I intend to address my justice brief first and thereafter defence. As Deputies will know, the programme for Government sets out a substantial and broad agenda for reform in the area of justice and equality. We have made great progress in implementing this agenda in the first three years of the Government's term of office and we have achieved unprecedented reform in that time. It is my aim, with the enormous support I receive from the officials in my Department and the Attorney General and her officials, to continue with this momentum this year and into 2015. In the time I have available today it will not be possible to detail all of my priorities for the year ahead, so I will confine myself to what I believe would be regarded as our major initiatives.
The first issue I want to turn to is the court of appeal. One of my Department's core priorities is to facilitate access to justice for all citizens. Currently, all cases appealed from the High Court must go directly to the Supreme Court, and this has long been a cause of concern, particularly in the civil law area, where there has been an exponential growth in litigation. The Supreme Court's caseload has become increasingly unsustainable and there is a growing backlog. Although considerable efforts are being made to manage the waiting time, the number of appeals dealt with in the final quarter of 2013 by comparison with the same period in 2012 was up by almost 50%, and the average waiting time for a case to be heard by the Supreme Court is currently approximately four years. This delay is harmful to the interests of individual litigants, does the international reputation of the State no favours and has negative economic implications.
In last October's referendum, the people gave their overwhelming approval to the establishment of a court of appeal. Last week, Government approval was obtained for the drafting, as a priority, of the necessary legislation and the General Scheme of the Bill was published. It was agreed that Mr. Justice Seán Ryan should be named as president-designate of the new court. A Courts Service team is in place to ensure that all of the essential supports, such as staffing, accommodation and ICT, will be in place when the court is operational, which I hope will be by October this year.
The creation of a court of appeal will be one of the most significant developments in the justice area since the foundation of the State. It will lead to a significant and long-overdue reform of our courts system.
I will now reference the children and family relationships Bill. The Government committed to modernising and reforming outdated elements of family law. This is a matter of great personal interest to me as a practitioner in the field over many years, and one that is of tremendous social importance. In January of this year, I published the general scheme of the Bill. The overriding principle and ethos of the Bill is to protect the best interests of the child and to ensure we have a legal architecture that prescribes clear rules to determine a child's legal parentage.
I will outline the components of my legislative proposals. The first is assigning parentage in relation to children born through assisted reproduction. These children should have the same security in their legal relationships with their parents as all other children have with their biological parents. Children born through surrogacy should also have absolute clarity as to their legal parentage. The Bill will provide for this.
The second component concerns recognising surrogacy, subject to certain conditions. I intend to provide for altruistic surrogacy and provide a legal framework protecting all the parties to an arrangement.
The third is updating and overhauling the law on guardianship of children. It will ensure that non-marital fathers cohabiting with the mother of their child will automatically be guardians of their children. It is worth noting, from the most recent statistics published, that 20% of children currently born in the State are born to cohabiting unmarried couples. Overall the number of children born outside marriage is 35%. Adults in loco parentis to a child, such as a step-parent or a parent's civil partner, may, under the Bill’s provisions, seek guardianship of a child to reflect the reality of their parenting role.
The fourth is simplifying and extending access applications. When parents split up, unfortunately major difficulties can arise concerning children maintaining relationships with members of the extended family, in particular on the side of the non-custodial parent. Members of a child's wider family, such as grandparents, who wish to seek access to the child through the courts must currently undertake a cumbersome two-stage application process. My proposals will streamline this so only a single application will be required, and it will extend to other family members.
The fifth is ensuring compliance with access arrangements. The Bill provides the courts with new remedies where a parent refuses, without good reason, to comply with court-ordered access. My focus is on the rights of the child, where feasible, to care and association with both parents.
Sixth is extending maintenance obligations to certain persons who have been in loco parentis to the child and have previously contributed to maintaining the child. This would include, for example, a cohabitant or civil partner of a child's parent who has lived with the child and had a strong parental role. The extension of court powers to make lump sum orders to the benefit of children so that all children, regardless of the circumstances of their birth, will be treated equally will be addressed in the Bill.
The last is changing the law on adoption so that a civil-partnered couple may apply to adopt a child jointly in the same way a married couple may currently apply. Up to now, single individuals have been able to adopt children as individuals irrespective of sexual orientation, but a gay couple currently cannot do so jointly as civil partners. This makes no sense and it is not in the interest of a child that only one of the persons truly parenting it has parental legal rights and obligations. Of course, eligibility to adopt does not confer a right to adopt a child as the suitability of eligible applicants must be assessed.
I have referred the draft Bill to the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Justice, Defence and Equality for further consultation and have asked its members to report by the Easter recess. I intend to proceed with the legislation as quickly as possible given the extensive scope of the reforms planned, and my aim is to have it enacted within the year.
The next issue I wish to discuss is the review of judicial appointments. The current judicial appointments process has been in place since the enactment of the Courts and Court Officers Act 1995. Having closely observed over the last three years how the existing system of judicial appointments is operating, I have formed the view that reforms and improvements can be made. These will render the system more transparent and accountable, while also ensuring the independence of the Judiciary is fully protected. In December 2013, as a first step, I initiated a public consultation process and submissions were invited on the judicial appointments process. I was concerned that the consultation process should involve not only members of the Judiciary and the legal profession generally but also engage the broader public who benefit daily in innumerable ways from the protection of an independent Judiciary. The review is also examining how judicial appointments are made in other similar jurisdictions.
I believe the current statute under which the Judicial Appointments Advisory Board operates requires change and that the Government should get greater assistance in the making of judicial appointments. For reasons of political accountability, I am satisfied that the current constitutional arrangements which require that ultimately it is the responsibility of the Government to recommend to the President those to be appointed to the Judiciary should remain as they are. They have stood the test of time and are very much in the public interest. This position is both informed and supported by previous work undertaken by the Constitution Review Group and this House on judicial appointments.
The review is at an early stage, but in considering reform we should think outside the box. For example, should legal academics, among others, be included in the Judicial Appointments Advisory Board? Should there be more non-legal members of the board? Should academic lawyers teaching at the highest level in third level institutions who are not practising barristers or solicitors be eligible for judicial appointment? What steps should be considered if we are serious about promoting equality and diversity in the Judiciary? Is there a need to revise the composition, role and remit of the Judicial Appointments Advisory Board? Should the board be required to interview judicial applicants before recommending individuals to the Government or should an interview remain a discretionary option? Many of these questions are addressed in the submissions I have received to date and they are now under consideration in my Department. I intend to bring forward proposals, including legislative changes, when the review is completed.
The Legal Services Regulation Bill has completed Committee Stage. Work continues in preparation for Report Stage with a view to the Bill's early enactment and the establishment of the new legal services regulatory authority by the end of the year. The Bill now contains enhanced provisions which will ensure the independence of the new regulatory authority in terms of its functions and appointment through nominating bodies. It also contains strengthened provisions relating to the regulation of new legal business structures which will provide more competitively priced options for consumers of legal services. A far more transparent legal costs regime is provided for, augmented by a modernised office of legal costs adjudicators which will replace the Office of the Taxing Master. The new regulatory authority will deal independently with complaints about professional misconduct of solicitors or barristers and those found to be engaged in serious misconduct will also be made amenable to the new legal practitioners disciplinary tribunal.
As someone who for many years campaigned for the introduction of a DNA database, on assuming office I made it a priority to introduce comprehensive legislation to facilitate the greater use of DNA in the fight against crime and secure the resources to establish the required DNA database. The Criminal Justice (Forensic Evidence and DNA Database System) Bill 2013 fulfils the commitment in the programme for Government to provide for the establishment of a DNA database and replaces the existing legal framework for the collection of forensic evidence from suspects, putting it on a statute-only footing. I believe this is the most important Bill that will be brought before the House during the lifetime of the Government in terms of the provision of assistance for An Garda Síochána in the investigation of serious crime and identifying serial offenders across a broad range of areas, including homicide, rape, sexual and other serious assaults and burglary. It will also assist in finding and identifying missing or unknown persons. In cases in which there is an alleged miscarriage of justice, it might provide crucial information to assist in determining whether an individual has been wrongly convicted. The passage of the Bill will facilitate the State in meeting its obligations under EU law and any international agreement which requires the State to maintain DNA and fingerprint databases for criminal investigation purposes. Importantly, it will facilitate co-operation with other police forces regarding criminals who travel from one country to another to engage in criminality.
The DNA database will be managed and maintained by the Forensic Science Laboratory which will be renamed Forensic Science Ireland. It is intended that all the resources and infrastructure required to establish it will be in place by the time the Bill is enacted. The Bill provides for the establishment of an independent DNA database system oversight committee which will oversee the management and operation of the system. Committee Stage will be taken next week and I hope the Bill will receive continued support, with a view to having it enacted as soon as possible.
I will briefly reference matters relating to An Garda Síochána. It is of crucial importance that public confidence be maintained in An Garda Síochána and the Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission, GSOC. As Members are aware, the Cabinet took a decision on 18 February to request the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Justice, Defence and Equality to review the effectiveness of the legislation related to oversight of An Garda Síochána, as I advised the Dáil last week. I have written to the committee Chairman to ask that he include this very important matter in the committee's work programme. I expect the committee to hold such hearings as it deems necessary and that I will be advised, in due course, of any change it may recommend to the current legislation. I look forward to receiving its recommendations in this matter. Of course, a major priority for 2014 is recruitment of new members to the Garda and I look forward to the first new recruits in five years entering the Garda College in Templemore by next July.
I turn now to the common travel area between Ireland and the United Kingdom. Priority will continue to be given to the development and enhancement of the common travel area arrangement between Ireland and the United Kingdom. Work is well advanced on the development of reciprocal short-stay common travel area visa arrangements which will allow tourists and business visitors to travel to the common travel area, with first arrival in either jurisdiction, and thereafter to travel freely between Ireland and the United Kingdom on the basis of a single visa. The new visa arrangements, planned to commence later this year, will represent a fundamental change in the operation of the common travel area with the potential to attract many thousands of additional visitors to Ireland.
Preparation for the publication of a new immigration, residence and protection Bill is under way in conjunction with the offices of the Attorney General and the Parliamentary Counsel. The Bill will be different from its predecessors, taking account of current Government policy, developments since the publication of the 2010 Bill and also relevant court judgments. It is my intention to obtain Cabinet agreement for publication of the Bill later this year. The Bill will, among other things, provide for the introduction of a single application procedure for the investigation of all grounds for protection and any other ground presented by applicants seeking to remain in the State. This will provide protection for applicants with a final decision on their application in a more straightforward and timely fashion and, I hope, substantially reduce the number of applications to the courts for judicial review and reduce the length of time people spend in direct provision accommodation. The Bill will also provide for an independent appeals process for immigration cases.
The Constitutional Convention reported in July 2013 with a strong recommendation in favour of amending the Constitution to make explicit provision for same-sex marriage. The Government decided on 5 November 2013 that a referendum on same-sex marriage would be held in the first half of 2015. The respectful and open manner in which the Constitutional Convention debated the question of whether same-sex marriage should be provided for in the Constitution was notable. Work is under way within my Department and in consultation with the Attorney General in preparing the wording for the proposed constitutional amendment required. I welcome the overwhelming support at my party's Ard-Fheis last Saturday for this fundamentally important constitutional change. I also welcome indications given to date that it will have substantial support from Members on all sides of the House. It is my hope that in the period leading up to the holding of the referendum we will have a considered, measured, informed and calm public debate.
There is a commitment in the programme for Government to the establishment of a distinct, separate and integrated system of family courts aimed at streamlining family law court processes, making them more efficient and less costly and encouraging the use of alternative dispute resolution mechanisms, where possible, to resolve issues of family conflict. Work is being undertaken to develop a concept for the family court which utilises the existing court structure, while ending the current jurisdictional fragmentation and providing for a unified and comprehensive approach. It envisages the exercise of an ex parte and-or emergency jurisdiction at District Court level to ensure ready accessibility, together with the District Court possibly dealing with straightforward and non-contentious applications that require court orders, with the main bulk of family law substantive cases, including those relating to contested divorce and separation, at Circuit Court level and more complex cases being dealt with at family High Court level. I envisage a single point of entry to the family court at all levels, with the use of standard documentation and electronic filing mechanisms, where possible, and, overall, a substantial reduction in legal costs incurred across a broad range of contested family disputes that require court resolution.
It is intended that there will be a cohort of family law judges who will have substantial expertise in this area of law and access to ongoing professional development in the area. I also envisage integrated family court offices at regional level which will have ancillary facilities for the assistance of litigants, including ready access to alternative dispute resolution.
It was originally anticipated that a referendum would be required to establish the new family court structure. From work we have undertaken, it appears this may now not be necessary and that we may be able to establish the new court as a separate and independent court structure within the parameters of the existing Article 34 of the Constitution. We are fully exploring this option and I believe it is likely that provision for the new family court structure will be prescribed by way of legislation rather than requiring constitutional amendment. Work will be advanced, in consultation with the Judiciary and the Attorney General, with the aim of publishing a general scheme for the family law courts Bill in the autumn and of enacting the Bill in the first half of 2015. If, ultimately, it is considered that a referendum is required, it is envisaged that it would take place in 2015, in view of the Government's decision that 2014 should be a referendum-free year.
I now turn to the Department of Defence and our Defence Forces. The Department of Defence and the Defence Forces continue to deliver a broad range of outputs at home and overseas. On a day-to-day basis the Defence Forces undertake a wide range of essential operations ranging from sea fishery protection to cash escorts and from providing an air ambulance service to conducting explosive disposals. This is work that frequently goes unseen, but this should not detract from its importance. Defence Forces capabilities are also utilised to provide a range of contingent supports to the civil authority, such as during the recent severe weather events.
Defence Forces personnel are serving in 14 different missions throughout the world, and participation in all overseas missions is reviewed on an ongoing basis. Last week I secured Cabinet approval for the continued deployment of members of the Permanent Defence Force to the European Union Training Mission in Mali, EUTM Mali, for a further period of 12 months. This is subject to an appropriate decision of the Council of the European Union extending the mission beyond its current mandate and subject to ongoing review. The mission's current mandate expires in May 2014.
The continuing priority will be to ensure the Defence Forces retain the capabilities to fulfil all roles assigned by Government at home and overseas. In recent years there have been a number of key initiatives, all of which have contributed to maintaining the Defence Forces' operational capabilities to the greatest extent possible within a reduced resource envelope. In 2014, there will be continued recruitment to the Permanent Defence Force to maintain strength levels within a ceiling of 9,500 personnel. There will also be recruitment to the Reserve Defence Force within its revised strength ceiling of 4,069 personnel. Announcements and advertisements for recruitment for both the Permanent Defence Force and the Reserve Defence Force will be formally announced this Friday.
The replacement of key major equipment for the Permanent Defence Force remains a priority. The provision of two new offshore patrol vessels is well advanced, with the first ship, to be named the Samuel Beckett, due for delivery in the coming weeks. The second, to be named the James Joyce, is scheduled for delivery in 2015. These modern new vessels, combined with a continuous process of refurbishment and repair on the other vessels in the fleet, will ensure the Naval Service continues to meet the required operational capability. Within available funding, decisions to replace other equipment across the Defence Forces will prioritise the maintenance of required operational outputs.
I wish to briefly mention international peace and security matters. In relation to the EU Common Security and Defence Policy, the Heads of State and Government, at their meeting in December 2013, set out an ambitious programme of work to enhance the capacity of the EU to uphold the rule of law and to support the UN. A discussion on the implementation of this programme took place approximately ten days ago at a meeting of EU defence Ministers in Athens in which I participated. My Department and the Defence Forces will work in collaboration with partners and with the institutions of the EU to advance the agenda set by the Heads of State and Government. The maintenance of capability and interoperability with partners on UN missions is supported through our participation in the Partnership for Peace. Priorities in this regard will be reflected in our partnership goals for 2014.
The preparation of a new White Paper on defence is a key priority for the coming year. This will shape and underpin defence provision for the next decade. The Green Paper on Defence, published in July 2013, initiated a public consultation process which recently concluded. As part of this process 122 written submissions were received and a number of individuals and organisations were invited to meet civil and military representatives of the Department and the Defence Forces to discuss matters of interest in their particular submissions. There has also been engagement with Departments and international organisations with a particular emphasis on future defence and security challenges.
There will be ongoing engagement with Departments over the coming months. The White Paper must ensure that in the medium and longer term there is a deeper understanding of Ireland's participation in the collective security response to emerging challenges to our security. Also, it must ensure that Ireland has effective capabilities to deal with the range of defence roles required by Government, having regard to potential challenges to our security as these may emerge into the future. I intend to bring a draft White Paper to Government for consideration in the latter half of this year.
The Department of Defence and the Defence Forces have pursued an ambitious reform agenda within the defence sector, which has ensured the continued delivery of defence outputs during a period of significant resource constraints. I would like to acknowledge the hard work and dedication of personnel across the defence organisation who have made this possible and who continue to work towards improving service delivery. In this context, the Department of Defence is playing a central role in the broader public service modernisation agenda, with the Department's office in Renmore having been selected as a centre for payroll shared services and financial shared services. The Department is also fully engaging with the next phase of the Civil Service finance management shared services project, and the Department of Defence will transition to HR shared services between June and October this year.