I thank the Seanad for agreeing to consider this legislation today. Most Members will appreciate that since the Courts Service was established in 1999, it has energetically and systematically pursued a programme of transforming the physical infrastructure of the courts. Not so long ago, many of our courthouses provided their users with a pretty dismal experience. In a relatively short space of time, with significant support from Government, the Courts Service has undone much of the legacy of decades of neglect of the courts infrastructure throughout the country. A total of 41 courthouses have been refurbished and ten newly-built courthouses have been completed.
There is no question but that the development and construction of the Criminal Courts of Justice is of a far greater magnitude and marks the advent of a new era for the courts in Dublin. It is the largest court building project since Gandon’s Four Courts building was completed in the late 18th century and is one of the most significant developments in the history of the courts in Ireland. Ever since the fledgling Dáil courts were established in the most difficult and divisive circumstances, the courts have served this country well. It is hoped the new Criminal Courts of Justice will in time, create its own history and will continue the strong tradition since 1922 of a just and independent Irish judicial system.
Construction of the complex commenced in May 2007 with a construction programme of 34 months and a target date for completion of March 2010. However, the building will be completed three months ahead of schedule and is on target to be handed over later this month. The complex will provide vastly improved conditions for the public, jurors, victims and their families which Members will agree is only right. People who come into contact with the criminal justice system, whether as a juror, a victim or a witness in a case, are nervous and intimidated without suffering the poor facilities and extremely close contact with the accused which had unfortunately become the norm in the Four Courts which was not designed for the volume or demands of the modern criminal justice system. Secure segregated accommodation and access routes are provided for the public, jurors, persons in custody and staff. The reception area for jurors can accommodate up to 400 people and jury dining facilities and retiring rooms are provided within a segregated area. Rooms for victims, witnesses and vulnerable witnesses are provided within a secure area. Representatives of victims and jurors are delighted with the facilities planned for them. A visit to the complex has been arranged for the members of the Joint Committee on Justice, Equality, Defence and Women's Rights.
The new building will concentrate all central Dublin criminal business in one serviced location. This means transferring courts and administrative offices from the three jurisdictions — District Court, Circuit Court and High Court — as well as the Special Criminal Court, to one new centralised facility. This facility will have a significant impact on the criminal justice system and allow for more efficient logistical management of criminal trials. It will also allow the Four Courts to be freed up for civil business, which has been a major demand in recent years. The Courts Service has met this challenge by making full use of refurbished courthouses around the country for non-jury High Court lists but with the opening of the new complex, the Four Courts will once again be the main High Court venue in the country.
The Courts Service has, since its establishment, set about changing the physical infrastructure of our courts. However, change is not only about buildings; it is also about how the courts do business. In this regard, the courts have transformed the way they do their business by embracing new technologies and work practices. One example of this is the introduction of digital audio recording which has been installed in 41 courts nationwide over the last year and also in the new complex. This encompasses all Central Criminal Court, High Court, Family Law Court and Circuit Criminal Courts. The technology replaces stenography and transcripts can be produced overnight where necessary, speeding up the court process considerably. It also provides significant assistance in dealing with appeals.
The Courts Service has also created a unified staff structure which brought together three distinct staffing streams from the Circuit and District Courts, the High and Supreme Courts and the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform. Prior to the establishment of the service, the three streams had separate career structures, promotional opportunities and methods of promotion. The unification provided for a transparent merit-based promotion system, allowing for greater flexibility and expertise for the Courts Service in the management of resources and supporting the courts.
The Bill before the House has enabling provisions to underpin streamlined management procedures in the new complex, which are especially necessary given its scale, but which can in future apply to other court venues as appropriate.
Part 2 of the Bill has a number of provisions to allow the Irish Prison Service to manage the central holding facility for people in custody and to have control over all persons held, including those who have not been committed to prison by the courts. The main objective is to avoid duplication of effort by the Irish Prison Service and the Garda Síochána and free up gardaí for operational duties.
The Bill allows for the temporary transfer of custody of a person to a holding area officer solely for the purposes of facilitating a court appearance by that person or the holding of a court hearing involving him or her. It is necessary to make legislative provision for this change so that the Irish Prison Service may be responsible for the custody of persons in holding cells in the courts who have up until now remained in Garda custody. A reciprocal arrangement whereby a prisoner may be temporarily placed in the custody of a member of the Garda Síochána is also provided for. This provision allows a garda to have temporary custody of a prisoner in the limited circumstances of facilitating a court appearance. I will be introducing a short amendment on Committee Stage to change an element of the provisions covering Garda custody of prisoners who may be held temporarily in Garda stations pending a court appearance.
Our intent is to provide for a situation where a garda may take temporary custody of a prisoner within or in the vicinity of a courthouse rather than impact on the existing situation in terms of those held in a Garda station. I look forward to detailing the changes we propose to make on Committee Stage and I trust Members will agree with the logic behind the amendments. Part 3 makes provision to improve staff management and flexibility further by designing a single administrative office rather than an office for each court jurisdiction. This builds on other changes introduced by the Courts Service in recent years. It will fully integrate the courts' staffing structures and allow for efficient procedures for the deployment of staff. Part 4 will allow a District Court clerk to take bail recognisance in certain instances without the need for the applicant to return to court and expand the range of persons who can take a recognisance in the case of an appeal from the District Court. Given the size of the building, considerable efficiency will be gained from this small change.
I will outline the provisions of the Bill to the House. Sections 1 to 4 form Part 1 of the Act and are standard drafting provisions. In Part 2, section 5 contains a number of definitions. At present, a person may be in custody for a number of reasons. He or she may be charged with a criminal offence by the Garda or may be held by the Irish Prison Service on foot of a court order, either on remand or on conviction. Up to now both agencies have shared access to cell areas. However, in the new complex the Prison Service will manage the custody area, thus freeing up the Garda for other duties. The main feature of this part is to provide a legislative basis for a person in custody to be placed in temporary custody of either the Garda Síochána or the Irish Prison Service. In the main, this will facilitate the management by the Prison Service of the new custody area. The reverse provision, in which prisoners of the Prison Service may be held in the temporary custody of the Garda, will be less frequently required but is included to ensure every possibility is covered and, as I indicated earlier, we will introduce an amendment to this provision to reflect the existing role and function of a member-in-charge in a Garda station.
Section 6 explains that a prisoner or person may be placed in the temporary custody of the Garda Síochána or a prison governor in a place in or adjacent to a court building for a purpose referred to in section 7. Section 7 provides that a person can be held either to facilitate a court appearance by that person or for the holding of a court hearing involving him or her. An example of such a situation this second provision is intended to cover would be if persons who are already in custody were required as witnesses in another case. Section 8 indicates at what point temporary custody under section 6 commences and ceases. Section 8(1) provides that the temporary custody commences when the prisoner is placed in the custody of the holding area officer and ceases either when the prisoner is returned to the person in whose custody they were prior to the temporary custody, or is released by order of the court. Under section 8(2) a person lawfully in the custody of the Garda Síochána may be placed in temporary custody of a governor for the purposes of a court appearance. This temporary custody commences from the moment the person is placed in the custody of the holding area officer and ceases either when the person is returned to the previous person of custody or released by order of the court.
Section 9 provides that a person placed in temporary custody shall be regarded as remaining in the custody of the person in whose custody he or she was before being so placed. The next section requires the prison authorities or the Garda Síochána to hand over to a holding area officer any medication, prescriptions for medication, health information etc. when placing a person in temporary custody. The reverse applies when the holding area officer is returning the person to custody. Section 11 sets out the duties, functions and powers of a holding area officer in respect of a person who has been placed in his or her temporary custody. Section 11(1) imposes certain obligations on the holding area officer. He or she must prevent a person in temporary custody from escape, prevent the commission of an offence, ensure orderly and disciplined behaviour, bring him or her to a court or court office, ensure his or her appearance before court and comply with any court order relating to his or her custody, treatment or transfer. Section 11(2) confers on a holding area officer a power of search in accordance with the prison rules in respect of the person in temporary custody if of opinion that it is necessary to the performance of the officer's functions to do so. This is to ensure that standards of safety are consistent regardless of the origin of the person in custody. Section 11(3) outlines that the holding area officer may use all reasonable force, where necessary, in the performance of their functions. Section 11(4) applies the same obligations and duties on a member of the Garda Síochána for the purposes of temporary custody. Section 11(5) is included to avoid any misapprehension. It retains all existing powers of search under the prison rules exercisable by a holding area officer who is a prison officer. Section 12 empowers the Minister to make a number of regulations, for example, governing standards, record keeping etc.
In Part 3, section 13 is a standard drafting provision containing definitions. Section 14 sets out the steps for the establishment of combined court offices. Sections 14(1) and 14(2) enable the Courts Service, having undertaken the necessary consultations, to establish a combined court office. As part of this process they will designate two or more court offices to comprise the combined office and set out the business to be transacted in the office. Section 14(3) requires the Courts Service to publish notice of establishment in Iris Oifigiúil. However, it notes that failure to publish will not affect the validity of the office’s establishment. Section 15 allows the Courts Service, subject to consultation, to change or remove the functions of any constituent office of a combined court office, other than any business relating to the Special Criminal Court.
Section 16 requires that the Courts Service must consult with the Chief Justice or President of the relevant court before establishing a combined court office. Section 17 provides a power for the Government to make an order applying these sections to the business of the Special Criminal Court, obviously excluding the judicial business of that court. Section 18 provides for certain legal consequences to follow where business of a court office is transacted in a combined court office. Sections 19 to 22 provide for the staffing arrangements which may apply in a combined office. For example, section 20 confers on a combined court office manager the management and control in regard to all matters of general administration of the combined court office, subject to the general directions of the Courts Service. In the case of the new complex this manager has already been appointed and has been overseeing preparations for some time. Section 22(2) enables any member of Courts Service staff to act as registrar to the Central Criminal Court, the Court of Criminal Appeal, the Courts-Martial Appeal Court or the Circuit Court, where those courts form part of a combined court office. This provision will allow for flexibility and maximise use of available staff and accommodation.
Section 23 makes provision to ensure the continuity of the administration of justice or of the business of a court office affected is not interrupted by the establishment, variation of the functions or disestablishment of a combined courts office. Section 24 amends the Courts Service Act 1998 to incorporate in the powers conferred on the Courts Service under that Act the powers given to it under the Bill to establish, vary the functions of or disestablish a combined court office.
Section 25 is the first section in the fourth part of the Bill which covers a number of provisions relating to bail. It amends section 22 of the Criminal Procedure Act 1967 and will have the effect of conferring on a District Court clerk power to take bail recognisances, where the District Court has admitted a person to bail with immediate effect when remanding that person or sending him forward for trial or sentence. Section 26 amends section 24 of Petty Sessions (Ireland) Act 1851. The effect of this section is to extend the categories of persons who may take bail recognisance, where bail has been fixed by the District Court pending an appeal to include a District Court clerk, a prison governor and prison officer.
I am conscious these provisions are technical and I thank Senators for their patience. The Courts Acts generally are highly procedural. They comprise over 100 statutes, many of which date from before independence. However, in co-operation with the Department, the Law Reform Commission is working on valuable legislation to codify the provisions. This will be of great assistance both to practitioners and anyone wishing to access the courts. The provisions set out in the Bill will, once enacted, make their own small but important contribution to greater efficiency. I trust all Members will support the measures proposed and I commend the Bill to the Seanad.