Courts and Civil Law (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill 2013: Second Stage

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

I am pleased to present the Courts and Civil Law (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill 2013 to the House. It contains a number of diverse reforming provisions, most of which amount to important reforms of the courts system. They include provisions that will serve to shed light on family law and child care proceedings by providing for the attendance of members of the press in certain circumstances. Included also are long overdue provisions to bring the monetary jurisdiction limits for the Circuit Court and the District Court in civil proceedings into line with current monetary values. The Bill contains provision to permit the appointment of two additional Supreme Court judges to tackle the delay in cases before that court and the Court of Criminal Appeal. Provision is also made for the appointment of extra jurors in lengthy complex criminal trials. The Bill makes provision, too, for legal aid and advice for coroners' inquests into the death of persons in involuntary custody of the State.

In addition, following a post-enactment review of the Personal Insolvency Act 2012 by my Department and the Insolvency Service of Ireland, I am providing for a number of amendments to that Act and the Bankruptcy Act 1988.

These amendments have been identified as necessary to enhance the operational efficiency and effectiveness of the provisions of the Personal Insolvency Act. The provisions will facilitate the Insolvency Service and the courts in dealing with insolvency cases as efficiently as possible. For the benefit of the House, I will explain the purpose and detail of each of these provisions, beginning with changes to the in camera rule.

Part 2 of the Bill provides for changes to the long-standing in camera rule in family law and child care proceedings. The rule provides that family law and child care proceedings should be held otherwise than in public. The in camera rule is an exception to the fundamental principle of our law, guaranteed by the Constitution, that court proceedings should be held in public. The exception is made for a very important reason that I accept and support. In family law and child care proceedings often painful and sensitive family and personal matters are at issue and it has long been accepted that there cannot be a public interest in the private affairs of the parties such as would justify full public access to such proceedings. However, the absolute nature of the in camera rule has led to a situation where such proceedings are perceived to be shrouded in secrecy. There is no press reporting of these proceedings because the press access to them is prohibited. There is, accordingly, an absence of reliable information on the operation of the law in this area which is not conducive to confidence in our system of family law and child protection.

Recent policy in the law on the hearing in the courts of family law proceedings in private is reflected in section 40 of the Civil Liability and Courts Act 2004. Regulations made under this section allow certain classes of persons to attend family court sittings, subject to ministerial approval, in order to draw up and publish reports. Ministerial approval is subject to certain safeguards, including a requirement that the parties to a case or any relevant child not be identifiable. Under this scheme, several persons engaged in family law research who were nominated by bodies specified in the schedule to the regulations have been approved. In addition, the Courts Service introduced the family law reporting service on a pilot basis in 2006. The purpose of the pilot project was to provide information on the operation of family law in the courts. While these initiatives have provided a useful insight into family law and its operation, they cannot alone bring the greater transparency required on the operation of the law in this area. Accordingly, what I am providing for in the Bill is a careful balancing of the need for privacy with the need for public access to important information on the operation of family and child care proceedings in the courts. My proposal is to retain protections for the privacy of the parties in such court proceedings, while providing that bona fide members of the press can be admitted to the proceedings. In the Bill the right of press access to the proceedings is balanced with a strict prohibition on the publication of any information likely to identify the parties to the proceedings or any child to whom the proceedings relate. It will be a criminal offence to publish information in breach of this prohibition.

I am also providing that the courts will retain the right to exclude or restrict the presence of members of the press from all or part of the proceedings in certain circumstances - where it is necessary to do so to preserve the anonymity of the parties or any child to whom the proceedings relate because of the circumstances of the case or in the interests of justice. The court, in making its decision in this respect, will have to take into account a range of factors, including the best interests of a child to whom the proceedings relate. The courts will, for the same reasons, be able to direct that certain evidence should not be published. The type of situation envisaged could be, for example, where a child or a vulnerable adult is giving evidence. This residual power is being included in the Bill to give the courts the power to deal with the myriad sensitivities and situations that can arise in proceedings of this nature.

A number of parties interested in promoting the rights of children made comments to me on this Bill. Many of the concerns are catered for in it. In particular, I have added to the Bill a requirement that the court must consider the views of any party to the proceedings and the views of any child to whom the proceedings relate before making an order on press attendance or publication of information. This requirement was suggested by the Children's Rights Alliance and the Ombudsman for Children. I thank them for it because it is an important addition to the Bill.

I will now address monetary jurisdiction limits. Part 3 of the Bill provides for the increase in the monetary jurisdiction limits for the District Court and the Circuit Court in civil matters. The purpose of the jurisdiction limits is to ensure the level of court that hears a case is appropriate to the potential value of a case. The legal costs incurred by the parties to a case are related to the court in which the proceedings take place. It is estimated that, on average, the legal costs of taking a case in the Circuit Court, subject to the complexity of the case, are 30% lower than in the High Court. An appropriate increase in the jurisdiction levels is long overdue to ensure courts are dealing with the cases at an appropriate level and that the costs being incurred by the parties are at a reasonable level.

The monetary jurisdiction limits for the Circuit Court and the District Court have remained unchanged since 1991, some 22 years ago. The Courts Act 1991 set the current monetary jurisdiction limits for civil matters at €38,092 for the Circuit Court and €6,384 for the District Court. Although the Courts and Court Officers Act 2002 made statutory provision for increases in the limits to €100,000 and €20,000, respectively, the increased limits were never brought into operation, with the unfortunate result that the limits remain as they were 22 years ago. The retention of the lower monetary limits has rendered the District Court and the Circuit Court redundant in some classes of civil proceedings. The low level of jurisdiction in the Circuit Court means that very modest actions must, in the absence of agreement between the parties, be taken in the High Court. Such cases are potentially the subject of appeal to the Supreme Court, which makes no sense at a time when the workload of the Supreme Court and the High Court has increased significantly in volume and complexity, with Supreme Court appeals currently waiting over 48 months for a hearing date. Following consultation with the Attorney General and the Presidents of the Circuit Court and the District Court, I am therefore proposing to increase the jurisdiction of the Circuit Court to €75,000 and the District Court to €15,000.

The failure to bring the revised limits provided for in the Court and Court Officers Act 2002 into operation relates to a concern that increasing the limit for the Circuit Court to €100,000, as provided for in the Court and Court Officers Act 2002, would have an inflationary effect on personal injury awards in the Circuit Court and a consequential inflationary effect on insurance claims. I have decided to address this issue in the Bill by setting a lower jurisdiction limit in the Circuit Court for personal injury proceedings. I am setting the level at €60,000, that is, 40% lower than the equivalent level set by the 2002 Act 11 years ago. The increased jurisdiction limits will prove to be a fairer and more cost-efficient approach to the processing of civil proceedings by the courts. The proposed changes to the jurisdiction limits for the Circuit Court and the District Court should ultimately lead to a reduction in the burden of legal costs for individuals and companies engaged in litigation. It is crucial that parties involved in legal conflict do not incur more legal costs than are necessary in circumstances in which they have to resort to litigation.

It is also important that our court jurisdictions keep substantially in line with inflation and that the higher courts are not unnecessarily overburdened with appeals that could and should be properly dealt with at a lower level. The changes to jurisdiction limits proposed in the Bill should effect a reduction in the number of appeals that, ultimately, have to be dealt with by the Supreme Court. A further amelioration of the burden imposed on the Supreme Court will result from the creation of a court of appeal should the proposed referendum which it is hoped to hold in the autumn to provide for such a court receive public support. The Thirty-third Amendment of the Constitution (Court of Appeal) Bill 2013 was published today. The Bill provides for the establishment of a court of appeal which will hear most appeals from the High Court and from which cases may only be appealed to the Supreme Court if they are of general public importance or if the Supreme Court is satisfied that it is in the interests of justice that it hear and determine the case. I expect this major reform of the courts architecture will result in a significant reduction in the caseload of the Supreme Court and will allow it to concentrate on cases that merit the consideration of the highest court in the land.

I refer to the appointment of additional judges of the Supreme Court. Part 4 of the Bill amends section 1(2) of the Courts (Establishment and Constitution) Act 1961 to provide for the appointment of two additional judges to the Supreme Court. The Chief Justice has drawn attention to the current critical situation regarding delays in the Supreme Court and the Court of Criminal Appeal. Despite the introduction in the past two years of new case management methods and new listing systems, there is a delay in excess of four years in having an ordinary case heard in the Supreme Court. A priority case gets on the list for hearing in approximately nine to 12 months. The Chief Justice has pointed out that a case logged today will not get on the list until mid-2017. The Court of Criminal Appeal has a backlog that amounts to two years. This provision will allow for the appointment of two additional judges of the Supreme Court as an interim measure to deal with the current critical situation regarding delays in the Supreme Court and the Court of Criminal Appeal. This will bring the total number of Supreme Court judges, including the Chief Justice, to ten.

These appointments would allow for urgent remedial measures to be put in place prior to the introduction of the reforms envisaged following a referendum on a court of appeal. The appointments would allow for the scheduling of several sittings each week of the Court of Criminal Appeal and permit two divisions of the Supreme Court to sit routinely. The Chief Justice believes that the appointments, together with efficiency measures already introduced, could radically reduce delays and the financial, economic and reputational risks associated with delay.

Part 5 of the Bill amends the Juries Act 1976 to provide for the appointment of up to three additional jurors to deal with lengthy trials. The provision follows a recommendation to this effect in the Law Reform Commission's recently published report on jury service. The issue is of significance in relation to lengthy trials involving fraud or other complex financial matters. Under current law, a jury consists of 12 members, but a decision in a trial by ten members of a jury can be accepted. Accordingly, where up to two members of a jury become incapacitated or otherwise unavailable, there is no risk to the sustainability of a trial. However, during the period of a protracted trial there is a risk that more than two jurors may become unavailable. Where that happens, the trial collapses. I have accepted the Law Reform Commission's argument that legislative provision is required to guard against such a possibility.

The provisions of Part 5 amend the Juries Act 1976 to insert a new section 15A to provide that on application by the prosecution or the defence or on its own motion, the Circuit or Central Criminal Court can order that up to 15 people be selected to serve as jurors. In such cases, a judge must be satisfied that a trial is likely to last more than two months. If it transpires before the jury retires to consider its verdict that more than 12 jurors remain, a jury of 12 jurors will be selected by ballot. Ballots will be conducted in open court by the court registrar under the supervision of the presiding judge. In effect, what would happen in a case of this nature is that the registrar would draw from a drum containing the names of the 15 jurors or such number of jurors as remain the names of the 12 jurors who are to constitute the verdict jury. I am also providing by way of an amendment to section 20 of the Juries Act that where a jury has additional jurors, challenges without cause shown can be made by the prosecution or the accused person to up to eight jurors, as opposed to seven, as is the case with a typical jury.

Part 6 of the Bill provides for the amendment of the Coroners Act 1962 and the Civil Legal Aid Act 1995 to provide for legal advice and legal aid in relation to certain inquests. The Coroners Bill 2007, which is currently before the Seanad, provides for comprehensive reform of the existing legislation and structures relating to coroners and for the establishment of a new coroner service. The Bill is in the course of being reviewed in my Department. The review is focused on the development of optimum administrative and jurisdictional structures that can deliver in the most cost-effective way the planned reform of coronial law. The Coroners Bill, as published, addressed a matter that has been commented on in recent times by the European Court of Human Rights. The court emphasised the importance of ensuring that the next of kin of deceased persons can effectively participate and engage in a coroner's inquest into certain categories of death, including the limited number of cases in which a person has died while being involuntarily detained by the State. The right to effective engagement in these circumstances includes the provision of information prior to the inquest. In certain cases, this may require families to obtain legal assistance to participate effectively in the inquest process.

Sections 86 and 92 of the Coroners Bill 2007 provide for the introduction of a legal aid scheme for proceedings before a coroner. Section 92 provides for the required technical amendments to the Civil Legal Aid Act 1995. These changes will permit the Legal Aid Board to arrange for the granting of legal advice or legal aid to the family of a deceased person for legal representation at an inquest where the person has died in, or immediately after being in, involuntary State custody. Section 86 also provides that a coroner may consider an application to request the Legal Aid Board to provide legal aid where the circumstances of a death involve matters of significant public interest and where the possible recurrence or continuation of those circumstances may be harmful to public health and safety. The provision was included to ensure the fullest possible compliance with the approach of the European Court of Human Rights.

Given the importance of these matters, in view of the fact that making progress on the Coroners Bill 2007 may take some time, and in light of the State's obligations under the European Convention on Human Rights, it is important to take the opportunity represented by the Courts and Civil Law (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill to address the issue of legal aid at inquests. Accordingly, Part 6 includes the broad provisions contained in sections 86 and 92 of the Coroners Bill 2007, with some refinements to the text to take into account developments since the Coroners Bill was published. An important consideration is that the amendments will be made to the Coroners Act 1962 as opposed to being contained in a new piece of legislation. The normal eligibility criteria in regard to financial means operated by the Legal Aid Board will apply in these situations. I am not providing for free legal aid to pursue civil actions by next of kin. The legal assistance provided is in relation to coroners' inquests only.

Part 7 of the Bill provides for the transfer of the existing Office of the Official Assignee in Bankruptcy to the Insolvency Service. Unfortunately, due to a lack of time while the Personal Insolvency Bill was being finalised for enactment last year, it was not possible to provide in that legislation for the transfer of the Office of the Official Assignee in Bankruptcy to the Insolvency Service as originally intended. I am anxious that the matter should be dealt with as soon as possible. To facilitate this, the appropriate additions to the Act are being made by way of amendments to the Bill in the Seanad.

Part 8 of the Bill contains a number of amendments to the Personal Insolvency Act 2012. Deputies will recall that during the debates in the House on the Personal Insolvency Bill, I indicated that if it was necessary to make any further changes to the legislation to facilitate the operations of the Insolvency Service, I would make them. A post-enactment review by my Department and the Insolvency Service has identified a number of such changes. The amendments contained in Part 8 of the Bill are technical drafting amendments required to improve the presentation of the Personal Insolvency Act 2012 or to correct errors in the text. The purpose of a number of the amendments made by the Seanad is to make clearer the documentation to be presented to the appropriate court for its consideration of the debt resolution processes. The effect of these changes is to facilitate the Insolvency Service and the courts in dealing with the various insolvency cases as efficiently as possible. It is my intention to introduce some further minor amendments to the Personal Insolvency Act on Committee Stage. The amendments are also required to facilitate the Insolvency Service and the courts in dealing with insolvency cases.

The Bill contains important steps in the process of modernisation of our courts to ensure that the essential service they deliver to the community is efficient, effective, fair and accessible to all of our citizens. I commend the Bill to the House and I look forward to a stimulating and interesting debate on its contents.

Fianna Fáil is broadly supportive of the Bill but has a number of concerns it would like to see addressed. Openness and transparency are important aspects of an effective judicial process which enjoys public trust. They foster better judicial decisions in the public interest. It is important that the Bill achieves the correct balance between privacy and transparency in reporting family law cases.

Fianna Fáil has published its own Bill on in camera court proceedings, which achieves the right balance between transparency and privacy in the reporting of family law and child-care cases. Fianna Fáil has concerns about the penalty in the Bill for misreporting of cases, which is prohibitive in nature. The penalty may act as a deterrent to journalists in reporting cases which are legitimately within the public interest. Fianna Fáil will propose a number of amendments to ensure there is a greater balance between privacy and transparency that mirrors that of our own proposed legislation. Ultimately, it is vital that the interests of children in cases are fully protected while public trust in the legal system is maintained. The Bill opens family law cases to press coverage under certain restrictions. However, Fianna Fáil considers that it has struck an improper balance which defeats the aims of the legislation in respect of transparency. It is vital that the judicial process is open and transparent to build public trust and improve the judicial decision-making process. The goals of the legislation are to open a window on family law proceedings while observing the constitutional requirement to administer justice in public.

However, there are a number of weaknesses in the Bill that undermine that objective.

Section 5 has seven exemptions. This is restrictive and, ultimately, may defeat the intent of the legislation which is that justice should be administered in public. The series of penalties laid out in the Bill acts as a deterrent to journalists and undermines the aim of opening up the family law process to wider public scrutiny and engagement. The justice system needs to be open and transparent in order to enjoy public trust and ensure that legal decisions are not arbitrary unjust measures by the courts. In the absence of openness, misinformation seeps into public discourse, as has been the case on family law. Numerous legal and public bodies have criticised the current in camera system for family law and called for reform. Groups such as fathers' rights organisations have consistently complained about the unfairness of the system and the lack of public knowledge about the process, due to in camera proceedings, inhibiting public debate about the workings of family law. While the privacy of sensitive cases is important and the interests of children must be fully protected, the public is entitled to know how justice is being administered in the courts. This scrutiny ensures that it is not arbitrary and that just decisions are made in the legal system.

The Bill provides, in section 5, that the press will generally be allowed to have access to family law cases, and to report on them. However, judges will be able to prohibit press access where they are satisfied that it is in the interests of justice to do so or where it is necessary to preserve the anonymity of a party to the proceedings or any child to whom the proceedings relate. The broad array of restrictions under section 5 threatens to undermine the overall goal of the Bill. The wide-ranging discretion given to the Judiciary to restrict coverage should be further clarified by the Minister to ensure that it does not impede greater transparency.

Section 6 outlines liability for the publication of material that identifies parties in a case. The severe penalties associated with these measures may have a chilling effect on the coverage of family law that is contrary to the spirit of the Bill. Journalists should not be unduly discouraged from reporting proceedings of family law cases by draconian penalties.

The Fianna Fáil spokesperson on children, Deputy Troy, recently published a Bill, entitled In Camera Rule in Childcare and Family Law Proceedings Bill 2013, which seeks to throw open the windows on family law proceedings, which have remained hidden for too long. The Fianna Fáil Bill promotes greater transparency without jeopardising the need for sensitivity in the identity of the family involved. We will use this Bill as the basis for our amendments to this proposed legislation.

Separately we will also use this legislative opportunity to press amendments to the Bill with regard to the need for confidentiality for those accessing the new personal insolvency regime. Our amendments will ensure that the identities of those who utilise the regime are made available only to relevant creditors rather than to a wide circle. This amendment will remove a potential hindrance to those who wish to avail of the new service.

On the increasing of the monetary limits in the District and Circuit Courts, we note the proposed changes in the monetary limits of the District Court and the Circuit Court, and also the distinction in the monetary limits between the €75,000 limit for civil proceedings and the €60,000 limit for personal injury proceedings in the Circuit Court. We would merely enter a caveat in this regard. We would question the resourcing and the capacity of the current Circuit Court structure and ask if it will have the capacity to take on the caseload that will ultimately drop into it from the higher courts; whether there will be the required number of judges; whether the court will have adequate capacity; and whether an impact analysis has been carried out in this regard.

On the comments on the amending of the Juries Act 1976, we welcome the fact that the Government has taken on board the recent proposals of the Law Reform Commission in establishing a broadened panel of up to 15 members for cases which will be deemed to be lengthy cases. We merely ask for clarification as to what would be deemed a lengthy case as opposed to a regular case.

This is yet another Bill that has been significantly amended since first publication. That is acceptable. The Minister has, once again, taken the opportunity to include miscellaneous provisions on a range of other issues that needed to be addressed, and that is fine. However, on Tuesday last, the Minister's colleague, the Minister of State at the Department of Justice and Equality, Deputy Kathleen Lynch, stood up and gutted a Bill presented by my party in my name on equality budgeting in legal provisions that protect the most vulnerable in society, and it was dismissed because it did not contain enough references to other Acts. Of course, we knew that was a nonsense excuse, but we were shattered - pardon the pun, but sometimes the Minister's name is useful in making a point-----

I knew Deputy Mac Lochlainn would get into trouble with that one.

I can assure the Minister it was an unintended pun. We were shattered by this. The approach the Minister has taken is fine. He has identified issues that need to be addressed and this is the vehicle to do it, but he used that approach to attack a perfectly good Bill that we were inviting him to amend and allow to go to Committee Stage. I take the opportunity to make that little complaint. I will try not to use any more unintentional puns for the rest of the speech.

I welcome the spirit of this Bill. While I and my party have some concerns as regards the need for safeguards, we are broadly supportive of the Bill and will seek to submit amendments to reflect this and improve it where we feel it may be lacking.

First, I will deal with the section with which I have most concerns, namely that which relates to reducing the application of the in camera rule in order to allow for reporting of the facts of child-care and family law cases by the media, provided identities are protected, of course. This is an important change, one which can increase transparency, and, in turn, public faith in the judicial system, and I understand and agree with the intention behind it. Child and family law are areas of the law which require and deserve great care and sensitivity. In all cases the identity of a minor should be protected. Failure to ensure that this protection is vindicated can lead to considerable difficulties, pressures and stresses, and adverse treatment of vulnerable young people. We need to avoid this at all costs. Such protections need to be preserved. However, the application of the in camera rule has been problematic and has limited the level of transparency in the system to the point where the faith of ordinary citizens in the system became an issue, perhaps with some justification.

I agree with the Minister when he stated that media access and the reporting of cases will add transparency to the conduct of family law and child-care proceedings and will provide valuable information on the operation of the law in this area. However, I am concerned about how this will work in practice. Should this Bill become law, it means that only bona fide representatives of the press would be allowed into court. I am particularly concerned about the term "bona fide representatives of the Press". Who are these persons and who deems them to be "bona fide"? Will there be an accreditation process in place to ensure that these persons are the appropriate ones to have access? There is a sense among legal practitioners that the term "bona fide" is generally understood across the board. Perhaps this is okay for the legal world, but will it offer much needed comfort to the young victims coming before a court? We need to ensure that the procedures put in place inspire confidence in these persons. My colleague in the Seanad, Senator Trevor Ó Clochartaigh, submitted an amendment on this issue calling for an accreditation process, which was not accepted. I appeal to the Minister to reconsider this. I will be submitting an amendment along the same lines when the time comes.

Another concern is the number of journalists who will be given access to certain cases. Is there a possibility that allowing more than one journalist into a court at a time could also be problematic? I note the Ombudsman for Children, Emily Logan, highlighted that this could be a problem:

Allowing more than one journalist into any case could be problematic given that each journalist may include and exclude different details from their reports which individually might protect the identity of a child but collectively could expose them.

She raised concerns about local media reporting of cases of this type and how this would make it all the more difficult to disguise the identity of the child in question. I come from a rural area and I can understand this concern. When a marriage breakdown occurs in a local area, there can be rumours. Two parties and their families are involved. People often fall out as a result and become estranged and there can be tensions. Narratives are sometimes put out by one side in order to demonise the other party. Information is often known and circulating in those communities. It would not be too much of a stretch of the imagination that a local newspaper, even when making efforts to protect the identity of the parties, might put a spotlight on the case. I ask the Minister to consider how to ensure that the element of local reporting does not draw attention to the individuals involved. It is a real challenge that we need to work through on Committee Stage.

The Ombudsman for Children also raised concerns about contemporaneous reporting of cases, as a child may hear or read a report of a court case and realise the story was about his or her case. There is a chance that this would deter a child from continuing with the case. I ask the Minister to reassure the House that safeguards will be in place to avoid such occurrences. He has indicated that he will address some of the concerns raised by the Children's Rights Alliance and the Ombudsman for Children. Sinn Féin, Fianna Fáil and others will table amendments on Committee Stage, as will the Minister, and the concerns can be discussed further.

The second provision in the Bill is to increase the monetary jurisdiction of the District Court and the Circuit Court. It is hoped that in time this will allow for a reduction in the fees charged to clients and, hopefully, the costs of litigation in the long term. I am confident that this may ease pressure on the higher courts. The changes to the monetary jurisdiction of the District and Circuit Courts is a positive step, particularly as it is two decades since a review was carried out. Any measure that leads to a reduction in fees, thus reducing the cost of taking a case for ordinary families and businesses, is welcome. We hope that the knock-on effect will be to reduce the costs for the State over the longer term.

I also note the comments of the Law Society. It is concerned that the District Court, and particularly the Circuit Court, will not have enough resources to deal with the pressure that will inevitably be placed on them by the dramatically increased workload. There will be a need for more judges and more court staff in order to avoid delays, given that there is already too much pressure on the system. I ask the Minister to provide the resources necessary to ensure that the full benefits of this legislation can be implemented.

Part 4 of the Bill provides for additional judges for the Supreme Court, which is very welcome, as is the proposed constitutional amendment which will be debated later this week. The Supreme Court judges, who are very talented, will then be able to devote their time to dealing with issues of wider public concern. The Minister is correct to take advantage of this opportunity. Part 5 deals with juries and is a sensible proposition. It allows for up to 15 jurors to be sworn in to ensure a minimum number of jury members for lengthy trials. I commend the Minister on taking the opportunity in Part 6 to provide for legal advice and legal aid. This provision is overdue. Part 7 is a technical provision relating to the Personal Insolvency Bill. The Minister indicated that he reserved the right to introduce further amendments on Committee Stage, which Sinn Féin will monitor carefully. The Opposition has real concerns about some key aspects of the Personal Insolvency Bill but the Minister's amendments seem to be technical amendments relating to how the courts will deal with personal insolvency cases.

This Bill is a welcome development, albeit with our caveats and concerns. I look forward to engaging with the Minister on Committee Stage to see if the Bill and the protections it proposes can be strengthened.

Deputies Richard Boyd Barrett, Thomas Pringle, Catherine Murphy and Mattie McGrath are sharing 30 minutes' speaking time, with seven minutes each.

I broadly welcome the measures in this Bill. I will deal in detail with the Personal Insolvency Bill and what I believe to be a missed opportunity to address its major shortcomings. I will also comment briefly on the other elements of the Bill, most of which I support in principle, although a few comments on them would be worthwhile.

On the proposed changes to the in camera rule, it is a sensitive balance that we have to get right between, on the one hand, the need for privacy in family matters and the protection of the identities of children, and, on the other hand, the need for public oversight of the workings of the courts system and the need to deal with any perceptions that might exist among the public or particular groups about a lack of transparency in the workings of the family courts or in the area of child care. From my own relatively limited experience I know that these are sensitive, difficult issues. A strong case can be made for public oversight, for the public to be able to see how the system works and to ensure there is consistency and fairness in the workings of the courts with regard to sensitive, difficult and complicated family matters or matters to do with the protection of children. Equally, there is a need to ensure privacy, and the protection of children must be upmost.

Deputy Mac Lochlainn made some valid points about journalists. Because it is a difficult balance, the Minister and all of us need to keep a watching brief on how this will work in practice to ensure there are not unwanted or unintended consequences. We cannot say in advance that it will work perfectly. We need to be careful because we know how the press works, which may be unhelpful at times in cases dealing with sensitive matters.

I broadly agree with these provisions on monetary limits and the extension of the jurisdiction of the District and Circuit Courts. The provision for additional Supreme Court judges seems like a sensible move. Any measure to deal with delays and backlogs in that area or in the Court of Criminal Appeal is to be welcomed. I will include the caveat that I think there is a problem with the political appointment of Supreme Court judges. I do not quite know what is the answer to that problem.

Broadly, I would favour the election of judges to the Supreme Court. While I acknowledge there are problems with that, I believe, given all the various options for selecting Supreme Court judges, the public are the most trustworthy in these matters. That may be a question for another day and another discussion but we need to think about it. The provision for extra jurors on lengthy trials seems very sensible, as does providing legal advice for people involved in coroners’ inquests.

Having examined the amendments to the insolvency legislation, I believe they are mainly technical and concern errors in the initial drafting and the transfer of the official assignee in bankruptcy cases to the insolvency service to make the insolvency legislation compatible with the workings of the courts. If the Minister can make amendments to this most important Bill, the fact that he is not making more substantial ones will be regarded as a major missed opportunity, because this is one of the main unresolved crises facing considerable numbers of people. There are 140,000 people in mortgage distress, and more if one counts those in restructuring arrangements. In many cases, the restructuring arrangements are not tenable or sustainable in the longer term and people are already running into trouble with the arrangements because they are too onerous. If they are not, they will become unsustainable for many as their incomes are further attacked owing to the impact of austerity and cuts. It is imperative for the wider economy, and not just those directly affected, that this be addressed because of the undoubted damaging and dampening effect austerity is having on our ability to recover economically.

The Government is not facing up to this crisis. The measures included in the insolvency legislation are not sufficient because the banks still have the whip hand. A key problem with that legislation is that the banks have the right to say "No". In the last analysis, they can just say "No, we are not doing it." Since there is no hard legal protection for people's homes, the roofs over their heads, or the principal private residence, it is urged that people's homes be protected and that only as a last resort should they be repossessed. The Minister defended the legislation on that basis when we discussed it. How does he square this with letting the dogs of the banks off the leash when it comes to what is now their right to harass distressed mortgage holders at an unlimited level? I refer also to the major problems associated with the powers of the personal insolvency practitioners, when making restructuring arrangements, to look into people's personal finances in a very invasive and humiliating way. The Minister could have and should have specified what would constitute a reasonable proportion of income that one could contribute towards paying off one’s debts, and nothing more. That would prevent all the humiliation and invasiveness.

I welcome the opportunity to contribute to this debate. I welcome most or practically all of the provisions in the Bill. Its objectives need to be realised. However, I have some concerns about the in camera rule and its easing as envisaged in the legislation.

Particularly since I became a Member, I have received many communications, as have all of us, from fathers who have gone through the family courts complaining about the difficulties experienced there. There appears to be a bias against fathers in the operation of the family courts. However, owing to the in camera rule, it is very difficult to obtain independent information to determine whether this is the case. It may be that the bias is built into the legislation that the courts are working with in terms of family law rather than the operation of the courts themselves. The easing of the in camera rule may go some way towards removing the perception of bias and some of the concerns that arise.

When preparing to speak on the legislation and on reading the communication on the Bill by the Office of the Ombudsman for Children, I noted there were some concerns. Some should be addressed on Committee Stage to ensure the legislation becomes workable and practical. The Office of the Ombudsman for Children believes that a system for reporting should be rights-compliant, systemic, sustainable, non-deterring and independent. I was surprised to read that the office does not believe this Bill meets any of those criteria. It believes it will not result in the provision of systemic information, may lead to the identification of children and families in the courts, and may cause children to retract child abuse disclosures and, in doing so, deter parties from continuing in the courts. We need to be very careful about this. As others have said, one would need the wisdom of Solomon to get it right legislatively at this stage, but this needs to be considered. When the legislation is passed, it needs to be kept under very careful review to ensure we will not encounter problems, such as the identification of families.

The Minister stated in his contribution that there is an absence of reliable information on the operation of the law in this area, which is not conducive to confidence in our system of family law and child protection. Sometimes I wonder whether the media could give one information that would be reliable in terms of the operation of any of the courts. The nature of journalism and court reporting are such that journalists would probably not be allowed to or given the time to get into the details of the cases. The same applies to publications. Therefore, it might not actually lead to much useful information coming out of the courts. We may see some sort of voyeurism or otherwise on the part of the media regarding cases taking place in the courts. We must protect against this very carefully. The legislation provides that the judge can restrict access by the media in family law cases but we must exercise caution on this to ensure that the restriction is operated fairly and properly.

It is necessary to have contemporaneous reports such that people can examine the legal issues and update themselves thereon. They should be able to see what decisions are being made that could have an influence on their circumstances. This could lead to an understanding of what is happening in the courts.

The family law reporting project operated on the basis that barristers and solicitors were allowed to sit in on court cases and write reports thereon. A problem was that the publication of the reports was delayed, which might not have contributed to people’s overall understanding of how the family courts worked. This is something we should be addressing and I hope the Minister can create a better public understanding of the issues that arise in the family courts and how they work. He should remove the perception of bias that may exist among some members of the public. It would aid us in our work in dealing with people who feel hard done by and who believe they have been wronged by the family courts. We may be able to bring about greater understanding when talking to them and ease some of their difficulties. Many who are in contact with us are extremely upset and frustrated, so a little more understanding could ease things for them. They are going through very difficult family circumstances that people do not take too well. It may not help that much.

The other recommendations suggest amendments to the Bankruptcy Act 1998 and the Personal Insolvency Act 2012, but I agree with previous speakers who raised concerns about that. While I acknowledge the amendments are technical, I would like the Minister to amend section 105 of the Personal Insolvency Act, which permits banks to extend the period in which a person can be in an insolvency procedure. That should have been deleted from the Act in the first place. Perhaps the Minister will consider this to restrict the banks. The Government has been too lenient on them and they have been given too much time. We need to place restrictions on them to make sure they deal with people who are insolvent in a proper way, which allows them to recover and get their lives back on track.

I welcome the provision to appoint two additional Supreme Court judges. That needs to happen. It is an interim solution and the Minister intends to create an appeal court. We will debate that legislation later this week. There are concerns about the legislation. However, it is important to increase the number of judges in order that the courts can process more cases because the massive delays in cases coming before the courts undermines the judicial system and the operation of the courts.

There are several welcome and overdue measures in the Bill, which I am happy to support. The Minister has considerable experience in family law and I am sure he has brought that to bear in presenting this legislation. The reforms relating to the in camera rule in family law cases represent a better alternative to the outright ban on reporting that is currently in place. The legislation broadly strikes the correct balance between the rights of vulnerable children and families not to have their privacy intruded upon during a difficult time for them, and the public interest in seeing the administration of justice. The Law Reform Commission did a decent piece of work on this 15 years ago, which is only finding its way into legislation now. In allowing greater transparency of the workings of the court in these cases, many precautions must be taken to ensure that no adverse attention is paid to children and young adults and that their anonymity is never compromised. In her contribution in the other House, Senator Jillian van Turnhout rightly drew the Minister's attention to the negative outcomes for children if identifying information is inadvertently placed in the public domain. In small locations, people can easily be identified from distinctive facts. Great caution, therefore, must be taken. This can lead to lifelong damage and a heavy burden for a child to bear. I recall a local court case in Kildare. It was not taken in the family court but it focused heavily on the family and they ended up having to move away. It was an extreme response but it was the response they felt was needed. Senator van Turnhout also suggested that the Minister proof any guidelines he issues against the Council of Europe guidelines on child-friendly justice, and I support that call.

Like others, I would like the definition of bona fide representatives of the press to be clarified. It is important that we hear from the Minister about how he might define that because it is not defined in the legislation. The media are changing rapidly. There is much more online activity and what one might define as media now could be quite different in ten years. When the legislation was debated in the Seanad, Sinn Féin sought an accreditation process for journalists. It would be useful to hear the Minister's comments in this regard.

Dearbhail McDonald wrote a thoughtful paper a while ago in which she said that although the blanket ban on reporting was more or less designed to protect the privacy of families and children embroiled in family law cases:

the unwarranted and disproportionate secrecy is an affront to the public interest and families seeking justice in the court. No one, including the media, expects the veil of secrecy to be lifted entirely in family law cases but it should be pierced sufficiently to enhance public confidence in the family law courts.

Previous speakers referred to the perceptions that have built up about how the family court functions. We could have a better understanding of that by seeing how cases go through the court. That would give people confidence in our legal system.

Deputy Pringle referred to the perceived unequal struggle of fathers, which Dearbhail MacDonald also mentioned. We cannot take that as a guarantee until we see the system functioning. That would be most helpful in gaining a better understanding.

The increases in monetary limits in both the district and criminal courts to €15,000 and €75,000, respectively, are based on 1991 limits. That will allow more cases to be settled in the lower courts and, clearly, there will be a positive cost implication for the people taking those cases, but the capacity of the lower courts is an issue. For example, one often hears about inordinate delays affecting people who take civil cases in the District Court, and this may well add to those delays. Will the Minister outline how that will be handled? It is important that we do not overburden the lower courts because that will defeat the purpose of this provision.

The number of ordinary judges in the Supreme Court will increase to nine under the Bill. The courts of appeal are swamped. Mrs. Justice Susan Denham recently said "The current situation in the Supreme Court and the Court of Criminal Appeal is unsustainable, it is untenable, it cannot be defended". She went on to say it was bad for the economy. Where there is a long delay, witnesses may have a different recall, their memories may fade or they may pass away in the interim. If we are to have confidence in our courts, it is important that justice happens in a timely way. I do not doubt the Minister will accept that is what is required. I am supportive of the general thrust of the Bill but I am interested in his response to the few issues I have highlighted.

I too would like to give my comments and views on the Bill.

The changes in the Bill relating to private hearings will be commonly described as relaxing the in camera rule. However, the Bill adds to the list of cases that must be heard otherwise than in public but which bona fide representatives may attend as long as nothing that might identify the parties is published. There is a slight technical difference between cases heard in camera and those heard otherwise than in public, but it is not relevant to this legislation. The amendment will essentially allow for court reporters to publish accounts of family law proceedings, including applications for domestic violence orders, although judges will retain the power to exclude the press in certain circumstances. Interestingly, a judge will have the power to exclude the press from hearing evidence that may contain commercially sensitive information.

Justifiably or otherwise, this provision is likely to be relied on in many family law cases, and I wonder about that. The aim is to increase public confidence in the judicial system by partially removing the veil which often hangs over such cases.

The Bill will increase the amount the courts can award. It increases the amount the District Court can award from the current €6,348 to €15,000, which I welcome. For amounts in excess of that figure, the Circuit Court will hear cases in which awards can be made to the value of up to €75,000, up from €38,000. For awards in excess of that amount cases will be dealt with in the High Court. This will have the effect of reducing legal costs, for which we all hope. As a rule of thumb, the higher the court, the higher the cost. By bringing more cases into the lower courts, the cost of those cases will be reduced and the burden of the High Court lessened. That is what we hope and expect to see.

The Circuit Court will have jurisdiction in personal injury cases only to an award maximum of €60,000, for which the Minister's justification is: "As a further measure to deal with concerns relating to possible inflation of awards and a consequent effect on insurance costs, I am proposing to restrict the jurisdiction of the Circuit Court to €60,000 in respect of personal injuries claims". I wonder if the insurance lobby lobbied for this lower limit. The Minister might tell us when he replies. In 2002 the Government changed the law to increase the maximum award in cases within the jurisdiction of the District Court to €20,000 and that for cases in the Circuit Court to €100,000. The relevant sections of the Courts and Courts Officers Act 2002 were never commenced or activated on the basis that the Government wanted to monitor the impact of the Personal Injuries Assessment Board. I wonder why that was. The Government is now increasing such jurisdiction by only 75% of what was proposed in 2002.

The move towards greater transparency in the reporting of family law cases is a good one. There has been far too much secrecy and, at times, this has unnecessarily undermined people's faith in the system. It is good to have more reporting. However, it is important that this be done in a responsible way, that there be adequate protection for privacy and anonymity in sensitive family law cases, and that members of the press who report such cases abide by these principles and ensure that any reporting in child protection, divorce and other sensitive family cases is appropriate, respectful and done in a responsible way.

I have issues with regard to the Coroners' Courts. Some regional newspapers do not report cases from these courts at all, while others go into the nitty-gritty. There is the upsurge in suicide, an issue on which I have been campaigning with Trudi Lalor. The Minister himself will admit this is a very sensitive issue and that it is unnecessary to have every minute detail of what may be a very sad and tragic occurrence replayed in the newspapers. The issue should be considered sensitively and humanely. Is the Minister aware of any progress in regard to a code of conduct for the press? We need that.

The Minister is courting the press a great deal lately on a personal basis, selling his book. I happened to hear him on the John Murray radio programme, talking to Miriam O'Callaghan. I wonder if the Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources, Deputy Rabbitte, has any questions for him on this. It is downright abuse of the public airwaves to have the Minister promoting his book while he refuses to answer questions about important issues in this House. It is a degrading abuse of his position.

I must ask the Deputy to concentrate on the Bill.

I am sticking to the Bill.

Part 7, on bankruptcy, also concerns me greatly. Is this to protect the banks yet again? Is it another part of the eviction Bill the Minister had passed last week, going by the fancy name of the Land and Conveyancing Law Reform Act? The Minister has stated that we must do all in our power to minimise the risk of challenge - my goodness - and judicial review and operational problems, ensure public confidence in the legislation and enable the insolvency service to function and carry out its brief without risk to reputation and credibility. I accept that, but fear it is too much in the way of protecting the banks, the State and its agencies against the person. We have too much of that while there are toothless organisations such as the Competition Authority and others that the Minister will not staff or resource properly. The same applies to the Central Bank (consolidation) Bill. We have no laws for the banks. We used to say there is one law for the banks and one law for others; now there is no law for the banks and all the laws are for the others. There has been reckless carry-on, and that is why I take a very poor view of the repeal of section 6 of the Personal Insolvency Act 2012. Where was the Attorney General? She was able to give three and a half hours to individual Deputies recently, trying to persuade them to vote for this ill-named, ill-timed and unfair Bill that we will deal with tomorrow. In my view, that is another abuse of government. Why could nobody proofread this legislation in 2012? Why must we make amendments to something that is hardly on the Statute Book yet does not work? Where are the people who are paid to draft this legislation? They had all the legal advice they needed to base it on, as well as the aid of the Attorney General's office. They should do that instead of lecturing and trying to persuade backbench Deputies to vote for an immoral Bill. It would be more in their line to earn their money by drafting proper legislation rather than coming back in mid-2013 to try to amend a section of the 2012 Personal Insolvency Act. It is a shambles and a disgrace. I can see the Minister's fingerprints all over it. Anything that makes more money for the legal people is something the Minister will always support.

Jackson Burnett once said, "Justice isn't about fixing the past; it's about healing the past's future". Every justice system is built on ideals. It seeks to remedy wrongs and protect the most vulnerable in society. Unfortunately, no system is perfect. The failings of the system are not the creation of any one individual and do not reflect the well-intentioned individuals within the system. Unfortunately, the very people it seeks to aid become victims to a structure that is in dire need of reform.

Nowhere is this more evident than in the family law courts. The introduction of the Courts and Civil Law (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill 2013 is finally addressing that which needs reform. The family law court should be the last resort in the breakdown of the most fundamental unit in society, the family. Every case that comes before this court involves a unique story of heartbreak, trauma and pain. These families are at their most vulnerable when they come before the courts. In so coming, they seek a conclusion to a painful chapter in their lives. Sadly, what they typically encounter is a system in complete disarray, congested with chronic delays, endless backlogs and brief hearings. One case may come before several judges before it gets to a full hearing. It is estimated that it takes up to two and a half years to process a typical case, a figure that does not account for persistent adjournments. Is it fair that in this system hearing dates given for maintenance applications on behalf of women and children are repeatedly adjourned? Why is this allowed to occur constantly? Often there is no proper case management, which fosters a sense of chaos.

In addition to the serious disarray in the system, those involved are often burdened with great financial costs. The cost of taking a case to the Circuit Court is enormous. Often, families do not go to court because of these very expenses. The expenses an individual may have are compounded by additional legal costs, with multiple adjournments, brief hearings and multiple affidavits. The strongest of women have been worn down because of legal red tape and monstrous legal costs. The high cost of taking legal action has resulted in increased need for legal aid, a service that is already struggling under the weight of demand. The courts may fight for a woman's maintenance order but may tend to ignore how she can afford or access basic necessities for herself and her children in the meantime. Frustratingly, this ailing system can leave families devastated, emotionally and financially, by the time their cases are processed.

The family courts, whether in the Circuit Court or the High Court, are housed in buildings that are lacking in facilities. Dolphin House in particular struggles with the growing demand and has inadequate facilities and resources to process these cases.

Debate adjourned.