Courts (No. 2) Bill, 1991: Second Stage.

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

Is cúis athais dom bheith ar ais arís don dara huair inniu leis an mBille seo.

This Bill forms the first part of a package of legislative reforms which the Minister for Justice proposes to introduce in relation to the courts and the legal profession.

The Bill provides for substantial increases in the monetary limits of the civil jurisdiction of the Circuit and District Courts. These proposals are contained in sections 2 and 4 of the Bill. In the case of the Circuit Court the existing jurisdiction limit of £15,000 in contract and tort matters will be increased to £30,000. The District Court's jurisdiction limit in contract and tort will be increased from £2,500 to £5,000.

The Bill also includes a number of other important provisions. These include provision for the variation in future by Government order of the monetary limits of the jurisdiction of the Circuit and District Courts, provisions dealing with the costs that may be recovered when a case is taken in a higher court than is necessary, an increase in the number of judges of the High and Circuit Courts and in the number of justices of the District Court, a change in the "style" of address of judges of the District Court and provisions for the service by post of District Court summonses in cases of summary jurisdiction.

The current civil jurisdiction limits of the Circuit and District Courts were set in the Courts Act, 1981. The jurisdiction of these courts were fixed originally by the Courts of Justice Act, 1924, and were increased first in 1953, and again by the Courts Act, 1971 and most recently by the Courts Act, 1981.

The proposed increased civil jurisdiction limits for the Circuit and District Court, which represent a doubling of the existing limits, are justified on the basis of changes in the cost of living which have occurred since the last revision.

The Fair Trade Commission in its recent report into restrictive practices in the legal profession suggested that the jurisdiction of the Circuit Court should be increased to £25,000 and that the jurisdiction of the District Court should be increased to £5,000. The proposals in the Bill go somewhat further than the limit recommended by the Fair Trade Commission in the case of the Circuit Court and provide that the new jurisdiction limit of that court will be £30,000. A number of other jurisdictions of the Circuit Court which have traditionally been linked to the contract and tort limit will also be similarly increased.

The Circuit Court jurisdiction limit in actions relating to the title of land and equity matters are fixed at £200 rateable valuation by the Courts Act, 1981. However, the court's jurisdiction under the Registration of Title Act, 1964, is limited to land with a rateable valuation not exceeding £60. The Bill provides for an increase in the Circuit Court's jurisdiction in registration of title matters from £60 to £200 which will bring it into line with its jurisdiction limit in other actions concerning land.

As in the case of the Circuit Court, it is proposed to increase the other jurisdiction limits of the District Court which are traditionally linked with that court's contract and tort limit to the revised limit of £5,000.

The principal objective in increasing the jurisdiction limits of the lower courts is to make access to the courts cheaper, speedier and more convenient. The proposed increases in the jurisdiction of the lower courts should allow a greater range of cases to be dealt with in these courts and thereby make access to the courts less costly though savings in legal costs, travelling costs and time absent from work for both litigants and witnesses.

The increased jurisdiction limits should result in more personal injuries actions being heard in the lower courts and this should have a major beneficial effect on the cost of motor insurance. The Government are concerned about the continuing problem of the high cost availability of motor, employer and public liability insurance. These increased jurisdiction limits are important measures to help deal with that problem by cutting court litigation costs which are a significant element in the cost of insurance claims.

The Bill also proposes, in sections 11 and 12, to increase the jurisdiction of the lower courts in important areas of family law. It provides for an increase in the weekly amount that the District Court, and the Circuit Court on appeal, may order under the Family Law (Maintenance of Spouses and Children) Act, 1976, for the maintenance of a spouse and dependent child, from £100 to £200 for a spouse and from £30 to £60 for a child. These increases will assist many deserted spouses in obtaining substantially increased maintenance for themselves and their children.

A similar increase in the weekly amount that may be awarded by the District Court for the maintenance of a child under the Guardianship of Infants Act, 1964, from £30 to £60 is also proposed.

Section 16 of the Bill contains an important provision which will allow the Government in future to revise, by order, the monetary limits of these courts having regard to changes in the general value of money since the limits were previously revised. This provision will avoid the necessity of amending legislation each time the Government consider that the jurisdiction limits should be revised to take account of changes in the value of money. It will, therefore, be possible to maintain the real value of the monetary limits of the lower courts at the levels approved by the Oireachtas in this Bill.

The provisions of section 16 will apply to all monetary jurisdiction limits conferred on the courts in civil matters, whether conferred in courts legislation or in other enactments. It will also allow for the variation of amounts specified in section 14 of this Bill in regard to the recovery of costs by a plaintiff in a civil action. I will return to this matter later.

The Government have decided that, because of the importance of any decision to increase the jurisdiction limits of the lower courts, a motion of both Houses of the Oireachtas approving of any proposed Government draft order will be required before the order can take effect.

The Bill includes provisions at sections 17, 18 and 19 for increasing the numbers of the Judiciary. The maximum number of High Court judges is being increased from 14 to 16, in addition to the President of the High Court. This increase will allow the High Court to cope with the increased workload resulting from the Criminal Law (Rape) Amendment Act, 1990.

The number of permanent ordinary judges of the Circuit Court is being increased from 15 to 17. Provision is being made for eight Circuit Court judges to be assigned permanently to the Dublin circuit and two to the Cork circuit. At present six judges are permanently assigned to the Dublin circuit and one judge to each of the other circuits. The number of permanent justices of the District Court is being increased from 39 to 45, in addition to the President of the District Court.

These increases in the numbers of the Judiciary in the lower courts are necessary to enable these courts to deal with their current workload which has necessitated the appointment of two temporary Circuit Court judges and six temporary justices of the District Court.

Section 21 provides for a change in the mode or style of address of judges of the District Court from "justice" to "judge". Under the Constitution, district justices are judges but they have been styled as "justices" since the foundation of the State. The existing statutory provisions are contained in the Courts (Establishment and Constitution) Act, 1961, which provides that each judge of the District Court shall be styled "justice of the District Court".

The proposed change in the style of address from "justice" to "judge" will come into effect three months after the Bill is passed. This will allow for the passing of other Bills currently before the Oireachtas which contain a reference to a "justice of the District Court", without having to amend them. As and from the commencement date, all references to "justice" contained in any statute or statutory instrument in operation on that date, will be construed as references to a judge of the District Court by virtue of section 21 of the Bill.

The District Court deals with a substantial amount of the business which comes before our courts. It has a significant and vital role in the administration of justice. It is, therefore, appropriate that a judge of the District Court should be addressed as "judge" and I am sure that this proposal will be widely welcomed.

Section 14 of the Bill is a comprehensive provision which proposes to amend the existing law governing the recovery of costs by a plaintiff in a civil action by substituting a new section 17 in the Courts Act, 1981.

It is essential if this Bill is to lead to a reduction in legal costs that plaintiffs are encouraged to take actions in the lowest court with jurisdiction to hear them. The principle of limiting the costs which a plaintiff may recover when he proceeds in a higher court than is necessary was given statutory effect in section 12 of the Courts Act, 1936. However, that section applied only to certain types of actions. It was replaced by section 17 of the Courts Acts, 1981, which extended the principle to all types of actions.

Section 17 of the 1981 Act gives a wide discretion to the courts to award costs in excess of the level of costs appropriate to the lowest court with jurisdiction to hear an action. Experience has shown that further restrictions are necessary. Section 14 of the Bill, therefore, proposes to limit the courts' discretion to award higher costs to cases in the High Court where damages between £25,000 and £30,000 are awarded. In such cases Circuit Court costs only will be payable unless the judge certifies that it was reasonable, in the interests of justice, that the action should have been determined in the High Court. In the case of an action taken in the High Court, where the damages awarded are between £15,000 and £25,000, Circuit Court costs will only be recoverable and where damages are between £5,000 and £15,000 a successful plaintiff will be entitled to recover the lesser of an amount equivalent to the damages awarded or the amount of costs at the Circuit Court level.

A further disincentive to taking an action in a higher court than necessary is included in the provisions of subsection (5) of the new section 17 of the Courts Act, 1981. The courts are being given a new discretionary power to penalise a successful plaintiff who takes an action in a court other than the lowest court with jurisdiction, by requiring the plaintiff to pay to the defendant the equivalent of the additional costs incurred by the defendant in having to defend the action in a higher court than was necessary.

This provision reflects the Government's determination to effect a real reduction in legal costs as a consequence of the increases in the jurisdiction of the lower courts proposed in the Bill while at the same time providing reasonable scope to a plaintiff in deciding on the appropriate court in which to commence an action if he is not to be penalised in relation to the amount of costs he might recover.

A further provision in the Bill in section 15 will enable the Circuit Court to transfer actions to the District Court at the request of a party to an action where the court decides that the action should have been commenced in the District Court. In an action for unliquidated damages which is remitted to the District Court that court will be empowered to make an award up to £10,000, that is, twice its proposed new jurisdiction limit. The High Court has power already to remit a case to the Circuit or District Court on similar grounds.

Section 4 of the Bill provides that the District Court will be empowered to hear and determine an action above its statutory limit of £5,000 where the parties to the action consent. This section should further assist litigants to keep legal costs as low as possible. A similar provision operates already in the Circuit Court.

A further reforming measure in the Bill, in section 22, provides for the service of summonses by registered post in summary cases. Under the existing law summonses must be served personally by the gardaí. The vast bulk of these summonses relate to road traffic offences.

Personal service of summonses is a costly and time consuming procedure. The proposed mode of service, when implemented, will release about 60 gardaí in the Dublin area who are at present assigned to summons service duties. When the new provision is fully implemented it should be possible to release a further 70 gardaí in the rest of the country who are fully occupied on this work for operational duties. In addition to releasing gardaí for operational duties, the new system should effect an improved rate of summons service and result in an increase in revenue to the State.

This new mode of service will not replace the existing system of personal service of summonses which will be retained for summonses which cannot be served by post, but it will provide a more efficient method of summons service suited to modern circumstances and will allow for the reallocation of Garda manpower resources to deal with the problem of crime.

The proposals in the Bill effecting changes in the jurisdiction limits of the Circuit and District Courts will come into effect one month after the passing of the Bill. Other proposals that require rules of court to be made as a procedures will come into force after three months. The proposal to change the style of address of judges of the District Court will also come into effect three months after the Bill is passed. The proposals for increases in the judiciary will come into effect immediately.

As I indicated at the outset, this Bill represents part of a package of legislative reforms which are planned in relation to the courts and the legal profession.

The Minister for Justice proposes to introduce a Court and Court Officers Bill which will include provision for establishing a new Court of Civil Appeal. Generally, the intention is that the Court of Civil Appeal would hear appeals from decisions of the High Court, other than appeals in the more important cases involving issues of law and appeals in constitutional actions.

Last year the Fair Trade Commission published a very comprehensive report on its study into restrictive practices in the legal profession. The Minister for Justice will be introducing a Solicitors (Amendment) Bill very shortly. It will be major legislation which will take account of the various recommendations made by the Fair Trade Commission for changes in the law relating to solicitors.

The Bill will include important provisions relating to the disciplinary provisions governing solicitors, including the system for dealing with complaints and various new measures for the protection of solicitors' clients.

The Minister for Justice has had discussions with the Bar Council about the Fair Trade Commission's recommendations relating to the barristers' profession. The Council have recently decided to introduce a number of changes in the profession and this is a most welcome development.

A new procedure in the District Court for dealing with small claims, which will not require legislation, is being established. The small claims procedure will be established as soon as the necessary rules of court have been made. Small claims procedures operate successfully in other jurisdictions and it is hoped that the new procedure will provide a mechanism for resolving small claims against suppliers of faulty goods or services. A problem up to now has been the prohibitive cost of taking an action to court where the claim is for a relatively small amount.

The procedure will be established initially on a pilot scheme basis in the Dublin Metropolitan District Court, in Cork and at two other District Court venues. It is intended to extend the procedure to all District Court venues as soon as the pilot scheme has been fully evaluated.

The Bill makes a major contribution in the area of access to justice and reform in the law relating to the courts. It allows for an increase in the judiciary and the introduction of a modern system of summons service which should release more gardaí for operational duties. The main objective of the Bill is to make access to the courts cheaper and quicker by increasing the civil jurisdiction limits of the Circuit and District Courts and this is being done by doubling the existing limits.

The Bill also includes other important measures which should assist in securing the efficient administration of justice in our courts.

I commend the Bill to the House.

It has often been said that justice delayed is justice denied and it is true to say that going to court nowadays in civil cases is too often unduly complex, takes too long and can be disproportionately expensive. The fundamental aim of a legal system and, indeed, any reform of the legal system should contain two basic criteria. On the one hand, it must seek to improve the position of the consumer, in other words, it must seek to improve the machinery of civil justice by making access to justice simpler, quicker and more convenient and by reducing delay, costs and complexity and on the other hand, any reform must not weaken the independence of the judge and the legal practitioner.

The Government and the Houses of the Oireachtas should attach special importance to the independence of the Judiciary which is enshrined in our constitution and is of special importance and significance to the continued existence of a vigorous and independent Bar. An independent Judiciary, an independent Bar and two separate branches of the legal profession have been the greatest protectors of the liberty of the individual in a free society such as ours which continues to be admired throughout the world and is envied in many countries.

The purpose of the courts is to serve the State and the citizen and in so doing to hold the balance between the State and the citizen and between citizen and citizen. The legal profession is the servant and the agent of those needs and it exists for that purpose. The qualities of integrity and fearlessness are, of course, preeminent but it is also highly important that the legal profession is responsive and sensitive to the needs of people who require the services of lawyers.

As a barrister, I believe that we must never give the appearance of being remote. It is for that reason that I welcome the statement by the Minister for Justice in the other House and the Minister of State in this House that he has made it a priority to initiate dialogue with the Bar Council on the subject of change in the profession. I note with satisfaction that he has met with Niall Fennelly, Senior Counsel, the chairman and the other members of the Bar Council on 10 April 1991 and that he is encouraged — as he has said here this evening — by the response he has received from them and by their comprehensive proposals to make certain changes in the profession voluntarily.

The road leading to reform will have to be travelled in many stages and the Minister states that this Bill is the first instalment of a programme of legislative reform in relation to the courts and the legal profession. The main thrust of this Bill is to allow all civil cases to be dealt with at the appropriate court level and no higher. This key conclusion is based on the view that many of the cases now being heard and handled in the High Court need not be handled there because they are not of sufficient weight or complexity to justify that. The result should be to speed up the handling of cases remaining in the High Court and to make the cheaper, speedier and more convenient procedures and services of the lower courts, namely, the Circuit and District Courts, available for those cases which are smaller and less complex. That is the intention. The Government's intention is excellent. We can all sit back here and admire the intention. However, that intention will not be realised, and this is one of the glaring omissions in this Bill, unless there are adequate resources, funding and recruitment of the staff that the changes will require.

At the moment we have overworked Circuit and District Courts, staff shortages on an unbelievable scale, awfully cramped court buildings and totally inadequate back-up facilities. In this regard, the Fair Trade Commission, which has been mentioned here this evening by the Minister, in their report on the legal profession which was published on 5 March 1990 stated:

The Commission has serious reservations about the extent to which the court system has been underfunded by the State. We believe that there may not be sufficient judges or adequate numbers of court staff and it appears that court facilities are totally inadequate. While much can be done to improve the efficiency of the legal system by its participants, the Commission believes that the provision of sufficient resources and funding by the State is essential in the interests of the common good.

The main purpose of this Bill is to increase, as the Minister has indicated, the monetary limits of the civil jurisdiction of the Circuit and District Courts, in the case of the Circuit Court from £15,000 to £30,000 and in the case of the District Court from £5,000 to £10,000. Thus section 2 (1) of this Bill extends the jurisdiction of the Circuit Court in contract, tort and related matters to cases where the claim does not exceed £30,000 as against £15,000 at present. Section 4 of the Bill extends the jurisdiction of the District Court in contract and tort to cases where the claim does not exceed £5,000 as against £2,500 at present and in the case of ejectment for non-payment of rent or overholding in any class of tenancy to cases where the rent does not exceed £5,000 per annum as against £2,500 at present.

Under the Courts Act, 1981, the jurisdiction of the Circuit Court in actions relating to title to land and in equity cases was increased to a rateable valuation not exceeding £200. However, the Circuit Court's jurisdiction under the Registration of Title Act, 1964, remains limited to land with a rateable valuation not exceeding £60. There is no good reason for this difference in jurisdiction and, accordingly, I welcome section 3 which increases the rateable valuation limit to £200 in the case of registration of title matters.

The limits of the civil jurisdiction of the Circuit and District Courts were fixed originally by the Courts of Justice Act, 1924, and were increased in 1953 and 1971 largely to take account of inflation. These limits were last fixed by the Courts Act, 1981, and on that occasion the civil jurisdiction in contract, tort and related matters was fixed at £15,000 in the case of the Circuit Court and at £5,000 in the case of the District Court. The representatives of the legal profession in their submissions to the Fair Trade Commission said they saw no good reason the jurisdiction of the Circuit Court could not be increased to £25,000 or, indeed, £30,000 where the case could be handled by a junior counsel or, where the amount was still important to the plaintiff, perhaps by one senior counsel as well. This would probably, as they pointed out, necessitate increasing the jurisdiction of the District Court to relieve some of the additional burden on the Circuit Court which would probably in turn make the creation of a special small claims court below the District Court all the more urgent. The representatives of the legal profession also pointed out that previous increases in the jurisdiction of the Circuit Court had not been accompanied by an increase in the number of judges or resources with the result that certain areas of Circuit Court activity might have to be transferred back to the High Court. The Bill proposes to increase the jurisdiction of the lower courts in important areas of family law and I welcome the proposals here. Section 11 of the Bill increases the maximum maintenance order available in the District Court under the Family Law (Maintenance of Spouses and Children) Act, 1976, from £100 to £200 per week in the case of a spouse and from £30 to £60 in the case of a child. Section 12 of the Bill increases the maximum maintenance order available in the District Court and in the Circuit Court on appeal under the Guardianship of Infants Act, 1964, from £30 to £60 per week.

In the past it has been necessary for the Government to bring in amending legislation each time they wish to increase the jurisdictional limits of the Circuit and District Courts. I, therefore, welcome the proposal in section 16, an important provision which will enable the Government in future to vary by order the monetary limits of the lower courts having regard to the changes in the general value of money since those limits were last fixed. However, because of the importance of any decision to increase jurisdictional limits of the lower courts, a draft of any proposed order must be approved by each house of the Oireachtas before such an order can be made. This is also welcome.

The Minister in the Dáil and the Minister of State here referred to another initiative in the courts area which they say does not require legislation, and that is the introduction of the small claims procedure in the District Court. The representatives of the Bar Council in their submission to the Fair Trade Commission stated they felt that the original concept of the District Court has unfortunately been lost because it has become too formalised. Indeed, it has to deal with some very complicated matters. They could see no objection to there being a separate and smaller lower jurisdiction of absolute simplicity to which people could resort without a lawyer. Moreover, they felt that if the burden on the District Court was increased as will be done under this legislation, this would probably make the creation of a special small claims court all the more urgent.

The Royal Commission which reported on the courts and on the legal services in the United Kingdom examined the small claims procedure as it operates there and found that it has proved its worth. I suggest that the pilot schemes should be of short duration and this system should be extended nationwide. Under the procedure a claimant may, instead of issuing a civil process in the ordinary way, apply to have a claim not exceeding in value £500 processed through the small claims procedure. That procedure, of course, will not apply to claims related to personal injuries, damages arising from a road traffic accident, hire purchase, leasing or other loan arrangements. Application will be made on the appropriate form to the small claims registrar at the nearest District Court. The registrar will attempt to settle the claim between the parties; he may interview the parties themselves or any other person who may be relevant in assessing the claim. If a settlement between the parties is reached particulars of the settlement will be recorded by the registrar. If the registrar cannot effect settlement between the parties he will refer the matter for hearing to the District Court.

The Minister also indicated that he intends to bring in another Bill, the Courts and Courts Officers Bill, which will deal in particular with the setting up of a new Court of Civil Appeal. Practice has shown that many of the cases now being handled in the Supreme Court need not be dealt with there because they are not of sufficient weight or complexity to justify it. The setting up of a Court of Civil Appeal should make it possible to reserve for the Supreme Court cases of unusual substance, importance and difficulty. However, I think the Minister and the Government would do well to take to heart the editorial in the June 1991 edition of The Irish Law Times which states:

The Government is considering the establishment of a new Court of Civil Appeal, which will be above the High Court level, and below the Supreme Court in the hearing of appeals. What is needed first is a general review of the organisation of the Courts system which, compared to other Common Law jurisdictions is badly suffering from a lack of infrastructure. Article 36 of the Constitution requires that the organisation of the Courts and the distribution of jurisdiction be regulated by the Oireachtas. Accordingly this is a subject that requires periodic review.

News of this move by the Government appeared in The Irish Times on 16 May 1991, although no formal Government announcement, to my knowledge, has been made of such a development. There is no argument that there are delays in having appeals heard before the Supreme Court. However, before embarking on the establishment of a new tier in the court structure the Government could usefully embark on a general review of the administration of justice in Ireland for submission to both Houses of the Oireachtas. If such was done one of the most obvious defects which would require immediate redress is the complete lack of back-up facilities for judges. I would like to emphasise that fact to the Minister of State here this evening. For example, our Supreme Court office has a registrar, an assistant registrar, who is also responsible for the Court of Criminal Appeal, and three office staff. That staff has to deal with all matters related to the processing of appeals, inquiries from judges and the legal profession, members of the public and other matters not connected with litigation. The Chief Justice and the President of the High Court are the only judges who have their own secretaries. On appointment to the Bench a judge receives a set of the Acts of the Oireachtas, a room and nothing else. The judges have to buy their own books, although there is a haphazard and poorly stocked official library in the Four Courts which supposedly serves the needs of the Judiciary, from the Supreme to the District Court, a total of 84 members of the Judiciary and all court officials. Usually there is only one up-to-date copy of text books and the law reports are so inadequate that it is impossible to deal with the needs of more than two or three judges at any one time.

In contrast with other common law jurisdictions our courts system is desperately lacking in infrastructure. In the United States Supreme Court judges and most superior court judges have comprehensive back-up facilities in the form of legal clerks and secretaries. The Australian Supreme Court judges are provided with FAX machines, a library and full back-up legal services. Not surprisingly in England, from which much of our legal system is derived, there is also a deficiency in back-up services with consequent bad results. The editorial in The Irish Law Times concludes:

Instead of adding yet another level, would it not make more sense to review the existing system and reform it, combined with giving the Judiciary the very basic working tools, e.g., secretarial services and proper research and assistance materials. That would result in greatly improved productivity but to add another court without very substantially improving on the back-up facilities is to add another floor to an already shaky structure.

The Bill also provides for an increase in the number of ordinary High Court judges, permanent Circuit Court judges and permanent district justices and this is to be welcomed. These courts deal with a substantial volume of cases. In this regard I welcome the statement by the Minister of State in regard to the District Court dealing with a substantial amount of the business which comes before our courts. It has a significant and vital role in the administration of justice. It is, therefore, appropriate that a judge of the District Court should be addressed as judge and I am sure this proposal will be widely welcomed. I endorse what the Minister of State said in regard to the excellent work of the judges of the District Court.

Let us examine the workload of those courts. In the year ended 31 July 1988, the number of cases dealt with by the District Courts amounted to 729, 329, three-quarter of a million cases. The number of cases dealt with by the Circuit Court in the period 1988-89 was 50,148 and the number of cases dealt with by the High Court in 1988-89 totalled 22,350. The effect of this very heavy workload on our judges and on our courts clearly means that the number of judges will need to be regularly reviewed and increased.

I welcome the proposal in section 21 for the service of summonses by registered post in summary cases. This represents, as the Minister indicated, an important change in the existing law governing the service of summonses which dates back to the Petty Sessions (Ireland) Act, 1851. At present summonses must be personally served by the Garda. The new mode of service will be additional to and not in replacement of the existing modes of services of summonses, such as personal service. I am glad to note that the Minister is of the opinion that with the introduction of this new system it should be possible to release about 60 gardaí who are currently full time engaged in summons service duties in the Dublin area for operational police duties and that when the system is operational nationwide it should be possible to release a further 70 gardaí outside the Dublin area for operational duties. I hope when the Minister is considering those matters and allocating extra gardaí he will consider cities such as Limerick, Cork, Galway and Waterford.

Section 15 of the Bill is an extension of the provisions in section 25 of the Courts Act, 1924, and section 2 of the Courts Act, 1988. It empowers the Circuit Court to remit or transfer an action to the District Court at any time before the commencement of trial where it is satisfied that the action is fit to be prosecuted in the District Court or if it is of the opinion that the action should not have commenced in the Circuit Court in the first instance. A similar provision already exists for the remittal or transfer of cases from the High Court to the Circuit and District Courts. Section 15 (2) provides that where the case remitted is for unliquidated damages the District Court will be empowered to make an award of up to £10,000, that is twice the proposed new jurisdictional limit. It is essential that these increases in jurisdiction, provided for in this Bill, will effect a real reduction in litigation costs and that plaintifs are encouraged to initiate their actions in the lowest court which has jurisdiction to hear them. Thus, section 17 (1) of the Bill provides that, subject to a limited number of exceptions, a plaintiff who takes an action in a court other than the lowest court having jurisdiction, will be restricted to recovering costs appropriate to the lowest court of jurisdiciton.

Finally, in regard to the commencement of the various proposals in this Bill, it is important to note that the changes in the jurisdictional limits of the Circuit and District Courts will come into effect one month after the passage of the Bill. It is most important that practitioners, solicitors and barristers throughout the country are aware of that. Secondly, the proposals for the increase in the Judiciary will come into effect immediately and that is also welcome. The other proposals which will require rules of court to be made as regards acceptable procedures will come into force after three months.

I welcome the Bill and hope it will mean that litigation will be cheaper and speedier and will facilitate more convenient access to our courts. However, I urge the Minister to consider the question of funding and the total lack of resources in our courts. The people would be well served by that examination.

I welcome the Minister to the House. Indeed, the number of times I, as spokesman on Justice, have spoken in this Chamber since my election here less than two years ago clearly indicates the commitment this Government, the Minister and the Minister of State have to the reform of legislation. It is a clear indication of the hard work the Government are doing. I could name at least a dozen Bills or amending legislation that have gone through this House.

Having said that, I sincerely compliment the excellent contribution by my colleague, Senator Kennedy, which was not alone excellent but was from a professional viewpoint and I fully agree with much of what he said. I urge the Minister of State and, the Minister, Deputy Burke, to take a serious look at the lack of infrastructure which Senator Kennedy constructively criticised. From my practical experience in the Circuit Courts of a large county like Cork there have been instances recently where Circuit Court judges refused to sit because of lack of facilities in certain outlying Circuit Courts. As the purpose of this Bill is to bring justices to local community level, both District Court and Circuit Court accommodation must be greatly improved, plus the services that go with them. This point was raised by Senator Kennedy and I fully support him. Admittedly, because of financial constraints, it is impossible to cover all of this overnight. I agree that some of the Circuit Courts in the Cork area have been improved over the past number of years but much work has still to be done. If we are to have an increased workload, whether it be in the High Court, the Circuit Court or the District Court, it is imperative that the services available to the Judiciary be improved.

I also concur with my colleague in his general praise of the Judiciary from the Supreme Court down to the district justices. I am delighted that this change in title from district justice to judge will soon come into effect. It is a welcome change and a title they deserve because District Court justices do an excellent job. For the past ten or 12 years I have had dealings with a number of district justices and their quality, professionalism and contribution to the Judicial system are worthy of the highest praise.

The overall work, communication and liaison of the Bar Council and the Law Society with the Minister and the Government in helping to bring in reforming legislation must not go unnoticed. I compliment the Law Society in this regard and welcome the fact that negotiations are ongoing with the Bar Council in an effort to reform and speed up legislation to make the courts more accessible and cost efficient to the general public.

With regard to the specifics of the Bill, I made written submissions to the Minister before coming into the House about the clogging up of our courts system, particularly in relation to civil matters. Basically, my submission was that the jurisdiction in the Circuit Court should be doubled to £30,000, which has been done and is most welcome and prudent. My submission in relation to the District Court was a little more ambitious. I felt they should have jurisdiction up to £7,500 and I regret that this level has not been achieved. However, there is an inbuilt provision in the legislation whereby at a future date, either the current Minister or a future Minister, with the co-operation of both Houses of the Oireachtas, can, by order, increase the level of jurisdiction of the various courts.

This is a very sensible provision. It eliminates the need to introduce new legislation, a procedure we all know can be cumbersome and slow. This in-built provision will enable us in the future to widen the jurisdiction in line with inflation. I consider the sum of £7,500 to be more appropriate to the District Court. Having practised for some years in the District Court and observed that in many minor accident cases where there are no personal injuries involved and there is a simple material damage claim, bearing in mind that very few cars are valued at less than £10,000 or £12,000, it would be more appropriate to have these matters dealt with by the district justice. Nevertheless, the provisos in the Bill in relation to the District and Circuit Courts are most welcome.

It will alleviate the backlog in relation to the High Court in particular and this is one of the purposes of the Bill. In Cork there is a backlog as far as High Court cases are concerned with delays of up to three and four years. Admittedly, those provisions will help but I urge the Minister to request the Government to appoint at least one, if not two permanent High Court judges in Cork. Those appointments would alleviate the problem there. Of all the High Court sittings throughout the country in which I have been involved — in Limerick, Sligo, Galway and Kilkenny — Cork is the slowest. If one takes a High Court action in Cork the case may not be heard for three to four years; in Dublin the delay is less than 18 months or a year. The delay in Cork should be thoroughly examined. The increase in the number of appointments of High Court judges, Circuit Court judges and District Court judges is welcome and will help but Cork deserves special attention because of its huge population. The High Court service there is less than adequate.

Like my colleague Senator Kennedy I, too, welcome the announcement that a small claims procedures is to be set up in the District Court. I urge that this be implemented, if at all possible, in the next session by the Government. Fewer cases would then have to go before the District Courts. Many minor claims could be settled by a small courts registrar where the complainant and the other party could meet and try to resolve a trivial matter without going to litigation. As a practising solicitor I know how frustrating it can be at times to deal with claims of less than £100 or £200 where they drag on for months through the District Court and may be appealed to the Circuit Court. Many of these cases, if tackled early could be dealt with by a small courts registrar which I understand, would be operated by the District Court clerk. This procedure would alleviate the current problem in the courts. It would be almost virtually free — only a nominal fee would be payable — and it would be efficient. Hopefully, this legislation will be implemented in the next term.

Another welcome provision has been announced today, that is, the setting up of a Court of Civil Appeal. The Supreme Court would then be free to deal with urgent, constitutional and serious matters and the Court of Civil Appeal would deal with matters of civil appeal from the High Court. I understand the point made by Senator Kennedy in relation to whether the creation of an extra tier alleviates or resolves the problem. In my view it will help. While I support the Minister's call for better infrastructure in the courts and better back-up services for judges, I believe setting up this court would free the Supreme Court from a mass of unnecessary appeals which clog up the highest court in our land. The Supreme Court should confine themselves to dealing with very serious matters, particularly constitutional matters with which the High Court does not have jurisdiction to deal. I am sure the Minister will take on board the points made by Senator Kennedy reported in the Irish Law Times. It is important that the Bar Council and the Law Society are consulted about the setting up and operation of this court.

Apart from an increase in the jurisdiction in the Circuit and District Courts, in cases relating to land disputes and equity matters the jurisdiction has been increased from £60 to £200. This is a welcome provision.

The courts have also increased jurisdiction in relation to family law matters and the maintenance and support of spouses and children. This is a very crucial decision. Since I qualified as a solicitor 12 or 13 years ago, these matters, unfortunately, have come more and more to the fore. Marital breakdowns are reasonably common nowadays with more applications to the Circuit Court and many are initiated in the District Court, for the support and maintenance of children. I welcome the provision to increase the maximum allowed in the District Court for the maintenance of a child from £30 to £60 and for a spouse from £100 to £200. This is a far seeing provision; it is prudent and necessary. It will certainly give greater scope and importance to an application by a spouse or a child in the case of desertion in both the District and Circuit Courts. This too is most welcome.

I touched on an issue earlier, and I now want to expand a little on it, that is, the important provision inserted in this legislation in relation to the index linking of claims and jurisdictions for future reference. Over the next five or six years, depending on inflation, this situation will have to be looked at again. Rather than having to go through the process of bringing a Bill through both Houses, this can now be done by a Government order. Of course, it will have to be sanctioned by both Houses of the Oireachtas. This is a prudent and welcome decision.

The increase in the number of Circuit Court judges from 15 to 17 is most welcome. The increase in the number of District Court judges from 39 to 45 is also welcome. In both cases the number of 17 and 45 excludes the President of each court. This is certainly a step in the right direction. Another important provision in section 21 of the Bill relates to the service of summonses by registered post in summary cases. As a practising lawyer I know the time consumed, even in rural Ireland, by gardaí trying to locate people to serve them with summonses. This provision is covered in the Petty Sessions (Ireland) Act, 1851, where summonses were obliged to be served by members of the Garda but this has now been repealed. We will see the spin-off effect to the benefit of the Garda force whereby I believe 60 gardaí in Dublin who were totally taken up with the bureaucracy involved in serving summons will now be released for other duties which is most welcome. A national figure of 70 gardaí engaged in serving summons is mentioned and if we were to quantify the amount of time spent by gardaí in rural Ireland trying to serve summons then the figure of 70 would be the lowest estimate and it could be much greater. In rural areas it is sometimes necessary for a Garda to make four or five visits on a bike or in a squad car to serve a simple summons in a summary matter. This most welcome provision will not alone create revenue benefit but will improve the operation of our police system and will relieve gardaí of an onerous and difficult task by allowing summons to be served by registered post.

The Bill also provides for the transfer of a case to the District Court from the Circuit Court if one of the parties applies and the figure for unliquidated damages with which the District Court may deal has been raised to £10,000. This is a welcome provision and I would also like to welcome a matter touched on by my colleague — the disincentive written into this new legislation to discourage litigants from going into Circuit and High Courts where it is obvious that a court of lower jurisdiction is sufficient. Congestion in the courts system is frequently caused by litigants who insist on taking their case to the High Court although advised by solicitors and counsel that their action could be resolved at Circuit Court level and these new provisions, coupled with the increase in jurisdiction, will make people think twice in this regard. Some people have the idea that by getting into the High Court they win the lottery and under this provision people will be discouraged from taking High Court action since if the amount awarded falls below a certain level the litigant will be penalised financially. Discretion in this matter existed in previous legislation but this new legislation makes it more or less obligatory to penalise where certain jurisdiction limits are exceeded and this in important.

As my colleague on the other side will be aware, there is already sufficient clogging up of the High Court and Circuit Court with petty cases which should be resolved at District Court level or, in the Circuit Court where the figure for awards is now £30,000. There are times when marginal cases arise and here the practising lawyer will have an obligation to his or her client to advise them to take a case to the High Court if the limit of £30,00 may be exceeded. In the event of a marginal case no penalty will be imposed by way of costs.

I have covered most of the points in the Bill and in the Minister's speech and, like Senator Kennedy who made an excellent professional contribution, I welcome this Bill and urge its speedy passage through the House. It is notable that while the past three or four debates here concerning the Garda, justice and the prison system attracted a full bench on the left, including Independents, to criticise the Minister and the Government, they are absent tonight. They should be present here to welcome this legislation; when there is good news nobody is here to welcome it except our friends in Fine Gael and in most justice debates they have offered constructive criticism. Tonight the Labour and Independent benches are empty although it is not long since they were on their feet here criticising the Minister, Deputy Burke, the Minister of State and the Government for their management of the prison services, and Garda, etc. It is a shame they are not here tonight to commend this excellent legislation and to urge it through the House.

I thank all the Senators who have spoken, in particular Senator Kennedy and Senator O'Donovan, for their very positive contributions. I understand for Senator O'Donavan's information that the members of the left are overseeing the printing of the new civic charter so perhaps that is the reason they are not here.

Senator Kennedy in a very wide-ranging and excellent contribution spoke about the strengths of the legal profession and welcomed the dialogue which the Minister for Justice has initiated with the Bar Council in relation to the barristers profession. He welcomed the proposals in the Bill which are intended to make access to justice cheaper, speedier and more convenient but argued that the objective will not be achieved due to lack of provision for support staff, for court facilities and more judges. This was also referred to by my colleague Senator O'Donovan in another excellent contribution.

Criticism had been levelled for sometime at a number of aspects of the court service, in particular the staffing of court offices and courthouse accommodation. In considering this criticism the overall question of financial resources is a major factor. Money for the court service is, of course, voted annually by the Houses of the Oireachtas; the courts Vote for 1991 contains the substantial sum of £11.63 million for salaries for a total staff of 700 officers. I should mention that until the legislation has been in operation for some time it will not be possible to say definitively what effect it will have on the business of the courts and whether in time it will have staffing implications. I can assure the House that the position will be kept under review by my Department and the possible need for additional resources will be fully considered should it arise.

I accept that many of our courthouses are not up to the standards which we all aspire to and desire. The provision and maintenance of most courthouse accommodation is the responsibility of local authorities. This arrangement has not worked satisfactorily over the years because of the reluctance of local authorities to spend money on these important buildings. Many of them are special, unique period buildings with a distinctive architecture and in my view not alone have they a legislative and a legal function to perform but it is important from an architectural and a heritage point of view that we preserve many of these outstanding buildings. It is for this reason and also because it was considered that courthouses should be a central rather than a local responsibility that the Government agreed in March 1990 to transfer this financial responsibility to the Exchequer. An allocation of funds in this regard has been provided for in the courts Vote of 1991.

A number of major improvement works are already underway and my Department are reviewing the question of courthouse accommodation with the intention of drawing up a list of priorities and a programme of refurbishment. I can confirm to the House that the Department are in favour of refurbishing courthouses according to the order of priority which is being drawn up. A number of courthouses have already been improved. Facilities have been upgraded and better services are being provided for Judiciary, litigants and the public in general and we will continue with this programme as resources become available.

Senators Kennedy and O'Donovan expressed a worry that the District and Circuit Courts will not be able to cope with the huge increase in cases that will arise in those courts due to the doubling of their jurisdictions under the Bill but the increases in jurisdiction limits of the District and Circuit Courts relate only to the civil business in those courts. In the case of the District Court, civil business accounts for about 14 per cent of total business in that court. There has been a decline in the number of civil cases dealt with in that court in recent years due no doubt to inflation of the present jurisdiction limits set in 1981. The initial effect of the increase in the jurisdiction of the District Court would be to restore the volume of civil business to that handled in that court a few years ago.

There has been a decline also in the volume of civil business handled by the Circuit Court in recent years. The number of ordinary civil bills entered declined from 31,758 in 1981 to 25,885 in 1989, the most recent year for which complete figures are available. Here, again, the effect of the increase in jurisdiction will be to restore the volume of civil business handled in that court to previous levels.

Another consideration in the case of the Circuit Court is that the trials of rape offences and offences involving aggravated sexual assault have been transferred now to the High Court. These cases are often complex and time consuming.

Senator Kennedy raised points about the availability of legal books for judges and the question of back-up facilities in the courts. There is no difficulty in providing legal books to the judges' library and we will have a computerised system of judgments available to the judges' library very shortly.

As regards computerisation in the courts, our Department are continuing with the ongoing development of computerisation for the courts. A number of projects are in hand at present which will make existing manual systems more effective. For example, in the central office of the High Court work has commenced on computerisation following the successful completion of two feasibility studies. The Probate Office in Dublin is being linked by computer to the 14 local registries throughout the country which, when completed should improve the issue of grants of probate.

Word processing facilities are now available in an increasing number of court offices and a network is at present being installed in the Dublin Circuit Court office to assist in case tracking. Plans are well advanced for the introduction of a computerised jury selection system in Dublin and at certain other provincial venues. The testing of a computerised package for dealing with accounts in the family law area will commence later this year in Dublin. Our Department are keeping in close touch with developments in other jurisdictions in relation to computerisation and plans in this regard for the further development of our own court system are under continuous review.

Senator O'Donovan would have preferred a new limit of £7,500 for the District Court. The Government decided to implement the recommendations of the Fair Trade Commission to set a new limit of £5,000. That limit would also be closer to what would be justified by reference to inflation since the limits were last set ten years ago in 1981.

I would like to re-echo my sincere gratitude to the House and to the Senators who have so eloquently contributed to this important Bill. I am confident that with their co-operation we can have this Bill enacted into law during the summer recess.

Question put and agreed to.
Agreed to take remaining Stages today.