I move: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."
I am delighted, on behalf of the Minister for Justice and Equality, to have the opportunity to introduce the Courts Bill 2015 to the House and look forward to engaging with Members as we progress the Bill through the various Stages.
The Bill is a single provision measure, having just one purpose, an increase in the maximum number of High Court judges from 35 to 37. Section 1 provides for a net change in numbers and in doing so amends section 9 of the Courts and Court Officers Act 1995, as amended by the Courts and Court Officers (Amendment) Act 2007, to provide that the number of ordinary judges of the High Court shall not be more than 37. The number of judges of the different courts is fixed from time to time by legislation under Article 36 of the Constitution. The existing maximum limit on the number of ordinary judges of the High Court was set in 2007 by the Courts and Court Officers (Amendment) Act. That Act, as in the case of the Bill before the House, amended the Courts and Court Officers Act 1995, by providing that there would be no more than 35 ordinary judges of the High Court. The best part of a decade, therefore, has passed since the last increase in the statutory number of High Court judges.
Deputies will accept that there has been considerable growth over that period in the volume and complexity of proceedings and litigation coming before the courts system as a whole. While the pressure on the courts has been managed very effectively and professionally by the Judiciary, with the very able support of the Courts Service, in some important areas of High Court business waiting times are longer than any of us would want them to be. The allocation of a further two judges to the High Court is not just a question of addressing waiting times, although this measure will address, in particular, the waiting times being experienced in the Central Criminal Court, it is more to do with enabling the court to work more efficiently, for example, by reducing the number of reserved judgments handed down.
A separate problem but one about which the Minister has concerns and which should not be ignored is the recent loss of a significant number of judges from the ranks of the High Court, with a considerable consequential loss of experience. Some of this loss is, of course, accounted for by retirements, but only one year ago nine High Court judges were appointed to the new Court of Appeal. It has been widely acknowledged that the new court has had a marked positive impact on the problem of delays in hearing appeals. I acknowledge the tremendous contribution of the new court and the great progress it has made in the past year. Perhaps inevitably, however, there have been certain repercussions in the depth of judicial experience drawn from the High Court. Those judges have, of course, been replaced by a strong cohort of new judges, but nevertheless the Minister understands the effect of and is anxious to respond to the loss of judicial experience from the High Court.
Another factor which has had a real effect on the progress of proceedings in the High Court is the increase in the number of lay litigants. Cases involving lay litigants can take longer because of such litigants' relative inexperience of court procedures. More and more, lay litigants are coming before the court, as is, of course, their right, but because they tend not to have experience of court proceedings, there is a marked trend in these instances towards increased times for proceedings.
Various factors are leading to increased waiting times for cases to be heard in some areas of the courts and an increase in the number of cases not proceeding on days listed for hearing, as well as a significant number of reserved judgments. It was to address these issues and more generally to provide for greater efficiency in the conduct of its affairs that, having consulted the senior Judiciary, the Minister requested the Government to approve additional resources in the form of two additional judges of the High Court.
Pressure points in the High Court which the Bill will substantially alleviate include the number of cases in which reserved judgments are given. While there are good reasons for reserving judgments in many cases, giving judges time to reflect on evidence and the law, the amount is of particular concern to the Judiciary.
It is easy to see why this can be most unsatisfactory from the point of view of all concerned, not least the parties to the action or matter at hand.
Reserved judgments are frequently handed down in judicial review matters, commercial court cases and chancery actions. The increase in the number of reserved judgments can perhaps be seen as an unintended consequence of the efforts being made by the Judiciary to stay on top of waiting lists across the various areas of court business.
Deputies will need no convincing about the importance of avoiding unnecessary delays in criminal trials. In the Central Criminal Court, a marked trend is the increasing duration of trials due to the greater complexity of evidence coming before the court. Waiting times here are a matter of concern. The Minister is aware that recently the court president has found it necessary to appoint a fifth judge to the full time hearing of cases in the Central Criminal Court. Currently waiting times for trials of 18 months approximately can be very difficult for all concerned and, of course, particularly distressing for victims of crime and their families. In many instances cases cannot proceed on the date listed for trial and this has implications for costs for practitioners and witnesses. I know that the Minister is particularly concerned about this and she anticipates that the allocation of an extra judge to that court will help to alleviate this.
Medical negligence litigation represents a sizeable portion of business before the High Court. Due to the lengthy duration of most of these actions, the President of the High Court makes a very convincing case for the deployment of judicial resources to manage these actions at the earliest opportunity. I agree fully that early intervention by a judge offers the best prospects of limiting the duration of hearings by early identification of issues which can lead to earlier settlement. I think this would be helpful to families who are so often involved in these difficult and upsetting cases. Better and proactive management of these actions is likely to lead to savings in the amount of costs of litigation for actions where frequently the taxpayer must foot the bill.
This is one of the reasons the Minister has introduced new legislative measures for pre-action protocols for medical negligence cases as an amendment in the Seanad when it was considering Committee and Report Stages of the Legal Services Regulation Bill over the past two weeks.
The new Companies Act is predicted to generate an increased level of company law-related applications to the High Court. These applications, many of which relate to the restriction of directors of insolvent companies can take a number of days of court time and it is estimated that at least one extra High Court judge will be required to manage this business.
Judicial reviews of decisions of courts and other bodies where reliefs and remedies are sought, arise frequently in such areas as planning matters, challenges to the constitutionality of legislation, habeas corpus matters and debt cases. It is a critical area of activity for the court and more judicial resources are needed here; practically all judicial reviews require written judgments.
In concluding my introduction of this legislation before the House, I should emphasise that while the effect of the Bill, as I have already said, is merely to alter a number in the relevant statute, its importance must not be underestimated. Once appointments are made, I consider that this Bill will have a far-reaching and positive impact on the work and output of the High Court. I believe it is a worthwhile measure to underpin the efficient conduct of business right at the centre of the administration of justice in the State.
In summary, while the Bill is a response to the number of cases coming before the High Court, including judicial reviews, medical negligence actions, asylum applications and company law-related applications, its specific benefits will be to enhance the efficiency with which the business of the court is managed as a whole and how judgments are handled in particular.
This Bill further represents the determined approach of the Minister and this Government to enhance the efficiency of the administration of justice, as evidenced by bringing into existence recently a second Special Criminal Court and, last year, the establishment of the Court of Appeal. In addition, further reforms are under way to bring about greater efficiencies and streamline matters in the courts, including proposals for a new system of family courts.
I thank Deputies for their support for, and engagement with, this important measure. It represents an important step for the High Court and I look forward to our debate on the matter. I commend the Bill to the House.