This Bill contains a number of provisions to improve the present arrangements relating to the circuit and district courts.
Section 2 of the Bill provides that the number of ordinary judges of the circuit court shall not be more than nine. As the President of the circuit court carries out the full normal duties of a circuit judge, in addition to his other functions, the maximum number of circuit court judges will, in fact, be ten.
In providing accordingly, the Bill does no more than restore the permanent strength of the circuit court bench to what it was up to August last when, under the existing law, the maximum number of judges fell to be reduced by one on the occurrence of a vacancy. After full consideration of the matter I am satisfied that, for the present at any rate, and at least for a few years to come, it will be necessary to have ten judges, including the President, in the circuit court.
Following the reduction in the number of permanent judges in August last consequent on the retirement of Judge Binchy, the Government, in order to avoid the accumulation of arrears to an excessive extent, found it necessary to appoint a temporary circuit judge at the commencement of term last October and this appointment has been renewed periodically. In view of the objection in principle to having temporary judges for other than short periods, the Government decided that the appropriate course is to seek legislative approval to restore the number of permanent judges to that which obtained for many years up to last August. It is the intention that when the strength of the circuit court Bench has been restored to ten, one of the judges will remain unassigned to a particular circuit. The unassigned judge will be required mainly in the Dublin Circuit where there has been a sustained increase in the volume of work in recent years to such an extent as to require practically the whole-time services of three judges.
The next provision is concerned with the reorganisation of the circuits of the circuit court. Before I deal with that, I may mention that I am satisfied that no form of reorganisation would enable us to provide an efficient service without the tenth judge. It may be that in some years time, the circumstances then prevailing will enable a reduction to be made; if so, the position can be reviewed and adjusted on the retirement of one of the judges.
In the matter of reorganisation, it is proposed to give the Government power to alter the composition of the circuit court circuits, other than the Dublin circuit and the Cork circuit, by transferring counties from one circuit to another. The immediate need for this provision is that experience has proved that the Northern Circuit, which was formed in 1960 by the amalgamation of the North Western with the North Eastern Circuit, is too heavy for one judge. It will, accordingly, be necessary to transfer some of the work from the present Northern Circuits to adjoining circuits. Senators will note that the provision is confined to alterations in the composition of the circuits, and does not extend to any alteration in the total number of Circuits which will remain at eight. In view of the limited scope of the provision, it is considered reasonable that the Government should be empowered to make alterations of this kind without having to seek specific statutory authority on each occasion. The section provides for prior consultation between the Government on the one hand, and the President of the circuit court and any judge concerned on the other hand, in relation to any proposed alterations. On general grounds, alterations will be confined to those required to provide an efficient service and a fair distribution of work.
In relation to the district court, the Bill provides that the times at which justices of the district court may take vacations shall be at such times as may be approved of by the Minister for Justice. This provision does no more than confirm the position which has obtained for the last 40 years. From 1924 until last year the vacation periods were subject to the prior approval of the Minister for Justice and this approval was given either in particular or general terms as circumstances made appropriate. In 1963, however, it was contended on behalf of district justices that they had a right to take vacation at periods chosen by themselves without the approval of, or even consultation with, the Minister for Justice. It is obvious that such a contention, if accepted, would make it impossible to arrange for the smooth running of the district court service, and could readily lead to chaos. The provision in section 5 of the present Bill is designed to maintain the longstanding practice which has been operated in the public interest, and with due regard to the convenience of district justices.
The next provision in the Bill relates to the transfer of trials in criminal cases by judges of the circuit court. Since 1924, the position has been that either the accused or the Attorney General is entitled to apply, without notice, to the circuit judge to have the trial transferred to the Central Criminal Court which has always sat in Dublin; and such applications must be granted. The change proposed in the Bill preserves the existing absolute right to have a trial transferred from the circuit court to the Central Criminal Court, provided the accused or the Attorney General, as the case may be, gives at least seven days' notice before the trial of his intention to apply for the transfer. If either of the parties for any reason fails or neglects to give seven days' notice, the application for transfer may still be made and it will be in the discretion of the judge to grant or refuse it. Up to now cases have in some instances been transferred without notice to the Central Criminal Court for no better reason than to secure an adjournment which had been properly refused, or to suit counsel or because the accused wanted to postpone the evil day. There have, in fact, been some recent cases in which the grave inconvenience for many parties which arose from transfers without notice gave rise to justifiable criticism of the existing law. The limited modification now proposed will not only obviate much of the present inconvenience and expense to witnesses, jurors and the police in respect of unnecessary attendances at the Central Criminal Court but will also facilitate generally the administration of justice.
The last provision relates to the service of circuit and district court documents by post. These documents have normally to be served by summons servers appointed under section 44 of the Court Officers Act, 1926. While this arrangement has worked fairly well for very many years, the position is that in recent years, notwithstanding progressive increases in the annual salary paid to summons servers from the Exchequer and also in the fees payable direct to summons servers by parties requiring service, it has become increasingly difficult to attract suitable persons for appointment to the post of summons server.
Indications are that unless the Exchequer is to be called upon to bear very much heavier charges for the service, together with substantial increases in service fees, it will be impossible to maintain this service.
I am satisfied that service of court documents by registered post is an arrangement which should now be introduced. Registered post service has been operating in England for very many years, is an accepted idea on the Continent and is being provided in the Uniform Law on Arbitration now being drafted at Strasbourg, which it is hoped to have adopted in this country. Service by this means is also provided for in some of our own Acts, namely, the Arbitration Act of 1954, the Solicitors (Amendment) Act, 1960, and the Charities Act, 1961. It is also frequently allowed by judges in the circuit court, in areas in which no summons servers have been appointed. The provision in the Bill introduces registered post as the normal method of service for district and circuit court documents in areas in which there is no summons server. The change-over, which will depend on vacancies for summons servers, will be a gradual one. The various provisions I have mentioned are designed to improve the efficiency of our legal system, and I trust that the Bill will meet with the approval of the Seanad.