Courts Bill 2016: Second Stage

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

On behalf of the Tánaiste and Minister for Justice and Equality, I thank the House for facilitating early discussion of this short and rather technical Bill. Its original intention was to address the implications of a Court of Appeal ruling in July last. In that case the court ruled that where property such as domestic dwellings or agricultural land was designated as non-rateable under Schedule 4 to the Valuation Act 2001, the Circuit Court had no jurisdiction to hear proceedings in respect of such property. The Government was concerned that the Court of Appeal ruling had the potential to seriously disrupt the operation of the courts by requiring a range of property-related court proceedings to be taken in the High Court rather than the Circuit Court, thereby increasing court-related costs for the parties involved and delays in the determination of cases. The ruling also had the potential to disrupt the operation of measures unrelated to court jurisdiction which relied on the availability of a rateable valuation threshold.

Following the completion of Second Stage in the Dáil, an appeal against the Court of Appeal ruling was accepted by the Supreme Court. As a consequence, sections 1 to and 3, inclusive, of the Bill, as initiated, were removed from the Bill on Committee Stage. The Bill now before this House contains important provisions related to court jurisdiction and the rateable valuation system. Moreover, a number of important amendments to the Bill were tabled on Committee Stage related to the position of Taxing Master and the transition of that post to the new Office of the Legal Costs Adjudicator.

Before turning to the content of the Bill, I should explain that enactment of this legislation will be accompanied by the making of commencement orders by the Minister for Justice and Equality which will bring provisions originally enacted in the Civil Liability and Courts Act 2004 into operation, namely, sections 45 to 48, inclusive, and 50 to 53, inclusive. These contain provisions which determine the Circuit Court’s jurisdiction on the basis of a property’s market value, rather than its rateable valuation. Where the market value is less than €3 million, the Circuit Court will have jurisdiction. Otherwise, the proceedings will be heard in the High Court. The delay in commencing these provisions to date appears to have been related to the delayed roll-out of the new valuation system under the Valuation Act 2001.

I will now turn to the detailed proposals in the Bill. Section 1 inserts a new section 53A into the Civil Liability and Courts Act 2004. It contains a new rebuttable presumption mechanism, whereby the value of property will be presumed to be below €3 million for evidentiary purposes. It means that in the event of a dispute between parties as to the alleged market value, a party may adduce evidence that the value of the property exceeds €3 million and that proceedings should be brought before the High Court, rather than the Circuit Court. This mechanism will serve to protect the rights of parties to disputes concerning the value of property which is the subject of litigation. As I mentioned, the intention is that this legislation will be accompanied by commencement of various sections of the Civil Liability and Courts Act 2004, all of which change the basis of jurisdiction in the Circuit Court from rateable valuation to market value.

Section 2 amends several sections of the Civil Partnership and Certain Rights and Obligations of Cohabitants Act 2010 in order to provide that the existing right to apply to have proceedings under those provisions transferred from the Circuit Court to the High Court will only apply where the land involved has a market value above €3 million. This change will, following the making of the relevant commencement order, bring the right to apply to have proceedings transferred to the High Court into line with corresponding provisions in other family law Acts, namely, the Family Home Protection Act 1976, the Judicial Separation and Reform Act 1989, the Family Law Act 1995 and the Family Law (Divorce) Act 1996. Section 2(b) will replace the existing text of section 140(10). The District Court will no longer have jurisdiction in proceedings involving land where its rateable valuation is less than €25, but ot will continue to have jurisdiction in the case of chattels up to a value of €15,000, similar to its jurisdiction under the Family Home Protection Act 1976.

Section 3 is a technical provision which substitutes a new text for section 60(3) of the Valuation Act 2001. It will provide that production to a tribunal or court of a certificate issued under section 67(4) by an authorised officer shall be sufficient evidence, until the contrary is proved, of the matters stated in the certificate. At present, the subsection does not include a reference to section 67.

Rateable valuation thresholds are in use not only to determine Circuit Court jurisdiction but also matters unrelated to jurisdiction such as, for example, eligibility to acquire freehold title in accordance with ground rents legislation. Under the Landlord and Tenant (Ground Rents) (No. 2) Act 1978, the ground rent tenant’s right to acquire the freehold arises in certain cases where the amount of the annual ground rent is less than the rateable valuation for the property concerned. In order to facilitate continued exercise of this right and continued use in various other contexts in cases of non-rateable property, section 67 of the 2001 Act allows the Valuation Office to issue a certificate of rateable valuation to the ground rent tenant in the case of non-rateable property, that is, property included in Schedule 4 to the 2001 Act. In order to preserve this important mechanism and continued usage of rateable valuation in matters unrelated to Circuit Court jurisdiction, it is proposed to insert a new subsection (2A) in section 67 of the 2001 Act. It clarifies that the certificates issued under that section are based on the value of other comparable properties appearing on valuation lists existing prior to the roll-out of the new valuation system under the 2001 Act. Section 5 contains a proposal to rectify a technical error in the Planning and Development (Amendment) Act 2015, where failure to provide a negative condition in section 170A(3)(a) means that the subsection, as enacted, has the opposite effect to what was intended. It means that whatever conclusion An Bord Pleanála may come to in its assessment of whether a proposed amendment to a strategic development zone, SDZ, planning scheme is minor or significant in nature, it must under the current provision ask the planning authority to make the amendment in line with the procedure laid down in section 169 of the Act, in effect triggering the full procedure for adopting an SDZ planning scheme in the first place. The proposed amendment will enable An Bord Pleanála to adjudicate on and amend approved SDZ planning schemes in carefully defined circumstances such as very minor changes or changes which do not affect the broad objectives of the planning scheme. That was the intended purpose of section 170A. Regarding sections 6 to 8, inclusive, I want to explain the background to their inclusion in the Bill. When the Legal Services Regulation Bill was originally published in the autumn of 2011, it was anticipated that its legal costs and other provisions would be enacted within a period of two years from that date. This was also anticipated in the filling, for the first time by means of public competition, of the two vacancies for Taxing Masters that arose in and around that time. It had been anticipated that the senior Taxing Master appointed at the time, who possesses particular skills and expertise in this area, would be in office to oversee and lead the implementation of the critical transition process. However, owing to the fact that the enactment of the Legal Services Regulation Bill did not come about until December 2015, the terms of office of both Taxing Masters will have expired before the changeover can take place.

Arising from discussions with the Courts Service and the current senior Taxing Master, it is reasonable to assume that a period of up to six months will be required to get the existing office sufficiently prepared for the switch-over to the new Office of the Legal Costs Adjudicator. Substantial groundwork, including the setting up of new procedures, a register of determinations, devising and promulgating new rules of court, training and a range of other preparatory work will have to be undertaken and completed before this transition can take place. To address these issues, a number of new sections were inserted in the Bill which make provision for the extension of the period of office of a Taxing Master for a period of up to three years, in section 6, and the procedures to be followed for the completion or carryover of any work in hand at the office of Taxing Master, in section 7. In addition, an amendment was made to section 139(2) of the Legal Services Regulation Act 2015 in order to rectify a discrepancy arising from the language used in the section in its current form. The Long Title was amended to reflect the deletion of the three sections. Paragraph 18(6) of the eighth Schedule to the Courts (Supplemental Provisions) Act 1961 provides that a person appointed to the office of Taxing Master shall not be eligible for reappointment or to have the term of appointment extended. Section 6 has been designed to overcome this prohibition. It does this by seeking to allow for extension of the term of appointment concerned up to a maximum of three years. This is to be found in the proposed new paragraph 18(7) of the eighth Schedule.

Section 7 amends the eighth Schedule to the Courts (Supplemental Provisions) Act 1961 by the insertion of a new paragraph 18A. The new paragraph deals with a variety of working options to be applied in completing the functions of a Taxing Master which may not, on the occasion of his or her vacating office, have been fully performed. The amendment is considered necessary in order to allow for the completion of matters referred for taxation which may be in train at the time a Taxing Master vacates his or her office. Section 8 amends section 139(2) of the Legal Services Regulation Act 2015. The Department was advised by the Office of the Attorney General that this amendment to section 139(2) was required in order to rectify a discrepancy arising from the language used in that section in its current form. The effect of the proposed amendment is to confirm, for consistency and legal clarity, that the chief legal costs adjudicator and the legal costs adjudicators being referred to may be appointed by the Government. This should remove any legal ambiguity that might otherwise arise from that section’s current use of the word "Minister".

On section 9, several provisions in the licensing Acts, one of which dates from the 19th century, contain requirements in relation to the rateable valuation of licensed premises. In each case, the rateable valuation of the property concerned must be considered by the court in the context of granting a licence for the sale of intoxicating liquor. The provisions have in common the fact that they were enacted prior to the introduction of planning legislation and their objective was to ensure certain minimum standards were met by licensed premises. They have, however, been overtaken by the detailed planning provisions of the Planning and Development Acts and may now be repealed.

Section 10 is a standard provision related to the Short Title of the Bill. This is an important but largely technical Bill. For the reasons stated, I commend it to the House.

I thank the Minister of State for his very comprehensive outline of what is an important but very technical Bill. It is probably the most technical speech I have heard in all of my time in the House. Senator Niall Ó Donnghaile has eight minutes.

Never fear, I will not be using the full eight minutes. I do not want to prolong the agony for my fellow valiant Senators who have lasted the pace this afternoon.

The Minister of State already knows the Sinn Féin position on the Bill. We tabled some very modest amendments to it, but, unfortunately, they were not accepted. However, we still have an opportunity to reflect on the very sincere and genuine contributions that we sought to make on the Bill, as well as to consider what it is about, what it seeks to do and, most importantly, whom it seeks to help. From my party's perspective, legislation should, first and foremost, help tenants in rental properties, as opposed to the banks. That point has been made by my party as recently as last night in the Dáil. We will have an opportunity to return to the Bill on Tuesday. While we are opposed to it on this stage, we will hold our fire until we return to it on Tuesday. Given some of the contributions made in the Dáil by Sinn Féin and others, there will be an opportunity to reflect further and, I hope, amend the Bill for the better.

I thank the Senator, in particular for his brevity.

As the Minister of State, Deputy David Stanton, said, this is a largely technical Bill. In the justice area one often deals with legislation arising from court judgments. This Bill is largely the result of rulings of the courts in July this year.

It is technical. I respect the fact that there are minor changes the Minister of State would like to make, as we all would, and those changes are in train. New politics is working very well. The role of this Parliament is completely different from that of any previous Dáil and Seanad because the Government has no choice but to listen and take amendments on board from across the House that are constructive, which is good for politics. However, I would much prefer to see consensus-style politics which works very well in other countries but which is still in its infancy in this country. It will be a very interesting and exciting chapter in the political history of the country and our society will be far better for it.

I am delighted to support the Bill. I commend the Minister of State who has had a very busy six months. I am sure he is looking forward to some downtime over the Christmas period. I wish him well in that regard.

I thank the Senators for their brevity and words on the Bill. On behalf of the Tánaiste and Minister for Justice and Equality, I thank the House for facilitating an early discussion of this short rather technical Bill. As I stated, it contains important provisions related to court jurisdiction and the rateable valuation system. Moreover, a number of important amendments to the Bill were tabled on Committee Stage in the Dáil on the position of Taxing Master and the transition of that post to the new Office of the Legal Costs Adjudicator.

Enactment of the Bill will be accompanied by the making of a commencement order by the Tánaiste and Minister for Justice and Equality which will bring provisions originally enacted in the Civil Liability and Courts Act 2004 into operation, namely, sections 45 to 48, inclusive, and 50 to 53, inclusive. These contain provisions which determine the Circuit Court's jurisdiction on the basis of a property's market value, rather than its rateable valuation. Where the market value is less than €3 million, the Circuit Court will have jurisdiction. Otherwise, the proceedings will be heard in the High Court.

The Bill includes two amendments to the Valuation Act 2001 which were designed to clarify the evidentiary nature of a certificate issued under section 67 of the 2001 Act and to provide that certificates issued under that section were based on the value of other comparable properties appearing on valuation lists existing prior to the roll-out of the new valuation system under the 2001 Act. The amendments will ensure section 67 will continue to operate as originally intended by the Oireachtas.

The Bill contains important provisions on the position of Taxing Master and the transition to the Office of the Legal Costs Adjudicator, as provided for in the Legal Services Regulation Act 2015. The Bill also provides for the repeal of a number of rateable valuations related to licensing provisions which have been overtaken by the detailed provisions of the planning and developments Acts.

This is an important but largely technical Bill which, for the reasons stated, I commend to the House.

Question put and agreed to.

When is it proposed to take Committee Stage?

Committee Stage ordered for Tuesday, 20 December 2016.

When is it proposed to sit again?

At 11 a.m. next Tuesday.

The Seanad adjourned at 3.55 p.m. until 11 a.m. on Tuesday, 20 December 2016.