The purpose of this very short Bill is to allow time for consideration by the Government, and by both Houses of the Oireachtas, of comprehensive recommendations made by the Committee on Court Practice and Procedure in their Sixteenth Interim Report. Implementaion of the recommendations would mean a substantial increase in the jurisdiction of the Master of the High Court, within, of course, the provisions of Article 37 of the Constitution. This Article, to which the committee refer in their report, is as follows:
Nothing in this Constitution shall operate to invalidate the exercise of limited functions and powers of a judicial nature, in matters other than criminal matters, by any person or body of persons duly authorised by law to exercise such functions and powers, notwithstanding that such person or such body of persons is not a judge or a court appointed or established as such under this Constitution.
I attach great importance to the committee's views, particularly as the committee are satisfied that if their proposals are adopted there will be a significant saving of the time of High Court judges, the hearing of actions will be expedited, the procedure considerably improved and cost of litigation reduced.
Earlier efforts to have the jurisdiction of the Master of the High Court enlarged and extended under the Rules of Court met with little or no success, with the result, as noted by the committee, that the Master has now little jurisdiction and indeed little to do. I share the view expressed by the committee that the office of Master of the High Court is potentially a most useful and valuable one in the administration of justice in the High Court and should now be given the necessary statutory foundation. I also agree with the committee when they say that the Master's jurisdiction should be conferred on him by statute.
A general scheme for a comprehensive Courts and Court Officers Bill is now being discussed with the various interests concerned. In addition to giving statutory foundation for the duties of Master of the High Court, the scheme deals with a number of other matters affecting the jurisdiction of the High Court and certain of the offices attached thereto.
Coming to the repeal of subsection (3) of section 27 of the Court Officers Act, 1926, proposed in the Bill now before the House, I should explain that the office of Master of the High Court fell vacant early in January. In normal circumstances a fresh appointment would have been made by the Government to fill the vacancy. However, I had previously requested the Committee on Court Practice and Procedure to consider the question of the duties that ought to be assigned to the Master of the High Court and, with commendable speed, the committee furnished me with their report on 13th January.
The extensive and detailed nature of the recommendations made are such that I felt justified in asking the Government to defer the filling of the vacancy pending consideration by them of the committee's recommendations and the preparation of legislation to implement them. Clearly if a new appointment were to be made in advance of legislation spelling out the much wider duties to be assigned to the office, there might well be difficulties in having the extended duties discharged by the new Master. Following Government approval for this course, I arranged for the discharge of the duties of the vacant office by a qualified officer employed in the Central Office of the High Court.
The Deputy Master is appointed under section 27 of the Court Officers Act, 1926, as occasion requires. However, there is a difficulty in that, under subsection (3) of the section, a vacant office to which the section applies may not be executed by a deputy for any period or periods exceeding in all three months in any year. Because of this restriction—which applies only to the Master of the High Court and the Taxing Masters—it is unlikely that the appointment of a Deputy Master can be continued much beyond the end of this month. In view of the comprehensive nature of the Courts and Court Officers Bill, it would not be possible to have the Bill enacted in time. In consequence the Government have approved of the introduction of this short measure to repeal subsection (3) of section 27 of the 1926 Act.
The Sixteenth Interim Report of the Committee on Court Practice and Procedure has been formally laid before both Houses of the Oireachtas. In addition I have arranged that neostyled copies are available in the Library for the convenience of Members of both Houses.
I hope that this present short Bill will be acceptable to the House as an interim measure. It only remains for me to thank the Courts Committee for their excellent report, which will, I am sure, be of great assistance to Senators when they come to consider the comprehensive legislation.