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Seanad Éireann debate -
Tuesday, 16 Apr 1935

Vol. 19 No. 23

Courthouses (Provision and Maintenance) Bill, 1935—Second Stage.

Question proposed: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."

This Bill, as the title shows, is intended to ensure that suitable courthouses will be provided where they are required throughout the country. The law as it stands is antiquated, and we find it very difficult to enforce it. As an example, the principal statutes regulating the provision and maintenance of courthouses are: the Grand Jury (Ireland) Act, 1836; the County Dublin Grand Jury Act, 1844, and the County Officers and Courts (Ireland) Act, 1877. while the position in some counties is quite satisfactory, in other counties it is most unsatisfactory. Some years ago very little difficulty arose with regard to courthouses; suitable provision had been made, but many of those courthouses have been neglected and they have got into a condition of disrepair, and local bodies seem to be reluctant to have them put into proper repair. I think Senators are aware, from reading the newspaper reports, that in many instances Circuit Court judges have refused to sit in certain towns owing to the lack of suitable accommodation, proper provision not being made for litigants and others engaged in those courts. The result has been that the judges have held their sittings in other towns in the county, where there was suitable courthouse accommodation. That has resulted in considerable hardship to litigants and others.

While the position in regard to the Circuit Courts in many instances is not satisfactory, the position is much worse in relation to the District Courts. As Senators are aware, under the Courts of Justice Act, 1924, there were very wide powers given to the District Courts. There was a very limited jurisdiction under the Petty Sessions Act. Under the Courts of Justice Act, 1924, in criminal matters the jurisdiction was very much extended, while on the civil side it was also extended. A lot of the business previously transacted by the County Court judges is now being dealt with by district justices. Under the Petty Sessions Jurisdiction Act of 1851 local authorities are limited to an expenditure of £10 in providing courthouse accommodation for district justices. That might have been all right at the time when the petty sessions court was held, perhaps, once a month, and when there was very little business to be transacted owing to the limited jurisdiction it had. The accommodation at that time consisted, perhaps, of a room for the day of the sitting, with a locker where the court records were locked up. With the increased jurisdiction the position to-day is different, and £10 is absolutely inadequate to provide suitable courthouse accommodation for the District Courts.

The main purpose of the Bill is, firstly, to lay down clearly what are the rights and duties of public authorities with regard to providing proper courthouse accommodation; secondly, to provide for the control and custody of courthouse accommodation being vested in the county registrar or the District Court clerk, as the case may be, and, thirdly, to remove the existing limits of expenditure, namely, £10, in respect of the cost of district courthouses. In the other House some exception was taken to the control being vested in the county registrar or the District Court clerk, but the position, as the law stands at the moment, is that the jurisdiction over a county courthouse building, for example, where the county council also meets, is vested in the under-sheriff. What we are proposing in this Bill is that only so much of that building as is required, or as is being used for courthouse purposes, shall be under the control of the county registrar. We do not want, or desire, to have any clash of jurisdiction between the county council and the county registrar. The county registrar must be responsible, and will be responsible under this Bill, for that portion of the county building which is required for courthouse purposes, and the District Court clerk will be responsible for the buildings in which the District Courts of his area are held.

I would like to say a word, not on behalf of the judges or of the professional men who have to attend in the course of their duties in some of these courthouses, but on behalf of litigants and the public who have to come into courthouses, many indeed of which are ill-ventilated and badly heated. They sometimes come in cold and wet, and have to sit on the benches of these courthouses in which no provision whatever is made for their comfort. That was a barbarous state of affairs which was allowed to exist and to continue for many years. I know some buildings in which District Courts are held in which there is no accommodation at all for the public. These places are badly ventilated. There are no heating arrangements of any sort in them for litigants and others from the country who have to attend in them. I am glad that the Minister is taking power to put an end to that state of affairs. I am sure that it is not the intention to put up extravagant buildings: that nothing more will be done than to provide for the reasonable comfort of the public who have to attend at the county courts and the various District Courts from time to time.

The matter with which this Bill proposes to deal is one of very long standing. As far back as 20 or 30 years ago one could have made much the same kind of speech that the Minister has just made. Complaint has long been made about courthouses and the accommodation provided in them. Once or twice I have filled the office of sheriff of a county, and I remember that there was always trouble about this. On some occasions I have had to go to the Lord Lieutenant to try and get his authority to do certain things. I was then met with the kind of difficulty to which the Minister referred to-day. The matters that this Bill deals with are certainly not new. Therefore, I think it is only right that we should put an end to them. The authorities that have to deal with the different parts of a courthouse should, I think, have full control over that portion of the building for which they are responsible. I am anxious to know if the State is going to supply the money that will be required to put these courthouse buildings into repair, and, if necessary, to provide additional accommodation, or will the responsibility for that fall on the local authority? The cost of carrying out work of this kind is always a source of trouble. I would be glad if the Minister would say who is going to pay for the work.

The local authorities.

I do not know whether there is anybody here to talk for the local authorities.

I do not think it should be allowed to go forth that this House generally accepts the point of view that the State has the right to impose on a local authority the obligation to put courthouses in order. The Minister has told us that the State is going to make no contribution towards the execution of the works contemplated under this Bill. In spite of that he has said that when existing buildings are put in order, or new buildings erected, they are going to be vested in an official who will be under the direct control of the Ministry of Justice and be subject in no way whatever to the control of the local authority. The burden which the local taxpayer has to carry at the present time is surely heavy enough without placing this additional charge on him. Undoubtedly, there has been a certain amount of criticism with regard to the condition of courthouses in certain parts of the country. Complaints have been made by individual justices. Upon the whole, I think a good deal has been done by local authorities in the way of carrying out improvements.

The principle involved in this measure is one that the rural ratepayer cannot be expected to accept. It surely is not equitable to compel a local authority to bear the cost of carrying out improvements to courthouses, or of erecting new buildings, and then vest these buildings in an official who is not under the control of that local authority but rather of a Department of State—the Ministry of Justice—which has not contributed a penny towards the execution of the works. It is unfair to ask the taxpayer to do that, and because I think so I want to enter a protest against it.

I do not know whether Senator Baxter is aware of it or not, but as the law stands at present that is the position. Some county councils seem to be under the impression that they have control over courthouse buildings. That is not so. They have not even control over that portion of the building in which the meetings of the county council are held. We are trying to remedy that position by this Bill. At the present time the sub-sheriff has absolute control over the county building in which the courts are held and in which the county council meets and has its offices. The county council has not the power to hire out any portion of that building, not even, as I have said, the portion that it occupies itself. It is not contemplated under this Bill to start erecting magnificent courthouses through the country. I am not aware that the position is such that courthouses are necessary at any particular place, but I am aware that in several places there are courthouses in such a condition that they are absolutely unsuitable for the purposes for which they are intended. So far as the local authorities are concerned, I do not think they will have very much ground for complaint on the question of expense.

Question put and agreed to.
Committee Stage ordered for Wednesday, 1st May.