This Bill is concerned with two important issues relating to the courts. First, it provides for an increase in the statutory limit on the number of ordinary judges of the High Court from 22 to 24, not including the President of the High Court. Second, it provides that all future appointments of Chief Justice, President of the High Court, President of the Circuit Court and President of the District Court will be for a maximum, non-renewable period of seven years.
I will deal first with the increase in the number of High Court judges. Earlier this year the House was involved in the enactment of the Courts Act, 1997. That increased from 19 to 22 the statutory limit on the number of ordinary judges of the High Court. It was brought forward in the context of pressure on the number of judges in the court due to commitments arising from non-court duties involving the Nursing Commission and the then pending Dunnes tribunal. The Act was welcomed by this House because its objective was to ensure the progress made in reducing delays in hearing criminal and civil cases before the High Court was not adversely affected by the temporary appointment of High Court judges to carry out other duties.
Senators will be aware that the work of the Nursing Commission is ongoing and that further tribunals are being established. Because of the involvement of High Court judges in the proposed tribunals, these developments threaten the considerable progress made in reducing delays, particularly in hearing personal injury actions in the High Court and in dealing with cases in the Central Criminal Court.
Senators will agree that litigants, victims of crime and the community as a whole, which has an interest in the efficient operation of the courts system, should not be adversely affected by the developments to which I have referred. That is one of the main reasons I have brought forward this Bill which, in section 2, provides for an increase in the statutory maximum limit on the number of judges of the High Court from 22 to 24, in addition to the President of the High Court. The Government has approved the filling of one of these new vacancies immediately and the need for the filling of the second High Court vacancy created by the Bill will be kept under review.
Section 3 amends the Law Reform Commission Act, 1975, to make provision for an increase by one in the number of judges in the Supreme Court or the High Court where one of the judges of those courts is appointed to the position of Commissioner in the Law Reform Commission. This is essentially a technical matter and all that is involved is a tidying up of earlier amendments which have been made to the 1975 Act. The second overall objective of the Bill is to provide that all future appointments as Chief Justice or as President of the other courts — who are described as presiding judges in the context of the Bill — will be for a maximum, non-renewable, seven year period. This was recommended by the working group on a courts commission chaired by Mrs. Justice Susan Denham in its second report entitled Case Management and Court Management. The relevant provisions of the Bill for that purpose are sections 4 to 12.
The recommendation of the working group in relation to seven year court presidencies was made with reference to the extremely heavy administrative workload that is involved in these key judicial positions, which must be managed along with the normal judicial functions of those positions. For my part I think this is a sensible approach and it also reflects the modern trend with regard to limiting the term of senior office in areas of professional and public life.
Section 4 is the central provision with regard to the new maximum periods of appointment for presiding judges and subsequent sections are consequential on that section. There are a number of significant aspects resulting from the provision for new periods of appointment for presiding judges. First, only appointments made after the enactment of these measures will be affected. Second, the Bill does not preclude the appointment as presiding judge of a person who has less than seven years to serve before full retirement as a judge. Third, an appointment as a presiding judge will not be capable of being renewed at the end of the seven year period although the Bill does not preclude a further appointment as presiding judge of another court. Fourth, when a presiding judge has completed the seven year term and has not reached retirement age he or she will continue to serve as a judge of the relevant court.
This last element of section 4 gives rise to the need for the directly consequential provisions of sections 5 and 6. When, for example, a Chief Justice completes his or her seven year term and then continues as a judge of the Supreme Court, the maximum number of judges of that court will be unaffected where another judge of the Supreme Court is appointed as the new Chief Justice. If, however, the new Chief Justice were to be appointed from outside the Supreme Court, the former Chief Justice continuing to serve as a judge of that court would breach the statutory limit on the number of judges of the Supreme Court. Section 5 takes account of this by providing for an increase in the number of judges attached to a particular court in such circumstances, notwithstanding the statutory provisions relating to the limitation on numbers of judges of the courts.
However, section 6 makes it clear that this increase in the maximum number of judges will be temporary or will not occur at all depending on the position in the relevant court with regard to vacancies. Again taking the Supreme Court as an example, where there is already an existing vacancy, the former Chief Justice will automatically fill that vacancy and the provisions of section 5 increasing the number of judges will not apply in that case. Where there is no immediate vacancy the number of judges in the Supreme Court will be increased by one temporarily until the next vacancy arises and it will be filled automatically by the former Chief Justice. Section 6 applies this provision for the filling of vacancies by former presiding judges to each of the courts. The new seven year terms may give rise to the presence on a court bench of more than one former presiding judge. The provisions relating to increases in numbers of judges and the filling of vacancies take full account of that possibility.
Section 7 of the Bill adapts existing provisions whereby the Chief Justice is ex officio a judge of the High Court and the other presidents are ex officio judges of the next superior court. The section provides that when a presiding judge has completed a seven year term and continues as a judge of the relevant court, he or she will retain his or her position as ex officio judge until retirement. This is being done to ensure that no constitutional problem will arise out of the removal of judicial duties conferred by virtue of ex officio membership of a court.
Article 35.5 of the Constitution prohibits the reduction of the remuneration of a judge during his or her continuance in office. Accordingly, I have provided in section 8 that a former presiding judge will continue to be paid the salary payable to the presiding judge and that pensions and other entitlements will be paid at the higher judicial rate.
Section 9 adapts existing provisions relating to the order of the precedence of judges of the Supreme and High Courts to take account of the position of former presiding judges. A former Chief Justice will have precedence after the Chief Justice and the President of the High Court but before the ordinary members of the Supreme Court. A former President of the High Court will have precedence after the President of the High Court and after the judges of the Supreme Court but before the ordinary judges of the High Court. A former President of the Circuit Court, who will be ex officio a judge of the High Court, will rank after the President of the Circuit Court but before the ordinary judges of the Circuit Court.
Section 10 provides that only a presiding judge will be capable of exercising a statutory function of a Chief Justice or president of the court. Any such statutory function will not continue to be exercisable by a former Chief Justice or president who continues to serve as a judge. This provision has been included for the avoidance of any doubt in the matter.
Section 11 takes account of various existing provisions conferring functions on the "senior ordinary judge" of the Supreme Court or High Court. For example, legislation provides that the Chief Justice or, in his or her absence, the senior ordinary judge of the Supreme Court may determine that an appeal before the Supreme Court may be heard by a division of five or three judges. Section 11 makes it clear that a former Chief Justice or a President of the High Court who continues to serve as a judge of the Supreme Court or High Court respectively will be the "senior ordinary judge" by virtue of his or her ranking ahead of the other judges of the Court under the provisions of section 9.
Under the Courts Acts, the President of the District Court is permanently assigned by the Government to the Dublin metropolitan district. Section 12 provides that a former President of the District Court who continues to serve as a judge of the District Court will continue to be permanently assigned to the DMD but will also be in a position to avail of the normal transfer arrangements for District Court judges.
I am sure Senators will appreciate that the provisions of this Bill are important in the context of the move towards a more modern courts system which is very clearly signalled by the Courts Service (No. 2) Bill, considered on Second Stage in this House yesterday. As I have already said in this House, the establishment under that Bill of an independent Courts Service to manage the courts system more efficiently is a key priority for the Government. I believe the public are entitled to expect an efficient quality service from the Courts and the Bill we are discussing here today will contribute in a significant way to the ongoing programme of reform of our courts system. I commend the Bill to the House.