I should like to thank Senators for their contributions and their welcome for the general principle of the Bill. Senators have glanced at various matters which the Cathaoirleach has reminded are not strictly connected with the main purpose of the Bill and I am sure the Chair will forgive me if I reciprocate some of the glances. The main purpose of the Bill is to overcome delays in the High Court. That is the kernel of the Bill. The Bill seeks power to appoint two extra judges of the High Court. It does not seek power to appoint extra judges of the Circuit or District Courts. In relation to those two courts it seeks to make permanent the present temporary judges and justices serving there.
I was disappointed to hear Senator Robinson make a reference which was similar to one made in the other House to the effect that cynical people might consider that these temporary judges and justices were being made permanent on the eve of a general election as a matter of patronage. I wish to deny that that is the motivation. The motivation is to face the reality of the situation of temporary members of the Judiciary which has pertained for a long number of years. Invariably, when a person is appointed to the Circuit or District Court in a temporary capacity that person, in the fullness of time, becomes a permanent appointee without any break in service. That has been the reality for a number of years.
When temporary appointments were made about ten or 15 years ago they were to deal with particular exigencies and in many cases the appointees returned to practice. For some years now there has been no break in service and it is a bit unreal not to recognise that when the appointment is made it is tantamount to permanency. That should be recognised from the beginning so that the person is not prejudiced in terms of his service with regard to a pension and any other factors that may be involved. It has been the practice of this Administration and previous Administrations to make permanent members in the order of their appointment in a temporary capacity. There is no element of political patronage in this provision, nor is it a pre-election ploy.
I shall deal with the question of delays in the three courts separately and I will take the High Court first. From the time a client instructs his solicitor until the case comes for hearing there are two stages, broadly speaking, the pre-trial procedures and the delay that that involves and the other stage of waiting from the time the case is set down for trial until it comes to hearing. With regard to pre-trial procedures, Senators Lenihan, O'Higgins and Robinson spoke of the need to make the procedures more efficient and, if possible, speedier. I agree that this is something which needs attention and reform. The Committee on Court Practice and Procedure reported a few years ago on this point and made recommendations for large-scale reform in pre-trial procedures in the High Court, reform which would increase the jurisdiction and functions of the Master of the High Court which would enable parties to agree to certain matters in advance—it would enable them to agree to technical reports from doctors, engineers, architects and so on and fees.
I am glad to tell the House that a Bill to implement the recommendation of that committee as regards that point is at an advanced stage of preparation. I doubt if the timetable before the Summer Recess will enable me to have the Bill introduced but, hopefully, it might. That Bill implements the report of the Committee on Court Practice and Procedure on this point and I hope when implemented and it becomes law and when the new procedures are in being that they will have the effect of considerably shortening the pre-trial period so that the long delay that now exists from the time of the giving of instructions to a solicitor until the matter is set down for hearing can be considerably reduced. We can only provide mechanisms to ensure that there will be no delay. After that we are in the hands of individual lawyers as to how speedily the procedures are worked. That is not something over which I have or can have any real control. One can have a situation where solicitors may be more or less efficient than others. They may consult barristers who may be more or less efficient or expeditious than others. There are a variety of factors which can influence the length of time involved in pre-trial procedures.
The Committee on Court Practice and Procedure reported in detail on this about four or five years ago. Nothing was done about it but I am glad to say that a Bill to implement that report is at an advanced stage of preparation. I should like to correct Senator Lenihan on a point of accuracy. He stated that that committee had now been superseded by the Law Reform Commission. That is not so. The Committee on Court Practice and Procedure still sits although it is not at the moment examining any particular matter relevant to its terms of reference. The Law Reform Commission was set up to deal with matters of subtantive law as opposed to matters of practice and procedure. The Committee on Court Practice and Procedure did on one occasion deal with a matter of substantive law at a specific request I made to them—and to enable them do it I extended their terms of reference—to advise me on the question of maintenance and protection of the family home. It was their very valuable report which gave me the basis for the Bills which I had the privilege of proposing to this House last year. That Committee have done extremely valuable work in the past and I look forward to its doing work of equal value in the future. It is not to be confused with the Law Reform Commission which deals only with substantive matters and whose programme was recently published. Senators will be aware that the programme they have undertaken contains matters of immense importance and of great interest to us all.
As far as pre-trial procedures are concerned there is reform coming and I hope that reform will have the effect of speeding up the pre-trial procedures. We depend, ultimately, of course on the efficiency of the people involved in the system. As far as the system is concerned we are making it more efficient, practical and less cumbersome. This will have a very beneficial effect in one area of court practice, the necessity for professional witnesses to come for two, three or more successive days to the Four Courts in anticipation of their case coming for hearing. Cases are called for a certain day but there is no certainty that they will be heard on that day. A number of cases are ordered for the same day because very often cases are settled or adjourned or take a shorter time than anticipated so other cases must be ready to step in and fill the court's time but the converse can happen and cases might not be adjourned or might take longer than anticipated. That means that those in the queue will have to wait longer than was originally reckoned. This can lead to a great waste of time on the part of professional witnesses. Understandably, they become irritated and some of them refuse to attend. That makes it difficult for advocates and litigants and very often there is a pressure forcing settlements that possibly should not be effected at all. If these pre-trial procedures for agreed medical reports can be implemented much of this waste of time of professional people can be obviated.
The other area where there are delays is from the time of setting down until the hearing takes place. I am hoping that the provisions in the Bill to appoint extra judges will have a beneficial effect in reducing that time-lag. At the moment, as I indicated when I opened the debate the time-lag is of the order of ten months. When I took office in 1973 that time-lag was of the order of about 12 months. We appointed an extra High Court judge then and that had the effect of reducing that time-lag gradually until by mid-1975 it was down to five months. Five months sounds long but it is not unreasonable because from the time a case is set down for trial until it comes for hearing a lot of work may need to be done by the lawyers involved. They generally want at least two months, and possible more. Five months is possibly a bit long and I would like to see the time-lag reduced even less.
Since mid-1975 the position commenced to deteriorate again and the time-lag has now crept up to ten months but I am hopeful that the appointment of an extra judge will have the same effect now as it had in 1973 of bringing that down. We will keep the position monitored in consultation with the Presidents of the Courts concerned. In so far as administrative procedures or changes can contribute to more expeditious trial these will be effected. Hopefully, there will be speedier litigation in the higher courts as a result of the two proposals, the pre-trial procedures being improved and, secondly the time-lag from the setting down of the action until its hearing being considerably shortened.
The advice I have received is that the extra number of appointments required is two and that is what is provided for in the Bill. It may well be that in 12 months' time or so, if there is a growth in litigation, particularly in family litigation, two judges are not enough. This is something we will keep under review.
It is a simple matter to appoint extra judges but it is not a simple matter to provide the courts for them to sit in. This leads me now to the position in regard to the Circuit Court where the position with regard to arrears and delays is much more serious. I gave the figures in detail in the other House and I do not propose to go through them again. The number of cases that are awaiting trial, in the criminal and civil side, is depressingly large. I should say that in relation to the High Court the arrears are entirely of a civil nature. The bulk of them relate to jury actions. They do not relate to non-jury cases where there is no delay of any consequence between setting down and getting a hearing.
I should like to revert to the High Court and the question of juries. Senator Lenihan suggested that the presence of juries in tort cases is a cause of delay. It may well be but the arguments for retaining juries in this type of case are sufficiently strong to continue with juries, even if they are a contributory factor to delays. We should tackle the delays from some other angle rather than by removing the juries as part of the litigious procedure in tort cases. The arguments for and against juries in these cases were fully gone into when we were debating a Bill dealing with juries last year. It is hard to quantify the contribution of juries as a delaying factor. I do not think it is very large. Certainly, the arguments against removing them are sufficiently strong as to outweigh any arguments in favour of removing them from the point of view of their being a delaying factor.
In the Circuit Court the arrears are almost exclusively in the Dublin area. There is one provincial circuit where, from time to time, there are arrears for reasons that are nobody's fault but they do not represent a serious problem. The arrears essentially are on the Dublin Circuit. If it was only a question of appointing judges to clear these arrears that could be done in the morning and in this Bill and the number of judges could be increased but we are seriously short of court space in Dublin. There are a number of remedies to deal with this on a short term and long term basis. On the long term basis, as the House will know, we have acquired the Four Courts Hotel and it is the intention to turn that into a complex providing five or six additional courtrooms. When they become available it will be almost inevitable that extra Circuit Court judges will have to be appointed. When I say, almost inevitable, the House may wonder why I do not say, it will be inevitable. It may be possible to use the time of Circuit Court judges, who sometimes have spare time, to take up some of the slack on the Dublin Circuit. That will have to be fully investigated before we could go appointing extra Circuit Court judges. It will be inevitable that extra Circuit Court judges will be appointed when the new courts come into operation. In the meantime, and in the shorter term, accommodation has been acquired suitable for housing the Circuit Court office staff presently housed in the Four Courts building. We are engaged in a crash programme to get this new accomodation ready so as to vacate part of the Four Courts with a view to turning that vacated part into a jury court for the Circuit Court. That will certainly give immediate space early, I hope, next year for extra sittings of the Circuit Court to make some inroads on the arrears.
We also have some other plans under consideration but because we are at a very early stage and consultation with a number of interests will be necessary before they can be announced, I would not like to preempt those consultations by indicating what I have in mind. Senator Robinson touched on it when she spoke about the length of vacations and how possibly some portion of the vacations might be used. I will say no more than that at this stage because the long vacation is rather a sacred thing. I am hopeful we can introduce some remedial measures by the extra court space that will be provided when the Circuit Court staff move out. There will also be extra court space available to us by reason of the new procedure of the High Court sitting in provincial centres. This was a very desirable development. The High Court now sits for jury actions in a number of provincial centres, Galway, Limerick, Sligo and Cork. This has had the effect of bringing justice to the litigants rather than making people come from far ends of the country to Dublin and have to spend three or four days on spec waiting for their case to come up. It also has the effect, of course, of leaving court space empty in the Four Courts. I have been endeavouring to come to an arrangement with the various judges of the various courts to make use of this empty court space even on a temporary basis with a view to reducing the arrears in the Circuit Court.
In the District Court the position is much better than in the other two courts. Essentially, there are no delays there. There is some over-crowding in Dublin but we will have a temporary court in the Four Courts Hotel and we will also be able to use some of the space in the High Court complex also. We hope that this will enable the District Court to be brought up to date.
Senator Robinson asked about the question of staff in the Four Courts. This, of course, is a serious matter. It is important that there be an efficient and contented staff so that the courts can be serviced fully. It is essential that this be the case because if courts are not serviced fully and efficiently there will be delays and breakdowns. I should like to pay tribute to the existing staff because there has never been any complaints about the servicing of the courts either from lawyers, from the bench or members of the public. This, of course, is a tribute to the efficiency of the staff. If the courts are going to expand by increasing their numbers and if the amount of business coming in is expanding the staffing arrangements have to be looked at. It is true, as Senator Robinson said, that the Department had a management consultancy study done on the organisation of the staffing in the Four Courts. The report has been received and is presently being analysed. I expect to receive the report and the resulting analysis in the near future. I will then consider any changes that will have to be made or new procedures adopted.