I move: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."
I am pleased to have this opportunity to introduce the Courts (Establishment and Constitution) (Amendment) Bill 2019 to the House for Second Stage on behalf of the Minister for Justice and Equality, Deputy Flanagan. We look forward to engaging in a constructive debate as the Bill proceeds through the various Stages. It is the intention of the Government, for the reasons that I will set out and subject to the conduct of business as agreed by the Houses, that the Bill be completed for enactment by the end of June this year.
Following the Government approval of the general scheme of the Bill in December 2018, the Minister for Justice and Equality referred the general scheme for pre-legislative scrutiny. In February 2019, the Joint Committee on Justice and Equality decided that it was not necessary to conduct such scrutiny and this pragmatic approach has helped to progress this compact but nonetheless important Bill.
The purpose of the Bill is to provide for an increase in the maximum number of ordinary judges of the Court of Appeal from nine to 15 and it provides for the amendment of the relevant primary legislation to achieve that objective. As such, it is a short but highly purposeful Bill consisting of just two sections. Section 1 is the substantive provision of the Bill. It provides for the amendment of the Courts (Establishment and Constitution) Act 1961 to increase the statutory number of ordinary judges of the Court of Appeal from nine to 15. Section 2 provides for the Short Title of the Bill and allows for the commencement of the Act by order of the Minister for Justice and Equality. These are standard provisions.
As the House will recall, the Court of Appeal was established on 28 October 2014 under the Court of Appeal Act of that year. That followed a referendum of the people in 2013, which was passed by more than 65% of voters. A key policy objective of the establishment of the Court of Appeal on foot of the referendum was to improve the higher appellate capacity of the Irish courts and to alleviate the relevant backlog in cases which had accumulated at that time. Appeal cases from the Supreme Court and the Court of Criminal Appeal were transferred to the new Court of Appeal and it commenced hearing cases in November 2014. The court comprises a President and not more than nine ordinary judges as set down in statute. There has been no change in this configuration since the court's establishment. A vacancy is in anticipation on foot of the Government's decision of 2 April 2019 to nominate Ms Justice Mary Irvine, whose working contribution as a judge of the Court of Appeal is held in the highest regard, to the Supreme Court.
The Court of Appeal hears an array of appeals in civil proceedings as well as in criminal proceedings and covers a vast array of litigation where parties choose to exercise the right to appeal, such a right being a fundamental safeguard under our legal system. Prior to the establishment of the Court of Appeal, average waiting times for cases to be heard by the Supreme Court had increased to more than four years. For cases on the priority list, the average waiting time was more than nine months. It was anticipated that the introduction of the new Court of Appeal would streamline the administration of justice by having a significant impact on waiting lists while also making a significant improvement to the overall efficiency of the courts system. However, we are now at a point where it is clear from the current waiting times that without additional judges, the Court of Appeal, before too long, will face similar levels of undesirable delay to those which prevailed in the past. At the same time, I emphasise that the Court of Appeal and the Courts Service have been taking the necessary steps to maximise existing capacities in responding to the ongoing challenges. Case hearing lists in the Court of Appeal are actively managed to ensure appeals are dealt with as efficiently as possible and that waiting times are kept to a minimum within the resources available to the court.
Hearing dates are now allocated at the first listing of a new appeal, which reduces the administrative work and time for the court and is, by the same token, more cost efficient for the parties.
The need for the Bill is not to be underestimated. Information received from the Courts Service confirms that, as things stand, hearing dates for civil cases before the Court of Appeal have already been fixed up to, and including, May 2021. While some allocation has also been made within that schedule to ensure any urgent appeal can also be dealt with, the time available for civil appeals is essentially fully allocated up to May of 2021. The current waiting time for criminal appeals is six months. This compares with the 15-month waiting time which previously arose at the Court of Criminal Appeal and is now generally considered to be at an acceptable level. However, with the exception of certain fast-tracked or very urgent cases, the general waiting time for civil appeals is 20 months. This is considered a significant problem in terms of access to justice.
In terms of existing caseloads at the Court of Appeal, civil cases in hand have risen from 677 at the start of quarter 1 of 2018 to 685 at the start of quarter 1 of this year. In addition, there is what are described as article 64 appeals, that is to say, the legacy cases inherited by the Court of Appeal from the Supreme Court. At the start of quarter 1 of 2018 there were 706 such cases which had reduced to 242 at the start of quarter 1 of this year. In terms of criminal offences and appeals, there were 531 cases in hand at the start of quarter 1 of 2018 with 480 in play at the start of quarter 1 of this year. Of course, these are not static figures and will fluctuate as cases are referred in the course of normal courts business to the Court of Appeal on an ongoing basis.
Both the current and previous President of the Court of Appeal, the Honorable Mr. Justice George Birmingham and the Honorable Mr. Justice Sean Ryan, respectively, have highlighted the problems being faced by the Court of Appeal as being most acute and in terms of the court being overwhelmed by its caseload of both inherited and new cases. The Chief Justice also fully supports the specific and reasoned case for an increase in the number of judges of the Court of Appeal and has sought the early introduction of the necessary legislation to deal with this as a most pressing problem.
Against this background, increasing the number of ordinary judges in the Court of Appeal by six, as proposed under today's Bill, will have a beneficial effect of increasing efficiency in processing appeals in the superior courts and providing a more accessible appellate system with more timely and efficient resolution of disputes for citizens and enterprise. The President of the Court of Appeal has indicated that having six extra judges would allow for three divisions of the Court of Appeal - one dealing with criminal, the second with the inherited article 64 cases and the third dealing with incoming mainstream civil cases. In the view of the Judiciary this would allow for the most efficient disposal of cases, allowing sufficient time for hearing cases in court, reading papers in preparation for court and drafting judgments. The mainstream civil division would frequently sit in two courts simultaneously.
This would also mean that the President of the Court of Appeal could, as may be considered appropriate, assign a division of judges to deal exclusively with the remaining inherited article 64 legacy cases. Under such an approach it may well be possible to clear the remaining backlog of those cases within 12 to 16 months. Clearly, there would be a positive benefit to litigants as a substantial decrease would be anticipated in the average waiting time for relevant cases to be heard.
The appointment of six additional judges to the Court of Appeal is estimated to cost in the region of €1.22 million by way of salaries and allowances. Their appointment will also require the provision of some additional supports by the Courts Service. Funding for such non-pay or capital costs, including any required additional chambers, will be managed within the existing resources of the Courts Service.
As part of the approach being taken under the Bill, it is also intended that the Minister will review the situation regarding judicial numbers in the Court of Appeal in consultation with the President of that court in two years as, in due course, the court clears down its inherited caseload of Supreme Court appeals. Similarly, the long-term requirement for maintaining the existing statutory ceiling of judges in the Supreme Court will also be kept under review.
As recognised by the Minister, Deputy Flanagan, when he secured Government approval for the publication of the Bill in March, there is a strong and compelling case for the provision under the Bill of additional judicial resources to the Court of Appeal. The Government is satisfied that the additional judicial positions are warranted to address the current demands being faced by the Court of Appeal and to improve efficiency in the appeals process, which is a bulwark of the judicial system and access to justice.
In the light of its obvious merits as I have set out and the fundamental importance of the Court of Appeal to the effective administration of justice, I commend the Bill to the House.