I move: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."
On behalf of the Tánaiste, I want to thank the House for facilitating early discussion of this short Bill, which is primarily intended to avoid potentially serious disruption to court business following a recent Court of Appeal ruling. Such disruption could arise from the need to transfer proceedings already under way before the Circuit Court to the High Court or to commence such proceedings in the High Court, with the risk of additional costs and delay for the parties involved. The Bill contains a series of technical proposals which deal with the consequences of the Court of Appeal’s ruling of 28 July last in Permanent TSB v. Langan, a case stated to the Court of Appeal from the High Court under the Courts of Justice Act 1936. The High Court had sought Court of Appeal direction on a number of legal points concerning the jurisdiction of the Circuit Court in cases involving property following a number of earlier High Court rulings that had arrived at differing conclusions and had created legal uncertainty. The jurisdiction of the Circuit Court in cases involving land has been defined in several statutes on the basis of the rateable valuation of the property concerned. These include the Courts (Supplemental Provisions) Act 1961, the Registration of Title Act 1964 and the Succession Act 1965. Where the rateable valuation is less than €254, originally £200, the Circuit Court has jurisdiction. Where the rateable valuation exceeds this threshold, the High Court has jurisdiction, unless the parties agree that the case may be heard in the Circuit Court. The issue that arose in the Langan case concerned the Circuit Court’s jurisdiction in cases in which the property concerned is not rateable under the terms of the Valuation Act 2001. Section 15 of that Act provides that the categories of property referred to in Schedule 4 shall not be rateable. It includes property such as domestic dwellings, agricultural land and farm buildings.
In the Langan case, the Court of Appeal ruled that where property is not rateable under the 2001 Act because it is included in Schedule 4, the Circuit Court has no jurisdiction to hear proceedings in respect of such property. While the court felt obliged to reach this conclusion, it recognised that the ruling was likely to lead to consequences which were “both unfortunate and unintended”. The court acknowledged that certain proceedings would have to be commenced in the High Court instead of the Circuit Court and that this would simply create additional costs for litigants "and will serve to deprive the parties of access to local courts in the manner in which the Constitution actually intended." The Bill seeks to address these unintended consequences and to avoid disruption of the orderly management and discharge of court proceedings already under way, as well as any additional costs arising from a collapse or withdrawal of proceedings based on rateable valuation.
The Tánaiste has asked me to underline the point that this Bill does not have implications for repossession proceedings in respect of principal private residences and will neither undermine nor erode the rights of such borrowers to due process and the remedies afforded under insolvency law. Under the Land and Conveyancing Law Reform Act 2013, the Circuit Court has been given jurisdiction to deal with repossession proceedings involving principal private residences, irrespective of when the mortgage was created, its rateable valuation or its market value. I very much regret that attempts are being made to create a contrary perception. As the House will be aware, a new, innovative mortgage arrears resolution service, Abhaile, was officially launched recently by the Tánaiste and the Minister for Social Protection. Under the scheme, eligible clients are given vouchers to obtain expert advice from financial and legal advisers in order to resolve their debt issues. In addition, they can get assistance in court where needed, have access to solicitors, and get help obtaining legal aid. More than 2,400 vouchers have been issued under the scheme to date in respect of 1,718 principal private residences. A major Government information campaign will be launched in the coming weeks to raise awareness of the scheme.
I will turn now to the detailed proposals in the Bill. With a view to minimising disruption to court business and avoiding additional costs for parties, section 1 provides that where proceedings involving non-rateable property under statutes referred to in the accompanying table have already been commenced in the Circuit Court before the entry into force of this Act, then the Circuit Court shall be deemed to continue to have jurisdiction to hear and determine the proceedings. That will help to ensure continuity and avoid disruption.
Section 1(2) provides, however, that the continuity provision in subsection (1) shall not apply where a court has made a finding that the Circuit Court does not have jurisdiction or where a party to the proceedings has raised an issue of the Circuit Court’s jurisdiction or the court itself has raised an issue relating to jurisdiction. That is intended, in particular, to safeguard the rights of any party to the proceedings that has raised an issue regarding the Circuit Court’s jurisdiction.
Section 1(3) explains the terms used in subsections (1) and (2), while the table that follows subsection (3) lists three statutes in which Circuit Court jurisdiction has been defined exclusively in terms of the rateable valuation of property, that is, section 22(1)(a) of the Courts (Supplemental Provisions) Act 1961; section 18 of the Registration of Title Act 1964 and; section 6 of the Succession Act 1965).
The purpose of section 2 is to provide a mechanism whereby the market value of land which is the subject of existing Circuit Court proceedings and which will be continued under the provisions of section 1, may be determined. Subsection (1) provides for the lodging of an affidavit in which a party states that to the best of his or her knowledge or belief the market value of the property does not exceed the threshold. A rebuttable presumption mechanism will ensure that any disputes as to the market value of the property can be resolved.
In section 3, under both section 10(5) of the Family Home Protection Act 1976 and section 140(10) of the Civil Partnership and Certain Rights and Obligations of Cohabitants Act 2010, the District Court has jurisdiction in certain cases in which the rateable valuation of land is less than €25. Such proceedings are also affected by the Court of Appeal ruling in cases of non-rateable property. In order to ensure continuity in these cases, section 3 provides that the District Court shall have, and be deemed always to have had, jurisdiction to hear and determine the proceedings. That shall not apply, however, where a party to proceedings or the court has raised an issue concerning jurisdiction. I should point out that it was agreed in the context of the Civil Liability and Courts Act 2004 that District Court jurisdiction in cases involving land would be discontinued on commencement of section 48 of that Act. Following the commencement order which I intend to make to coincide with enactment of this Bill, the District Court will no longer have jurisdiction in proceedings involving land where its rateable valuation is less than €25. It will continue, however, to have jurisdiction in the case of chattels up to a value of €15,000.
Section 4 inserts a new section 53A into the 2004 Act. It contains a new rebuttable presumption mechanism whereby the value of property will be presumed to be below €3 million for evidentiary purposes. However, in the event of a dispute as to the alleged market value, a party may adduce evidence that the value of the property exceeds €3 million and that proceedings should be brought before the High Court rather than the Circuit Court.
Section 5 amends several sections of the Civil Partnership and Certain Rights and Obligations of Cohabitants Act 2010 in order to provide that the existing right to apply to have proceedings under those provisions transferred from the Circuit Court to the High Court will only apply where the land involved has a market value above €3 million. This change will, following the making of relevant commencement orders, bring the right to apply to have proceedings transferred to the High Court into line with corresponding provisions in other family law legislation, namely, the Family Home Protection Act 1976; the Judicial Separation and Reform Act 1989; the Family Law Act 1995 and; the Family Law (Divorce) Act 1996). Subsection 2(b) will replace the existing text of subsection (10) of section 140. As already stated, the District Court will no longer have jurisdiction in proceedings involving land where its rateable valuation is less than €25 but will continue to have jurisdiction in the case of chattels up to a value of €15,000, similar to its jurisdiction under the Family Home Protection Act 1976.
Section 6 is a technical provision which substitutes a new text for subsection (3) of section 60 of the Valuation Act 2001. It will now provide that production to a tribunal or court of a certificate issued under section 67(4) by an authorised officer shall be sufficient evidence, until the contrary is proved of the matters stated in the certificate. At present, this subsection does not include a reference to section 67.
Section 7 states that rateable valuation thresholds are in use not only to determine Circuit Court jurisdiction but matters unrelated to jurisdiction such as, for example, eligibility to acquire freehold title in accordance with ground rents legislation. Under the Landlord and Tenant (Ground Rents) (No. 2) Act 1978, the ground rent tenant’s right to acquire the freehold arises in certain cases where the amount of the annual ground rent is less than the rateable valuation for the property concerned. In order to facilitate continued exercise of this right and continued use in various other contexts, for example, in cases of non-rateable property, section 67 of the 2001 Act allows the Valuation Office to issue a certificate of rateable valuation to the ground rent tenant in the case of non-rateable property, that is, property included in Schedule 4 of the 2001 Act. In order to preserve this important mechanism, and continued usage of rateable valuation in matters unrelated to Circuit Court jurisdiction, it is proposed to insert a new subsection (2A) in section 67 of the 2001 Act. It clarifies that the certificates issued under that section are based on the value of other comparable properties appearing on valuation lists existing prior to the roll-out of the new valuation system under the 2001 Act.
Section 8 contains a proposal to rectify a technical error in the Planning and Development (Amendment) Act 2015 where failure to provide a negative condition in section 170A(3Xa) means that the subsection as enacted has the opposite effect to what was intended. It means that whatever conclusion An Bord Pleanála may come to in its assessment of whether a proposed amendment to a strategic development zone, SDZ, planning scheme is minor or significant in nature, it must under the current provision ask the planning authority to make the amendment in line with the procedure laid down in section 169 of the Act, in effect triggering the full procedure for adopting an SDZ planning scheme in the first instance. The proposed amendment will enable An Bord Pleanála to adjudicate on and amend approved SDZ planning schemes in carefully defined circumstances, such as very minor changes or changes not affecting the broad objectives of the planning scheme. That was the intended purpose of section 170A.
In section 9, several provisions in the Licensing Acts, one of which dates from the 19th century, contain requirements in respect of the rateable valuation of licensed premises. In each case, the rateable valuation of the property concerned must be considered by the court in the context of granting a licence for the sale intoxicating liquor. These provisions have in common the fact that they were enacted prior to the introduction of planning legislation and their objective was to ensure that certain minimum standards were met by licensed premises. In the case of the Beer Licences Regulation (Ireland) Act 1877, section 2 requires that such premises are rated "in the sum of fifteen pounds or upwards". In the case of the Tourist Traffic Act 1952, section 44(1)(b)(ii) provides that the rateable valuation of holiday camp premises shall not be less than £200. The licensing law provisions referred to in section 9 have been overtaken by the detailed planning provisions of the Planning and Development Acts and may now be repealed.
This is an important but essentially technical Bill which seeks to deal with the unintended consequences of a Court of Appeal ruling. I commend it to the House.