I thank the Chairman for the invitation to appear before the joint committee. I look forward to discussing any issue of interest to him and members and dealing with any query they may have. I am accompanied by Mr. John Coyle, head of Circuit Court and District Court operations throughout the country; Mr Seán Quigley, head of resource management and accountant for the courts of justice; and Ms Marie Ryan who is a principal officer in the Courts Service of Ireland and heads up my office.
The Courts Service of Ireland is responsible for the management and administration of the courts. As members are aware, the administration of justice is a matter for the Judiciary which, in accordance with its constitutional independence and the provisions of the Courts Service Act, is outside the scope of the functions of the Courts Service of Ireland. Members will appreciate, therefore, that in my discussions with them I am precluded from commenting on any matter relating to the exercise by a judge of his or her judicial functions or to the exercise of quasi-judicial functions by an officer of the court. I am also, of course, precluded from commenting on matters of Government policy.
Since its establishment, the Courts Service of Ireland has worked to ensure the courts operate effectively and efficiently, that the use of available resources is optimised, that value for money is achieved and that the best possible service is provided for court users. In the past six years, in common with all Departments and agencies, it experienced very severe reductions in funding and staff numbers. To address this and ensure the courts continued to sit and be supported, it has worked with the Judiciary to introduce a broad range of changes and reforms which have yielded significant savings for the Exchequer, while maintaining access to justice and services for the public. The service has diligently cut expenditure and, through proactive management, increased court fees, resulting in a significant contribution to the Government's recovery programme. We have robust financial control measures in place across the organisation to ensure expenditure is kept to an absolute minimum and incurred only where it is absolutely necessary and unavoidable and that value for money is achieved.
In the past six years the Courts Service of Ireland has engaged in a comprehensive range of operational and structural reform measures to achieve greater value for money, improved efficiency in processes and optimisation of the available funding and staffing resources.
This has resulted in significant increased productivity and efficiency in the delivery of services. It also supported and facilitated a reduction of up to 41% in the net cost to the Exchequer of running the courts since 2008.
Given the severity of the funding and staffing reductions in the Courts Service, which gave rise to a 16% reduction in staff numbers - double the Civil Service average and significantly greater than the public service average of 10% - it would not have been possible to maintain court services and sittings without introducing a range of efficiency and productivity measures across all aspects of court structures, administration and operation. The measures implemented included reform of the court regional structures and court office structures, with the introduction of cross-jurisdiction combined court offices, the closure of smaller court offices and the ongoing rationalisation of court venues. These measures have maximised the use of resources and successfully freed up both judicial and staff time to support the hearing of cases. We have also worked to introduce a substantial programme of legislative and process reform with the ongoing streamlining of court office business procedures to enable improved operation of the courts and efficiency in deployment of court resources.
The implementation of our ICT programme has resulted in the optimisation of courtroom and court support technology, including: the rolling out of digital audio recording to all court jurisdictions and venues; extended use of video link and video conferencing, which has resulted in significant cross-justice sector efficiency; and the development of case management and e-filing projects, including the case management systems for the personal insolvency service, the Court of Appeal and Supreme Court and ICT support for the new fines legislation and e-filing projects, such as the debt claims online project and e-licensing, which are still under way.
There has been increased staff flexibility in a number of areas, such as logging of digital audio recording by court registrars, increased in-house ICT support and legal support, all of which have yielded significant savings. The Courts Service also continues to support the mediation initiative in Dolphin House, resulting in minimum savings of 315 days in court since inception to the end of 2014 and other cost-reduction measures.
The Courts Service fully accepts and supports the Government’s ongoing requirement for savings to be achieved and is very conscious that although there has been an easing of the financial crisis, the need for reform in the delivery of public services remains. We are, therefore, continuing our ongoing review of the operation of the courts and the implementation of our modernisation programme.
The improved financial situation has been reflected in the Government Estimates for 2016, and the Courts Service has received a very welcome increase in additional funding of €1.75 million, or 1.6%. This will allow us to begin to address the key challenge for the service in recent years, namely, the lack of sufficient staff, which, despite the reforms introduced, has had an impact on the support we can provide for the Judiciary and court sittings and on the provision of core court services to the public. The reduction of up to 16% in full-time staff numbers coincided with an increase in workloads in a number of areas of our operations, most noticeably possession cases, in respect of which the number of civil bills increased by 883% in 2014 and the number of court orders increased by 105%. There has also been an increase generally in the complexity and length of court hearings, an increase of 10% in the number of court sitting days and an increase in the number of judges, which has resulted in the ratio of staff to judges falling from 7.3:1 in 2009 to 5.8:1 in 2015, a reduction of 22%.
That the Courts Service is providing a skilled front-line service to court users from geographically dispersed court offices and that a significant number of senior staff have retired, with the consequent loss to the organisation of technical expertise and knowledge, increased the adverse impact of the severe reduction in staff numbers. This, in fact, placed considerable and unsustainable pressure on court staff in a number of offices, which has been a cause of ongoing concern. The reduced staff numbers also meant that the Courts Service was no longer able to support the additional court sittings required by the presidents of the different court jurisdictions to meet the needs of court users. Unfortunately, this has led to increasing and unacceptable delays in the hearing of cases, particularly serious criminal trials and domestic violence order applications in Dublin.
There is no doubt that the Courts Service had reached a tipping point and that additional staff were required if the service was to continue to support court sittings adequately, maintain court services in offices around the country and adequately support Government initiatives such as the restructuring of the family law courts, which is under consideration at present. The additional funding to be allocated to the Courts Service in 2016, while it was not all that was sought, will allow for the appointment of roughly 30 additional staff. This process is already under way and priority is being given to supporting the additional court sittings required to address delays and providing additional resources to those offices most severely impacted by staff losses in recent years.
In common with many other organisations, investment in staff training in the Courts Service also suffered over the past six years. This coincided with the substantial loss of corporate knowledge and expertise. This represents a significant risk for the organisation, which relies heavily on the technical knowledge of its staff to ensure that it can effectively support the courts. Therefore, in the context of the major changes implemented in recent years and the challenges facing the organisation, it was decided to reassess our learning and development requirements fundamentally so as to ensure that any new arrangements put in place will be focused on those steps that will have the biggest impact, help realise the potential of all our staff and ultimately ensure the Courts Service is achieving high levels of performance. A learning and development strategy is now being finalised and it will ensure all staff and managers have the requisite skills to perform their roles at a high level of competence; enhance and maintain the legal and technical skills and knowledge; and support and develop our managers and staff in dealing with the wide range of challenges and issues that they face on a daily basis.
Progress is also being made on the Courts Service capital building programme. We very much welcome the inclusion of a number of Courts Service projects in the Government’s capital infrastructure and investment plan for the period 2016 to 2021. Funding has been provided for the provision of a new family law and children court complex at Hammond Lane by way of a PPP project. This will provide a dedicated and integrated family law and children court building and new court accommodation for the Supreme Court. It will also house a number of Courts Service offices. This is a major development that is long overdue. It will replace the current inadequate facilities at a number of locations with a single site development with custom-built facilities. Discussions have already commenced on the provision of this project.
The plan also confirmed funding for the provision of seven state-of-the-art courthouses at seven locations around the country by way of PPP projects. The contracts for these projects are due to be signed in December and the construction will commence immediately thereafter. The projects will be completed within a two-year timeframe and will provide 31 fully fitted courtrooms with all the relevant support facilities across the seven projects.
On completion of the Hammond Lane project and the seven provincial venues, there will remain only five provincial city and county town venues in need of significant improvement: Galway, Tralee, Roscommon, Portlaoise and Wicklow. The Courts Service will continue to press for funding for the development of these remaining venues to bring them into line with other county towns, whether through the PPP process or as traditional capital building projects.
Perhaps the most significant challenge facing the Courts Service at present is that there has been no additional funding provided for ICT investment. Investment in ICT was another of the casualties of cuts since 2009 and ICT has been consistently under-funded year on year since then. Significant and ongoing investment is required if ICT is to achieve its potential in bringing about a transformation in the way the courts operate and achieve significant further savings. In the context of reduced resources and growing workloads, technology offers the best solution to enhancing customer service and delivering improved value for money. Additional investment is required to extend the civil case management system across all jurisdictions, develop e-filing capabilities and extend courtroom technology to additional courtrooms around the country. This would be a major advance in the delivery of the e-government agenda in the courts system and would deliver efficiencies in the handling of both civil and criminal business to the benefit of court users, the Courts Service and a number of other justice agencies. The Courts Service will continue to press for additional funding to progress the development of ICT in the courts system.
The Courts Service priority will continue to be the provision of front-line core court services to support the Judiciary and court users. This can be achieved only through the ongoing review of the organisation and the delivery of services and the continued implementation of our change modernisation programme.
The Courts Service Strategic Plan 2014–2017 sets out the key priorities for the Courts Service over the next three years. Over the lifetime of the plan, we propose to build on the progress already made in the review and reform of our structures and service delivery and to focus on maximising the use of technology, developing our staff and rationalising process to enable us continue to improve services to court users, to make the courts as accessible as possible and achieve real value for money in the provision of these services.