor General.

In a way the approach to the programme was symptomatic of the times — we simply employed more civilians. Gardaí who were tied up in routine administrative functions were not displaced or put on the beat performing the first tasks of policemen and policewomen. No matter what the Minister says and how he fights his corner at Cabinet, we will have difficulties in stretching police resources in the immediate years ahead. Such circumstances make an additional argument for an added impetus to be given to the civilianisation programme. It would not do any harm either for Garda-citizen relations if the civilianisation programme was stepped up with young citizens trained to perform some of the routine duties, including contact with the public, which are sometimes not done well by some gardaí.

No matter how the figures are analysed, they are very disappointing. I presume the Minister and his predecessors have met resistance to the programme. The Garda is highly unionised. People who have been doing certain duties for a long time may not want to be displaced at this stage of their lives and probably have little appetite to go back to routine policing. The programme, however, should be focused on at a time when Garda numbers are likely to be under attack.

The Minister is under the impression that an bord snip nua has been kind to him and his Department, and in turn, he will be kind to it. As Deputy Charles Flanagan put on the record, that impression is not necessarily true when it comes to the operation of the courts system. Several recommendations suggesting specific savings in the administration of the courts were made in the McCarthy report. The Minister claims he has commented on them but I have not heard him. I do not know if these recommendations have been considered in the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform or whether we will have to wait until budget day to see if any of them have found merit with the Minister. It would be helpful if the Minister were to indicate his thinking in this regard.

On the Courts Acts, the Minister stated: "They comprise over 100 statutes, many dating from before Independence. However, in co-operation with my Department, the Law Reform Commission is working on a valuable piece of legislation to codify the provisions." While everyone would welcome such a development, I am concerned about the Law Reform Commission's workload. When it examines a particular subject, often far more complex areas of law than this one, it ends up attaching a draft Bill to the end of its report. The McCarthy report made specific recommendations on the future of the Law Reform Commission. Considering the Minister introduced the subject into this debate, it would be appropriate for him to comment on the commission's future. It provides invaluable and quality work for the Minister and the Legislature. It would be reassured if the Minister took the opportunity to comment on how he views its future role.

Deputy Charles Flanagan also raised Dr. Carol Coulter's report on the operation of the family courts. More often now Members are interacting with the workload of the family courts in their constituency clinics. Various matters are drawn to our attention on which it is difficult to have an informed view. We have no overview of the performance and experience of the family courts because they operate in camera but constituents present their views on their operation in our clinics. Apart from Deputy Charles Flanagan’s point about whether there should be a special identifiable family court, what does the Minister think of the report prepared by Dr. Carol Coulter? Is it the subject of work in the Department and does the Minister intend to allow debate on it in the House reasonably soon? The throughput of the family courts is very high and I would like to have an opportunity here to test the concerns that have been raised.

This is not a contentious Bill. I am glad to see it brought before the House and am delighted to know that the new courts will operate from the beginning of November. Somewhere in the Minister's script there is a reference to the holding area in the complex. There is, however, a separate holding facility in Phoenix Park from which people might be brought to the court. Are there two holding areas? If the Garda time involved in the traditional escort and supervision system for persons held temporarily or awaiting recognisance on bail is to diminish will there be fewer gardaí involved but more officers of the prison service? Has the Minister examined the figures for a net saving? Is there a saving to the taxpayer or will the responsibility be transferred from one limb of the State, the Garda Síochána, to another, the Irish Prison Service? The Minister indicated that the structure, architecture and layout of the building is such that there are manifest savings but will we simply compensate for fewer gardaí with more staff from the Irish Prison Service to perform these duties?

The Labour Party is happy to support the speedy enactment of this Bill and welcomes what appears to be a splendid new piece of infrastructure for the administration of justice. I promise to support the Bill as it progresses through the House.

Tá mé chun mo chuid ama a roinnt leis an Teachta Brendan Kenneally.

I am glad to speak on this short Bill which comprises 26 sections. There has been a great deal of talk recently about Dáil reform and one aspect of this to consider is the time allocated to short legislation. I know the Opposition hates guillotines and I suppose it has good reasons for doing so. The time given to this Bill will inevitably be short because there will probably be few speakers but when there are so many serious issues regarding the economy and unemployment to be discussed Bills such as this should be given a short time. Any major issues arising from particular sections can be discussed on Committee Stage. That there seems to be no opposition to this Bill should also be considered.

I am glad the Bill is being enacted for the creation of the so-called criminal courts of justice complex. I do not know if any name has been designated for it but I hope a more Irish or fitting one will be found.

What about me?

The current name does not sound appropriate. It sounds like an ominous complex with 450 "rooms" and "ancillary facilities" but we know that the 22 courtrooms to deal with all Dublin criminal business will take up much of the complex. I am glad to see from Deputy O'Connor's point of view that there will continue to be a District Court in Tallaght. Unfortunately I cannot say the same for my constituency because the District Court in Dunshaughlin has been closed and its business moved to Navan. That must be examined. Drogheda, Kells and Navan courts cover part of Meath East. Some of my constituents have even been before the court in Blanchardstown.

The courts system does not attract much public attention. There was very little public interest in Drogheda District Court's being located for many years in a bingo hall. I practised there. When a local newspaper set up a petition about it there was little response. The situation has improved, however, and there are more frequent sittings in line with the increase in population. The Circuit Court for Meath is in Trim and that for Louth is in Dundalk, making two locations in the north east. In the west and south, however, there is a plethora of Circuit Court locations, regardless, in some cases, of geography or population. There is scope to rationalise the court system throughout the country. If the business can be done in two locations in the north east, where the county registrars are very efficient, that example should be followed around the country, particularly when money has to be saved. The public would support that because thankfully most of the public do not appear in court.

It is important to have good facilities but I urge the Minister to consider the court service in Dunshaughlin because if a place can be found for that courthouse it will be provided. The current location is unsafe but no suitable alternative has been found. That is important not just for the Garda, witnesses and alleged criminals but also for the local economy because of the influx of gardaí, lawyers, witnesses and so on that it brings.

I welcome this Bill and the new complex. I advise anyone studying the theory of criminal law to spend some time in this complex when it is operating because all the criminal business will be dealt with there. It would be interesting to watch how cases progress from the District Court all the way up to the Court of Criminal Appeal. The legislation includes some sensible provisions which can be used elsewhere.

I welcome the opportunity to speak on the Courts and Court Officers Bill. I realise the legislation largely concerns the operation of the new Criminal Court complex at the Phoenix Park. I remember driving by it some 12 months ago, not realising at the time what it was. It is a magnificent structure and it is very sensible to locate the five different courts in the one complex because this streamlines the operation of criminal trials in Dublin. I was delighted to hear the Minister state the complex is coming in ahead of both budget and time, and will be ready in November. Now that it is out of the way perhaps the Minister might turn his attention to providing the much needed expansion of the courthouse in Waterford which is totally inadequate for a city of that size and the south-east region.

I note that administrative structures are changing and concern the entire operation of criminal proceedings in Dublin. We welcome that because we would all like to see any measure that will cut costs and perhaps lead to a quicker throughput of trials. One item surprised me a little. I did not realise until I looked at the Bill that there are two offices for the High Court, namely, the High Court office and the office of the President of the High Court. There are not two Supreme Court offices, to include one for the President of the Supreme Court. I wonder why there should be two offices for the High Court. Perhaps they could be combined.

Part 2 of the Bill deals with temporary custody and I wish to comment on that. I support the efforts that are being made to try to streamline the entire procedure and transfer as much as possible of this part of the criminal justice procedure to the Prison Service to operate. I hope that as a result gardaí will be freed up from the escort duties they have been doing to do more important business and that the prison officers can get on with what they do. I have one concern which is not referred to in the Bill. It concerns people waiting to go into custody. I refer to a criminal case, perhaps a routine low profile criminal case, which is heard somewhere in the country, for example in a rural part of counties Waterford, Kerry or Cork. My understanding is that if such a case is ongoing — for whatever reason some of these cases can go on for several weeks — for the duration there must be a number of prison officers on stand-by with a prison van to take the person in the case into custody if found guilty. If a number of people have to be located like that for a period of time obviously they must be put up in a local hotel, fed and given a daily allowance. It seems to be a very costly exercise. Yet in any of the courts around the country where criminal proceedings are taking place there will be a number of gardaí in the vicinity. It would make more sense, when the case is completed and the defendant is found guilty, for the gardaí to take that person into custody and bring him or her to the nearest barracks or holding cell available, call the Prison Service to collect the convicted person and bring him or her to the place of detention in question. That would be more logical and would save a certain amount of money. It cannot and will not operate in all cases. If there is a particularly contentious case with high profile criminals, for example, the one thing that must be done with those people as soon as they are found guilty is to get them to hell out of the place as quickly as possible. However, there are many low profile criminal cases happening all over the country where such circumstances do not pertain. Perhaps the way in which our resources are being used could be looked at in that regard.

The Bill seeks to combine various offices and I assume we can look forward to the combination of Circuit Court and District Court offices in the many towns and cities around the country. I have no problem with that because I am sure there is a great deal of work duplication going on at present while they operate separately. This, again, should speed up the criminal process. I have some concerns, however, regarding section 15 of the Bill which seems to give powers to the Courts Service to downgrade some of these offices. Does this mean, for example, that when an office is downgraded it would no longer be a combined District Court-Circuit Court office but might carry out only District Court business while the Circuit Court element would be centralised into one region? I do not know if that is what is envisaged but perhaps there is to be a move towards regional offices. The Minister might clarify this for us.

Section 15(2) gives me even more cause for concern. It states that the Courts Service can dissolve offices. In other words, it can shut down any offices around the country. I have a problem with this type of legislation, not only as it appears in this Bill but in general. Increasingly, we are moving matters away from Ministers and Departments, and from the Houses of the Oireachtas. We will be told afterwards if we ask any questions about this that the Minister has no responsibility in the area. That is a concern I have had for a number of years. We are continuing to push this kind of matter further and further away from those who are here to represent the people of the country. We are being downgraded, increasingly. I do not like this move away from the Minister and the Oireachtas, nor do I like it that, in effect, some bureaucrats can decide to dissolve offices while we have no say in the matter. Perhaps there is more behind this than I have knowledge of and the Minister might clarify this when he is summing up.

Section 19 surprised me somewhat too in what it states about the appointment of the manager of the new combined office. I thought that the county registrar, as the senior person in the Circuit Court office which is, in turn, the more senior of the two offices, would be appointed as the manager but according to the legislation this need not necessarily be the case. I would imagine it would lead to a certain amount of friction if a county registrar was not made manager and another person was put in over him or her. Perhaps there is good reason for this measure in some areas but I do not know it and again I ask the Minister to clarify the issue.

The country registrar also currently operates as sheriff, though not as the revenue sheriff, who is usually an appointed local solicitor. The repossession of goods or houses or whatever is within the remit of the country registrar, as sheriff, at present. What are the intentions in this regard? Will the function remain in the combined office with the county registrar as it currently is, or are there plans to change how it operates?

With these several comments and provisos I broadly welcome this legislation.

I wish to share my time with Deputy Chris Andrews.

I welcome this legislation and am pleased to note it will not be too controversial because there has been agreement on all sides with regard to its passing. I will add for the record what previous speakers acknowledged, namely, the contribution of the Courts Service to the physical transformation of our courthouses throughout the length and breadth of the country. The Courts Service was fortunate in so far as funding was available for refurbishment and for the construction of new courthouses as some courthouses had become very dilapidated and run down. They were eyesores and a source of annoyance in many of our county towns and cities. They have been modernised and this is very welcome. Many courthouses were situated in a place of prominence in a town. It was unfortunate that they fell into disrepair. The county councils had a function in the upkeep of courthouses and at a time when their funding and their revenue stream was limited, they were not in a position to invest the type of moneys required to bring the courthouses up to a 20th century standard. This has now been achieved and I commend the various Ministers who succeeded in securing funding for the Courts Service for this refurbishment work. The Courts Service is to be commended for the sensitive manner in which it went about refurbishing the courthouses.

The Courts Service has also streamlined the management of the courts. While much has been done there is still some way to go to have an even more efficient and effective service. I refer to the introduction of the digital recording of proceedings which was a significant advance in terms of administration of the courts. This is to be commended. The building of a new courthouse for central Dublin commenced in May 2007 and it is pleasing to note that it will be completed ahead of schedule for hand over in November 2009.

An issue which has been referred to by the Minister in his Second Stage contribution is the question of maximising the use of Garda time. We all have anecdotal evidence of gardaí attending a court sitting at 10 a.m. who must remain there all day and it often happens that the case is adjourned on appeal but a garda will have spent his time standing around. My constituency office is located close to the courthouse in Carlow and on a weekly basis I see the number of gardaí who are obliged to attend and who must wait for cases to be dealt with. This practice is soul-destroying for them as they are obliged to wait around and often a case does not proceed. This practice is referred to in the Bill but I would like more comprehensive legislation introduced which would deal with the use of Garda time in court cases.

The other issue I ask the Minister to investigate is the abuse of the free legal aid system. We are all aware of high profile cases in which legal aid is granted to defendants. One does not have to know everything about certain individuals to know that they have the wherewithal to pay their own legal costs through the many scams in which they are involved, yet the taxpayer is obliged to pay their legal bills. There should be tighter scrutiny by the courts before granting this facility to certain individuals. I accept there are genuine cases where legal aid is required by defendants or by individuals before the courts and I preface my remarks by saying that genuine cases are entitled to free legal aid and the State should provide it but more and more there is evidence of high profile cases where the evidence in previous cases would suggest that these are people of means yet they apply for legal aid. To the outsider looking at it, these people seem to be granted this facility by the courts without a proper examination of the circumstances.

The system of on-the-spot fines for traffic and parking offences has freed up the time of the courts significantly. It has been singularly successful in keeping cases such as speeding, parking or littering offences out of the courts. Under legislation introduced in this House an on-the-spot fine may be imposed and paid. I ask for an extension of this system where possible to free up the expensive time of gardaí and to allow them spend more time doing what they want to do. They are well trained in Templemore to police. The role of the Garda Síochána is to be out with the public and interfacing with the community rather than in the courts. I ask for some changes in future legislation.

Will the Minister provide some clarification on the role of county registrars? There may be changes in that area to do with court messengers who work for county registrars and of whom there are approximately 27 throughout the country. There are indications that the role of the court messenger may be changed and the job may be privatised. I ask the Minister to examine any proposed changes to ascertain the cost efficiencies involved before a final decision is taken.

The Bill has enabling provisions to allow the Courts Service to manage the central holding facility for people in custody and to have control over all persons held, including those who have not been committed to prison by the courts. This is a positive proposal as there has been duplication in that area. The vested interests support the changes outlined by the Minister.

I commend this Bill and I am pleased it will have an easy passage through both Houses. I wish the new facility every success. It is a long time since the Four Courts building was constructed and this is the first significant investment in a courthouse in central Dublin since that fine building was constructed.

I am delighted to have the opportunity to speak on this legislation. I had not planned on referring to the free legal aid system but I agree with the comments of Deputy Nolan. I know the Minister is as committed as anybody to dealing with abuses of the judicial system but in difficult economic times the focus is on getting value for money. There is a sense that free legal aid is being abused and if that if funding is available it should go to those genuine cases to which Deputy Nolan referred.

The purpose of this Bill is to allow for the efficient operation of procedures at the new criminal courts of justice when they open in 2010. That will be four months ahead of schedule, which is a positive delivery of services.

Since the Courts Service was established in 1999, it has energetically and systematically pursued a programme of transforming the physical infrastructure of the courts. This is extremely welcome. It shows that despite the difficult times in which we live, projects are being undertaken and people are adhering to plans and delivering on them. Not everything will be transformed overnight. In Donnybrook and Pearse Street Garda Stations gardaí are housed in antiquated buildings making it difficult for them to be as efficient as they could be in a brand new building. However, that development will happen. In Irishtown in Dublin 4, for example, there is a new Garda Station which is a tribute to the Department and the Minister who delivered this fine project. It makes it possible for everyone to be more efficient.

The new complex to which we refer in this debate has 450 rooms, including 22 court rooms, and ancillary facilities based over ten floors and will provide vastly improved facilities for the public. A very positive aspect of the new complex is that victims of crimes will have an easier experience than at present. Those who come into contact with the judicial or criminal system find it stressful and upsetting at a vulnerable point in their lives. If we can alleviate those difficulties and make a small difference to the interaction between the criminal system and victims we should do so. This building will make it easier for people to navigate the courts system without coming into contact with people with whom they are in conflict.

The formation of the Courts Service was recommended by a working group on a courts commission which was established by the Oireachtas in 1996. The group found that the Irish court system had remained largely unchanged since its establishment in 1924. This had resulted in unacceptable delays in the determination of court cases. In addition, staff throughout the courts system were poorly organised, given the antiquated structures within which they worked. That is being addressed on an ongoing basis. To combat those difficulties, the Courts Service of Ireland was established in 1999.

It is nice to hear Deputy Rabbitte warmly welcoming this new building. The effective operation of a court system is critical for the well-being of any society. The built infrastructure and the human infrastructure must both be right. The new complex goes a long distance towards that. The new Criminal Court complex will be the first step in the modernisation of the service. Given the scale of the building, it was necessary for the Courts Service, in consultation with the Garda and the Irish Prison Service, IPS, to give detailed consideration to how various work processes will operate when the building is up and running. An efficient and modern service is a priority for all the parties involved.

The Bill will provide for a modern and streamlined service which will best serve those who come in contact with it. Part 2 will allow the IPS to manage the central holding facility for people in custody and have control of all persons, including those who have not been committed by the courts to prison. That will make things more efficient and must be welcomed. The Bill also allows for the temporary transfer of custody to a holding area for the purpose of facilitating a court appearance or the holding of a court hearing involving an accused person. It is necessary to make legislative provision for this change so that the IPS may be responsible for the custody of persons in the holding cells in the courts. Until now those people have been in the custody of the Garda. The Bill will not affect the current arrangements for persons detained in the Central Mental Hospital who are required to attend court. They will remain within the mental health service.

Part 3 makes provisions to allow for improved staff management and flexibility by designating a single administrative office rather than an office for each court and each jurisdiction. Many of the Bill's measures are practical and welcome. Part 3 will modernise the court structures and allow for the integration of staff and efficient procedures.

Part 4 will allow a District Court clerk to take bail recognisance in certain instances. At present, when a District Court grants bail and the applicant is in a position to take up bail immediately subject to entering a recognisance, an applicant must be taken to the court office, complete the necessary documentation and then return to the court to enter recognisance before the judge. This is time consuming and not altogether necessary. This straightforward technical amendment will minimise the movement of prisoners around the court complex and free up judges' time for hearings.

All of these measures are inherently sensible and will result in increased efficiencies in the prison service. I look forward to the opening of the new building and I commend the Bill to the House.

I thank all the speakers for their good wishes for the Bill. Courts infrastructure has come a long way in recent years. When I qualified in 1976, I naïvely took the position of secretary to the County Louth Bar Association. One of the first tasks I was given was to lobby the local authority to improve the Dickensian facilities of Dundalk District Court. One of the first proposals was that the council would fund the closing in with glass of the front of the building because practitioners and the public were frozen to death in the precincts of the court house. We succeeded in having that proposal implemented but the next claim was that people continued to be frozen by the cold stone floors, despite the fact that the wind was not howling around them. We then lobbied the council for a new carpet. Today, there is a spanking newly refurbished court house in Dundalk which holds the District Court, the Circuit Court and the High Court on Circuit. At a cost of €6.5 million the court house was very tastefully refurbished and now holds the offices of the County Registrar and others. It is one of 41 court buildings.

The year 1976 was the last time the Minister did anything naïve.

I thank the Deputy. It is amazing how far we have come, as a nation. I thank Deputy Rabbitte for the compliments he paid. At least, we did something right. In the new year, constituents from my home town who have business to transact in the Criminal Courts of Justice complex can travel by train or on what I call the "we squandered the boom" motorway from Dundalk to Dublin. They can enter the "we squandered the boom" port tunnel, park their cars and take the "we squandered the boom Luas" to the Criminal Court complex. We did something right in recent years. To be fair to every Deputy, we all agree that any modern society should have those items of infrastructure.

The courts complex is magnificent. I visited it with the Chief Justice a number of months ago when it was still a building site. It is a compliment to everyone who designed it and had an input because it has been painstakingly designed in such a way as to ensure that those who should be kept separate are. The facilities are second to none. I am reluctant to use the word "iconic", but it is an iconic building that will stand the test of time, mirroring what was done a number of centuries ago in the form of the magnificent Four Courts building.

When the new complex is up and running, the District Court operation of the Courts Service will move there from the Bridewell court in the second week of December, with the operations for the Circuit, Criminal and other courts to follow from the beginning of the new legal term in January.

A number of Deputies raised the issue of civilianisation. There is no doubt that the effort to civilianise much of the work of the Garda has been progressing. Previously, there was only one civilian per ten gardaí, but that figure is now one per seven or six, which is as it should be. I agree with the Deputies who exhort us to continue pressuring the release of further gardaí for other duties. From an operational point of view, however, the Garda must determine what type of person is necessary, be it a garda or civilian, to do particular office work. It is the intention that as much of the work that can be done by civilians should be done by them, but there are circumstances in which gardaí must do paperwork. It is not always appreciated that gardaí on the beat have a telephone system whereby they can telephone a call centre in Castlebar on a dedicated line to communicate issues. They do not need to return to a Garda station and type up the issues that were subject to complaint. Many streamlining changes have been made.

Some Deputies referred to the changes in the fixed penalty charges, etc. In line with previous efforts, we are changing this legislation to free up gardaí, leading to a saving in Garda time if not prison officer time. We are seeking a more efficient use of different personnel and to free gardaí from certain duties as much as possible.

Deputies have mentioned the matter of family law, in respect of which a Bill is being prepared. Regarding physical accommodation, the Dolphin House courtrooms will be freed up to concentrate entirely on family law cases. In effect, it will become Dublin's family law complex.

The ink on the McCarthy report was hardly dry when every Deputy, particularly those on the Government side, got representations from rural transport schemes, community development projects and family support agencies and centres, all of which the Government established, as people must appreciate. Despite the fact that we have been accused of squandering the boom, when I became Minister for Social Welfare in 1997, one of our promises was to increase community development projects from 25 to 100, which we succeeded in doing in a short time. Today, there are more than 180 community development projects——

Thanks to the economy that the Government inherited.

——thanks to Fianna Fáil-led Governments.

Whoever will inherit it now will need to close them all down.

Equally so, there are many family support centres.

Is the Minister disagreeing with the McCarthy report as well?

We receive significant lobbying and pressure from groups as diverse as the rural transport schemes to the Law Reform Commission. While they accept——

The Minister sounds like he owns the groups.

——that we are in a crisis and must cut our cloth to meet our measure, they do not want to be touched. The LRC does excellent work and, as stated, uses practitioners' expertise that is not necessarily within my Department or available to us elsewhere. I compliment the LRC on its work over the years and I look forward to it continuing to do so.

Regarding Garda stations, the McCarthy report's proposed saving was €1 million in return for the closure of 350 stations, half of the stations in the country. It is not beyond the wit of me as Minister to save €1 million within a budget of €2.5 billion, even though 70% of it is difficult to touch because it constitutes wages for gardaí, prison officers and departmental staff. Nevertheless, it is not beyond my wit to find €1 million in the Department.

If the Minister stopped the security contract on Thornton Hall, he would be halfway there.

A new Bill will be tabled in respect of legal aid. It is with the Office of the Parliamentary Counsel for drafting. While there is some logic in dovetailing civil and criminal legal aid, it must be borne in mind that the latter is a constitutional requirement whereas the former is only statutory. Despite comments to the effect that some defendants should not get free legal criminal aid, the reality is that most people who appear before courts for having committed crimes are not wealthy. There is anecdotal evidence concerning people with resources, but we must ensure that our changes will not hammer those who are patently unable to pay for solicitors and barristers while providing our limited resources to those who deserve it.

The court presenters are Garda sergeants who act as prosecutors in court and have operated on a small scale in the Bridewell since 1989. Their number has expanded rapidly in recent years and they now operate throughout all of the Dublin courts. There will be scope for further expansion when the Criminal Court complex is up and running.

The proposal to allow the Irish Prison Service to undertake all escort duties in respect of prisoners on remand would require the employment of at least an additional 70 staff. This would not be possible in our financial circumstances, but the matter is being re-examined by the Garda and the IPS with a view to using our resources as well as possible.

Will there be a net saving?

Yes, for the Garda. There would not be an extra financial burden on the IPS. We want to use our people as efficiently and effectively as possible. It does not make sense for gardaí to trip over prison officers in the same courts complex, particularly when the complex is so streamlined and, I hope, efficiently run. Its structure will obviate the need for more personnel.

Deputy Rabbitte referred to the indication of the number of gardaí involved. I will get the information before Committee Stage.

While one may rightly criticise the lack of space in prisons, one should note there has been a dramatic increase in the number of criminal prosecutions in the past year. Between 2007 and 2008, there was a 48% increase in convictions. That is dramatic and it is one of the reasons for the increase associated with legal aid in criminal cases.

It is consistent with the increase in crime.

No, it is consistent with the successful prosecutions by the Garda and the courts. This must be appreciated in light of the difficulties we acknowledge arise in prisons. That is why I suggest our plans deserve more support from the Opposition. One must accept there has been a dramatic investment. Those who suggest we squandered the boom in respect of prisons should note there are 1,400 extra prison spaces and 450 to be made available between now and the end of the year. These are real prison spaces. The extension at Wheatfield is magnificent. We are not resting on our laurels because we want to move on the provision of another substantial block in the Midlands Prison, if the Exchequer position allows it, as an interim measure pending the implementing of the Thornton Hall proposals. We are still moving on Thornton Hall, as I stated during Question Time. We will proceed with the project at Thornton Hall on a phased basis. I hope phase 1 will start before the end of the year or early in the new year. We must be given some credit in that respect.

Deputy Thomas Byrne raised the closure of Dunshaughlin courthouse. There is a brand new courthouse, opened last year, not too far down the road in Blanchardstown. There is a courthouse in Trim and in my home town.

The Courts Service has been reviewing the issue of courts around the country. The matter is somewhat similar to that associated with Garda stations. One point Mr. McCarthy made in his report was that the designation or closure of a Garda station should not be the responsibility of the Minister and should be exclusively that of the Garda Commissioner and Garda management. I agree, because it is not up to me. We are all under political pressure not to close Garda stations in this or that village but ultimately the people on the ground who understand the normal policing requirements must make the decision.

The proposal speaks for itself.

That does not look good. The Minister is asking the Commissioner to do his work for him.

It was a very eminent suggestion and, in fairness, the Deputy would have to accept it also. It involves the saving of €1 million so, as they say in court, I rest my case.

With regard to the designation of the locations and the rationalisation of courts around the country, we gave powers to the Courts Service, under the 1998 Act. While I have been lobbied by Deputies on all sides of the House regarding the closure of courthouses and the amalgamation of District Court areas, we tend to forget the very people who lobby me gave the Courts Service its power exclusively under the 1998 Act, whether we like it or not.

Deputy Kenneally raised the issue of the court building in Waterford. A capacity issue arises in Waterford and the Courts Service is considering it. The Deputy also raised the issue of having a separate office for the President of the High Court. The president, whose job, in addition to exercising judicial duties, is to designate cases among High Court judges, has a small administrative office to support his statutory functions.

Most courthouses built recently have cell capacity to deal with people held in custody in prisons. This is the case in 41 of the refurbished courthouses around the country.

Deputy Nolan referred to county registrars. They have a quasi-judicial function which should be enhanced because they have taken on considerable duties recently, particularly with regard to case progression in the family law area. Given that they comprise a resource, they should be used to the greatest extent, particularly given their qualifications. There is no plan to alter the sheriff functions but there are other duties that could be given to county registrars.

I thank Deputies for what I hope will be the swift passage of this legislation. I am not sure they will have the opportunity to see the courts complex before it opens, although they will be present for the official opening. It is a magnificent building and a great testament to all those who have been involved in its planning and construction. It will stand the test of time. In the decades, if not centuries, ahead, people will say we invested wisely on this occasion.

Question put and agreed to.