Courts (No. 2) Bill, 1997: Second Stage.

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

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.

I am glad I had a script from the Minister, otherwise I might have found it difficult to keep up with the breakneck speed at which he delivered his speech. We can welcome this Bill without difficulty and the Minister has clearly explained its implications. The immediate reason for the Bill is that judges increasingly find themselves on tribunal duty and we have been well served in recent times by those judges who have acted as sole members of a tribunal. It is a tribute to them that they are automatic choices when further tribunals take place. Let us hope, nonetheless, that we do not have many more tribunals in the foreseeable future.

The immediate occasion of the Bill is the retirement of Mr. Justice Declan Costello as President of the High Court, to whom I pay tribute. There is a frequent interchange between the law and politics, examples of which include the Minister, the Leas-Chathaoirleach and the Government spokesperson on Justice, Equality and Law Reform — I feel surrounded by lawyers. Mr. Justice Costello had the distinction of serving as a TD for many years and Attorney General before going on to serve as a distinguished judge. On a personal level, my involvement in politics stems from being inspired by him when I was a student in the 1960s. I pay tribute to his great legacy in politics and as a judge and I wish him many happy and fulfilled years of retirement.

There can be no objection to increasing the number of judges. However, is the Minister satisfied that the increased number is adequate to the needs of the courts system? The number of judges increased dramatically during the lifetime of the last Government because of a definite need — the courts system was breaking down. Perhaps in his reply the Minister could indicate whether, given recent changes, he feels the present number of judges is adequate to the provision of reasonably speedy, effective and accessible justice, which is, as he said, one of the principal concerns of his reforms. Further to ongoing monitoring of the effectiveness of the courts we would have no objection if the Minister felt further appointments were needed.

The seven year appointments for the Presidents of the High and Supreme Courts bring procedures into line with those in universities and most companies. The Members of the Oireachtas do not have the guarantee of a seven year term of office and I am sure the Minister would not presume to think that he will have a seven year term of office. The Bill extends this term to judges. My concern is that the filling of posts, which is an intensively political activity, will give rise to a great deal of lobbying two or three years in advance of a presidential appointment. However, I suspect that happens at present and is inevitable.

I welcome the Bill and I wish the Minister well in its implementation.

I welcome the Minister to the House. I praise his initiation of four Bills here this week — as somebody said, it is a record and given that the Minister is suffering from the 'flu and must attend the other House from time to time, it is a courageous indication of his ambition to have a comprehensive and wide-ranging reform of legislation. This is the ninth or tenth Bill which he has presented in his short term as Minister and he is threatening us with another 20 or more next year. That is an indication of his approach to law and order and the administration of justice. I welcome this initiative and praise him for it.

I concur with Senator Manning in paying tribute to Mr. Justice Costello who was a former Attorney General, an eminent lawyer and a former Member of the Oireachtas. He has given a lifetime of public service and I wish him well.

Notice taken that 12 Members were not present; House counted and 12 Members being present,

Mr. Justice Costello was one of the most, if not the most, eminent lawyers and jurists of his generation. He was internationally renowned and highly respected. I understand he is a former President of the High Court and held other significant positions with great distinction and honour. I am glad to join Senator Manning in paying tribute to him.

I welcome the Bill and I understand the need for the appointment of two extra judges. This has to do with the secondment of judges to tribunals of inquiry and the appointment of a judge to the Nursing Commission. It is good that at short notice we can produce legislation to increase the number of judges from 22 to 24 when there is a need to do so. As a practising lawyer I am aware of the great increase in the number of civil cases in the High Court in the last decade. Due to the fact that the maximum award which can be made in the Circuit Court is £30,000, which is not a large amount, the volume of business coming to the High Court is increasing annually. As a consequence there is a greater workload for judges there in civil matters. In addition, the work of the Central Criminal Court must not be impeded by a shortage of judges in the higher courts. There would be no point in the Minister or his predecessor introducing or having introduced legislation to combat crime — drug related crime in particular — if there were delays in the courts due to a lack of judges.

Is it sufficient to increase the number of High Court judges from 22 to 24? I have a particular interest in civil cases and I believe there should be a High Court judge based permanently in Munster to cover the High Court cases in Cork, Tralee and Limerick. A similar situation may pertain in the west to include Athlone, Galway and Donegal.

There is a continuing practical problem whereby it is necessary to bring frequently unwilling expert witnesses, such as neurosurgeons and consultant orthopaedic surgeons, to Dublin where everything happens. On up to four occasions in recent years there have been sittings of the High Court in Cork for two weeks with two judges hearing cases. However, this is not sufficient. There are no economic or administrative reasons that there is no judge covering the Munster circuits, particularly Cork, Tralee and Limerick, and possibly Tipperary and Waterford. Such provision would make good administrative sense. I realise it is the function of the President of the High Court to attend to this matter, but I urge the Minister to address it in setting up of the new Courts Service which should come into force next year. I am not being parochial, I foresee a similar situation in the west.

It is significantly more costly when a case goes on for up to ten days in the Four Courts resulting in experts, including lawyers and barristers, plaintiffs, defendants and witnesses, such as engineers, coming to Dublin from west Cork, west Kerry or Donegal for the administration of justice. It is inappropriate and improper and I hope it can be addressed. Apart from August and usual holidays, there is no reason a High Court judge could not sit for four days a week in Munster, rotating between Cork, Tralee, Limerick and possibly Waterford, or in the west, rotating between Galway, Roscommon, Athlone and Donegal.

As secretary of the West Cork Bar Association and in my role as a lawyer, I could never fathom the logic why everything has to happen in Dublin. Unfortunately, the Four Courts is suffering from gridlock and a lack of facilities. Tallaght, with a population almost similar in size to Cork city, does not have a Circuit Court or regular sittings. We must examine why everything revolves around the Four Courts while the rest of Ireland is forced to play second fiddle to the capital. Most speakers in yesterday's debate realised the extent of overloading in terms of people, courts and functions that is evident in the Four Courts.

High Court judges are being appointed to positions on the nursing commission and the various tribunals. I understand that further tribunals are to be established. Over the last two decades tribunals have become a regular feature of our justice and administration systems. One of the first tribunals I recall and in which I was involved as an apprentice solicitor was the Whiddy tribunal which examined the Betelgeuse disaster. We have also had the Stardust tribunal. Both tribunals were set up as a result of huge losses of life. Tribunals are becoming the order of the day to examine civil issues, including fraud and white collar crime.

It has been recognised that a permanent High Court judge may be appointed to the Law Reform Commission. I pay tribute to the work of the commission and the huge amount of research being done outside the Oireachtas. Often much of the work and many of the recommendations of the Law Reform Commission, under the chairmanship of such eminent people as Judge Denham, are by and large taken on board in legislation introduced in the Houses of the Oireachtas. The commission carries out much research and good work in an independent and non-political manner. We must never forget the huge volume of work and the huge contribution the Law Reform Commission makes to the enactment of new legislation.

Section 4 of the Bill provides a new maximum period of seven years for the appointment of presiding judges. This is a welcome provision. Those in political life have no security of tenure and do not know how long they will be a Member of either House. Seven years is a sufficient period of tenure for Presidents of the Supreme Court, the High Court, the Circuit Court and the District Court. It also provides that those who have given lifelong service in any of the courts but who will retire within seven years can still be appointed president. Generally, presidents of courts have given long service and it is rare for somebody with only short service to be appointed president. This provision is to be welcomed as the position of president involves significant pressure.

Is it logical or possible to have one president based in Dublin dealing with the huge number of District Court judges operating throughout the country? Perhaps the Minister will address this issue in his reply. Does the President of the District Court require a vice-president to assist in the functions of the court? Due to the nature of the work of the District Court it has more judges than other courts. This is not to take from the huge importance of the work of the Presidents of the Supreme Court, the High Court or the Circuit Court.

Other provisions of the Bill deal with financial issues, ensuring no reduction in salary for a president of a court following completion of seven years.

This is a good Bill and I am glad it has been welcomed by Fine Gael. I understand the argument put forward by Senator Manning and others that one should not rush legislation through the House on the same day or even in the same week. However, the important nature of this legislation, which is an enabling measure rather than a complete overhaul of the administration of justice, and the fact that its provisions have been recommended to us, marks this Bill out as an exception. Members must be magnanimous in accepting from time to time that we must work together when a Minister lays such enabling legislation of the importance of this Bill before the House. We may not desire a time constraint but this Bill has been broadly welcomed.

I compliment my Opposition colleagues for their patience and courtesy in dealing with the Bill in an efficient and speedy fashion. I thank the Minister for introducing the Bill and I hope it will have a speedy passage. I commend it to the House as significant and important legislation which will ensure the workings of the courts are not clogged up. Two extra judges will be appointed for good reasons.

I understand Senator Henry wishes to share her time with Senator Gallagher. Is that agreed? Agreed.

I also commend the Bill and I am delighted about the sense of urgency the Minister has attached to it. He has continued the work of the previous Minister in addressing the problems which have arisen in the courts due a great increase in their workload which was not matched by a similar increase in the number of judges and back up facilities. It is incredible that only five years ago Supreme Court judges did not have adequate secretarial assistance. The Bill provides money for an increased number of registrars and ushers for new High Court judges who will be appointed. However, I hope good secretarial back up services will be part of this financial package.

It is a compliment to the Judiciary that the public has such confidence in it and want judges to chair tribunals and public bodies established to investigate various problems which have arisen. The Houses of the Oireachtas have a duty to respond to this confidence by ensuring there is a sufficient number of members of the Judiciary available for the continuation of work in the courts and tribunals.

I am concerned that the retiring age of District Court judges, an aspect I have raised on several occasions, has not been addressed to date. District Court judges must be assessed on a yearly basis after they reach the age of 65. These judges work at the coal face of justice in society and they must undergo assessments of their capability to remain on the Bench between the ages of 65 and 70. However, the mental capacity of other judges, such as members of the Supreme Court, is not queried. I am told the purpose of the yearly assessments is to ensure that judges retire at the same time. However, this is not a good reason for continually inspecting District Court judges until they retire at the age of 70. I ask the Minister to address this matter in another Courts Bill which he will probably introduce in the near future.

There is much sense in Senator O'Donovan's suggestion regarding a geographical spread. It is arcane that a huge number of matters are dealt with in Dublin when much of this work could be carried out by more regular sittings of the High Court in other cities. I doubt legislation is required to change this position. This system could be reorganised by the new Courts Service.

I commend the Bill to the House. I ask the Minister to address the issue of the retirement age of District Court judges. The assessment of these judges provides work for many of my medical colleagues, but I am sure they would willingly give it up if the judges could continue in employment on the same basis as judges of the Circuit, High and Supreme Courts.

I thank Senator Henry for sharing her time. The Labour Party supports the Bill, which continues the reform of the courts system initiated by the previous Government. I commend the work of Mrs. Justice Denham and her colleagues in examining the system from a professional perspective and making recommendations. I am glad the Minister is acting speedily on those proposals in this Bill and the Courts Service legislation.

The explanatory memorandum states in relation to the financial implications of the Bill:

The filling of one of the High Court vacancies that will arise out of the enactment of the Bill and the appointment of a Registrar and usher in respect of that additional judicial appointment will give rise to an annual salary cost of £121,750 per annum.

The explanatory memorandum continues:

Because of the unpredictability and the temporary nature of the additional judicial posts which will arise due to the creation of 7 year Court Presidencies, the financial and staffing implications of the relevant proposals cannot be predicted with any precision.

I ask the Minister for some indicative figures on this matter. I am sure the Department has made projections on various scenarios and I would like information on the possible outcomes. I will deal in detail on Committee Stage with the limitation of seven years on the term of court presidencies. This is not a life or death issue, although I am aware it was a recommendation of the working group chaired by Mrs. Justice Denham.

The Bill continues the much needed reform of the court system initiated by the previous Government. Any improvement in services requires a substantial commitment of resources. Three areas must continue to be addressed urgently with expansive resources to ensure that the requirements of the public, who pay for and use the courts, are dealt with speedily, efficiently and satisfactorily. The appointment of extra judges in various courts is having the desired effect in terms of speeding up the hearing of cases and trials. Some lawyers in the Dublin area now complain that one must be careful when one issues proceedings because the case might be heard in court sooner than one expected. This is a good complaint because it is not long since people complained about the number of years it took for cases to be heard.

I ask the Minister to address two areas which are important for clients. The first is access to the legal aid service. Under the stewardship of the former Minister, Mervyn Taylor, in the previous two Governments, there was a major increase in the number of legal aid offices throughout the country. In my constituency offices were provided in Portlaoise and Tullamore and they are doing excellent work. However, as the report of the Legal Aid Board shows, the demands on those offices are huge, and increasing in the family law area. Members of the public who make inquiries and ask for advice in offices about taking proceedings are told family law cases take precedence. A substantial extra commitment of resources is required.

I note the increase of 14 per cent under subhead K in the Estimates, but this only reflects, on a full year basis, the financial cost of the measures put in place by the former Minister, Mervyn Taylor. I ask the Minister to ensure as a first step that law centres which have only one solicitor at present get a second lawyer. The centres were led to expect this would happen quickly. This would reduce waiting lists and ensure people get the service they require. The law centres have built up a good reputation in recent years. Prior to the expansion of the service under former Minister Mervyn Taylor, they were not held in high esteem because people had to wait so long and travel so far for appointments. Their image improved tremendously in terms of access and speed, but this confidence will be lost unless second solicitors are appointed in each full-time centre and part-time centres upgraded to full-time status. I ask the Minister to respond to this request as a matter of priority.

The second area is the vexed issue of courthouse facilities. I am glad to note an increase in the capital Estimate for this area. However, the amount provided is not enough, given the cost of work on courthouses. The Minister for Finance should supply more funding to the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform to deal with this matter. Senator Moylan and I are members of Offaly County Council and work in a building that serves as a courthouse, which happens all over the country. The lack of court facilities is embarrassing for clients of the legal system, public representatives and county council staff. This is particularly true on family court days, because consultation takes place in the corridors and there is no privacy. That is not how a civilised society which has updated its family law recently should operate. More money should be spent on the courthouses, especially on consulting facilities. The privacy of in camera family law cases should be observed in practice within the court building.

The District Court clerks and their assistants are doing excellent work. Recent legislation has increased their workload; there is the small claims court and they must process family law procedures. Their facilities need to be upgraded to cope with that increased workload. Many of them operate unofficially as legal advice centres, and that must be recognised officially. I am not arguing for a blurring of the distinction between the law centres and the District Court clerks, but if the clerks are advising people of their legal rights it should be recognised. The service they are providing could be improved if specific training courses were made available to them, and the public would also benefit from this.

I welcome the Bill, although I will return to one matter on Committee Stage. The Minister should ensure that the quality of and access to our court services should be improved. Cases will be held more speedily because of the provision of extra judges, but the quality of court facilities must be addressed. I refer particularly to privacy for family law cases. Full-time law centres should get a second solicitor, and part-time centres should be upgraded to full-time status. The workload of District Court clerks must be recognised, and greater resources and training should be provided for them. They are doing excellent work, though their names will never be in the newspapers because of High Court cases. Their fine work must be recognised.

I thank Senators for their contributions. Senator O'Donovan referred to judges being based outside Dublin for High Court sittings. I understand his sentiments, but the regionalisation of the High Court is a matter for the President of the High Court. The incoming President will take the views of the House into account. Neither I nor the Government have any say in where courts should or should not sit.

Senators Manning and O'Donovan both referred to the imminent retirement of Mr. Justice Declan Costello, the President of the High Court. I join with them in praising his role in Irish life. He has had a very distinguished career in politics and the Judiciary, though it is as a member of the latter that he will perhaps be best remembered. He made an enormous contribution to jurisprudence in the State and is one of the finest jurists of his generation, blessed as he is with one of the finest and clearest legal minds the State has ever had. I wish him every happiness in his well deserved retirement and I hope that he will continue to contribute to public life by writing and lecturing.

Senator Henry referred to the retirement age for District Court judges. The Courts Act, 1949, provides that a committee comprising the Chief Justice, the President of the High Court and the Attorney General can extend District Court judges' terms in office from the ages of 65 to 70 by annual extensions. I will consider the issue of District Court judges' retirement ages in the context of forthcoming legislation.

Senator Gallagher referred to access to legal aid. We have made provision in the 1998 Estimates for increased funding for the legal aid service. This is to recognise the dramatic increase in business at legal aid centres because of the considerable corpus of family law legislation introduced recently. I fully accept that some courthouses are in an unacceptable state, and the Vote for courthouses has increased considerably in the 1998 Estimates. I hope to see further refurbishment and improvements to our courthouses in 1998. The increased Vote for the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform is a 10 per cent increase on last year. This is unprecedented and reflects the importance the Government attaches to the fight against crime.

There is now a facility to increase the number of High Court judges from 22 to 24. I am glad Senators agree this is welcome. There has also been a general welcome for confining the periods of office of the Chief Justice and the Presidents of the other courts to seven years.

Question put and agreed to.

An Leas-Chathaoirleach

When is it proposed to take Committee Stage?

It is proposed to take Committee Stage today, but a short period is needed to prepare for that. I hope for co-operation after this suspension to deal with matters.

An Leas-Chathaoirleach

The Senator will be aware that co-operation works both ways.

Sitting suspended at 12.30 p.m. and resumed at 12.45 p.m.