I am very happy to present this Bill to Seanad Éireann and to discuss it with the Members of the House. As Members will be aware, it is the Government's intention to progress the Bill through all Stages in the House today and I look forward to the exchange of views that will flow from the debate.
This important legislation constitutes the Government's response to the new challenges posed to our courts and legal systems from the current pandemic. However, the Bill goes beyond the pandemic and will make many of our legal processes more efficient and effective into the future. I have no hesitation in saying that this Bill is urgently needed and, overall, it represents a substantial modernisation and reform of our courts and legal systems.
The Bill covers a wide range of issues relating to both our civil and criminal legal systems, such as the reform of the law concerning coroners in the context of the current pandemic, the introduction of a statutory basis for our courts to conduct remote hearings in civil proceedings; the admissibility of business records as evidence in civil proceedings; the lodgement of documents with the courts by electronic means, or e-filing; the lodgement of what are called "statements of truth" with the courts by electronic means as an alternative to the swearing of affidavits; provision for the wider use of video links between persons in custody and the courts; enhancing and widening the existing provisions on giving evidence through video link; providing for appeals in criminal proceedings to take place via remote hearing; removing the existing requirement to transport prisoners between prisons to execute a warrant; providing for the remote meetings of State bodies, unincorporated bodies and bodies designated by Ministers of Government; the execution of documents in counterpart; and making it easier for the Courts Service to alter the operating hours and sitting locations of the District Court.
I will now outline the provisions of the Bill. As many Members will know, the provisions of Part 1 are standard in nature and are common to nearly all legislation.
Part 2 contains urgent amendments to the Coroners Act 1962. The main provisions, at sections 7 and 8, provide new powers for the Minister to authorise temporary additional capacity in the coroner system as necessary to meet the risks and challenges arising from the Covid-19 pandemic. Section 6 is a standard definition section to reference the principal Act, which is the Coroners Act 1962.
Section 7 inserts a new section 11B in the principal Act entitled Assignment and appointment of temporary coroner in exceptional circumstances. The section applies where a coroner makes a written request to the Minister, justifying the need for a temporary additional coroner in that coroner district. The justification must satisfy the Minister first, that exceptional circumstances arise due to the number or nature of deaths resulting from a pandemic, catastrophic event, or other mass fatality occurrence, and second, that the requested extra capacity is necessary, to increase the number and progress of coroner inquiries into deaths in the coroner's district.
If so satisfied, the Minister may assign or appoint a temporary additional coroner to that district for a period not exceeding six months. This may be renewed, each time for a period not exceeding six months, on a fresh request from the coroner of the district, but only if the Minister is satisfied with the up-to-date justification provided.
If the coroner district is outside Dublin, the Minister will consult the responsible local authority before deciding on the request. The Minister is responsible for the Dublin coroner district. A temporary coroner under this section will have all the powers and duties of a coroner for the district concerned during the period of appointment or assignment, other than the power to appoint a deputy. He or she will effectively be acting as an additional coroner. Where a temporary coroner is assigned or appointed, the Minister shall designate the requesting coroner as the senior coroner for the district, and that senior coroner will order the work of the district to ensure coherence.
Section 8 inserts a new section 13B in the principal Act entitled "Arrangements for coroners' districts other than coroner's district of Dublin". This section provides that, in the exceptional circumstances already described, where the coroner of a district so requests in writing, the Minister may authorise the deputy coroner of that district to act concurrently for the coroner, during a period not exceeding six months, which may be renewed. The deputy must have consented to so act. The same justification is required for this request, and for any renewal, as under section 7 of this Bill and the same arrangements in respect of powers, duties and costs apply. The proposed section applies only to coroner districts outside Dublin. The reason is that in the Dublin coroner district, the deputy coroner is already authorised to act concurrently with the coroner under a Dublin-specific temporary provision at section 13A of the principal Act, which is valid until 2022, having been introduced by my predecessor, Deputy Flanagan.
Section 9 proposes to amend section 14 of the principal Act, which sets out the qualifications required for appointment as coroner or deputy coroner. The effect of the amendment is to add an appointment as temporary coroner under the proposed new section 11B to the situations which require those qualifications.
I now move to the issue of the reform of the law concerning civil proceedings. Section 10 of the Bill, in Part 3, chapter 1, simply provides for a definition of the term "civil proceedings" in this part of the Bill. More substantively, Part 3, chapter 2, provides for the remote hearing of civil proceedings. As Members can all appreciate, current social distancing rules are causing disruption to, and difficulties for, court hearings and this is leading to delays in the administration of justice. In the current climate, this is particularly challenging for the Courts Service in maintaining the efficient and continued operation of our courts. I am sure the Members in the House will agree that we must do everything we can to assist our courts and to protect the well-being of those engaging with them.
Section 11 makes provision for remote hearings in civil proceedings. This provision enables a court to direct that any category or type of civil proceedings be conducted remotely. A court may make such a direction either of its own motion or on the application of any of the parties. Participants will take part in a remote hearing by electronic means and from a location other than the courts itself, whether inside the State or outside the State. A court shall revoke a direction to participate in a remote hearing where, for whatever reason, it would be unfair to any of the parties to do so, or it would otherwise be contrary to the interests of justice to do so. It shall also be an offence to make a recording of a hearing without the permission of the court. In addition, a judge may participate in a remote hearing notwithstanding the fact that he or she is not physically within his or her district or circuit. In summation on this chapter, the conducting of remote hearings will be an important tool to facilitate the efficient dispatch of court business, will increase court efficiency and will provide a mechanism to overcome the current difficulties.
I now move on to Part 3, chapter 3 of the Bill, which concerns the admissibility of business records in civil proceedings. The reforms in this chapter are based on the recommendations of the Law Reform Commission in its 2016 report "Consolidation and Reform of Aspects of the Law of Evidence" and reflect similar provisions in the Criminal Evidence Act 1992. The commission's report considers that business records are possibly the most common form of hearsay evidence presented in litigation and their legal status is of particular importance. In the great majority of cases, and in the previous absence of a statutory basis, many litigants in civil proceedings agree to admit documentary hearsay evidence in order to expedite proceedings or to spare themselves an adverse costs order if the objection proves unfounded. However, in a minority of cases, certain litigants, most notably those who would be incapable of satisfying a costs order in any event, may insist on proof of each and every document. These cases have posed increasing difficulties for our courts in recent years and highlight the need for statutory intervention. In its report, the commission recommends that records compiled in the course of business, because they are generally reliable, should be admissible in civil proceedings as an inclusionary exception to the hearsay rule, subject to the safeguards set out in the Bill.
This chapter provides that in civil proceedings, any record in the form of a document compiled in the course of business shall be presumed to be admissible evidence of the truth of the fact or facts asserted in that document. This does not mean that the record cannot be challenged in court by any party to the proceedings.
The remaining sections set out provisions concerning oral evidence in respect of those documents, the rules around providing copies of documents where the original is not available, the procedure and timeframe for supplying documents to the court and the power of the court to determine whether it is in the interest of justice to admit documents as evidence, among other issues. Before moving on, I would like to thank the Law Reform Commission for laying the groundwork for this chapter and particularly for the assistance it provides to my Department and many others through its invaluable work.
Chapter 4 provides for two important measures concerning the use of electronic means in civil proceedings. The first concerns the remote lodgement or "e-filing" of documents with the courts and the second concerns the provision of statements of truth as an alternative to the swearing of affidavits and the ability to lodge those with the courts by electronic means.
Section 20 of the Bill introduces the use of electronic means in civil proceedings. This will be available as an alternative to the lodgement or filing of documents or applications in paper form. Rules of court may specify the conditions under which documents can be submitted by electronic means. The current crisis highlights the benefits and necessity of providing these services. This is a long-term solution which will be of particular assistance while the current restrictions continue but will provide the Courts Service with the legislative basis needed to progress court procedural and process reform.
Section 21 provides for the introduction of a statement of truth. This may be in electronic form and can be used as an alternative as a means of submitting evidence or verifying documents to the swearing of an affidavit or statutory declaration. A statement of truth shall comply with any other requirements prescribed by rules of court. Section 21 also makes it an offence for a person to make a false statement or cause a false statement to be made. Apart from addressing the difficulties arising from the personal contact required for the preparation and witnessing of documents at present, the introduction of the statement of truth is critical to court process reform and will yield significant benefit to the Courts Service and users of court services. These changes are critical to court process reform. The introduction of these measures is essential in the context of the current pandemic but also has the potential to yield significant benefits to the Courts Service.
I will now discuss Part 4 of the Bill, which contains substantive reforms to our criminal procedure law, particularly in relation to the widened use of video link technology in criminal proceedings. This Part also includes important reforms to improve efficiency in executing warrants. These provisions are urgently needed to assist courts with the conduct of their business in these extraordinary times.
This Bill provides for the wider use of video links between persons in custody and the courts. These were formerly permitted in limited circumstances under sections 33 and 34 of the Prisons Act 2007. On the recommendation of the Attorney General, the Bill also extends provisions to cover persons not in custody so that any accused person can attend by video link, for certain applications, where the court so directs. The Bill allows the court to direct that video link will be the default for certain categories of application. Where an individual application is not covered by such a direction, the court can still direct that the application will be conducted over video link on a case-by-case basis.
In relation to the giving of evidence by witnesses over video link, the Bill, for the types of hearings covered, allows any person to give evidence via video link with the permission of the court. Currently this is permissible in limited circumstances only under the Criminal Evidence Act 1992. There is provision to allow appeal hearings in the Court of Appeal and the Supreme Court to be conducted remotely where the court is satisfied that it is fair to all parties and not contrary to the interests of justice. This includes a provision that it shall be an offence to interfere with the remote means for conducting such a hearing, mirroring similar provisions in respect of civil proceedings.
Regarding committal warrants, the Bill rectifies a long-standing problem in relation to the execution of warrants for a person who is already in prison. The Bill provides that any warrant committing the same person to prison may be executed at the prison where the person is already detained, even if that warrant names another prison on its face. This removes the need to transport prisoners between prisons and back again merely to have warrants executed. It also reduces the need for staff and personnel to do that.
Finally, there is a general provision in the Bill to allow courts flexibility to make arrangements for the just and expeditious conduct of hearings in criminal proceedings. This has been included on the advice of the Attorney General and is intended to address practical solutions such as the need to accommodate social distancing requirements, for example by spreading those present at the hearing out over more than one room.
Part 5 of the Bill introduces provisions and reforms the law on several issues. The provisions in this Part are intended to ensure compliance with social distancing and the health and safety of citizens. The provisions facilitate the continued operation via remote means of State bodies, unincorporated bodies and designated bodies. In continuing the Government's policy to make our legal system more efficient and accessible beyond the current pandemic, this Part also provides for the execution of legal documents such as contracts and deeds in counterpart, and includes a provision to assist the Courts Service in making the operation of the District Court more efficient and flexible.
I will now outline the main provisions of this Part to the House. Section 29 provides for the remote meetings of State bodies. Any business of that body conducted remotely, for example decisions taken or votes made, shall be as good and effectual as if the business or the body was conducted in person. A relevant Minister may designate a State body for the purpose of holding meetings or parts of meetings remotely, subject to certain criteria.
Section 30 provides for the remote meetings of unincorporated bodied, for example, clubs, community associations and charitable organisations, during an interim period. As in the previous section, any business of that body shall not be affected by the fact that the meeting was held remotely. For the information of the House, the interim period to which I refer shall be the three months following the commencement of section 30 or any other period as requested by the Government in the interest of public health.
Section 31 provides that bodies designated by relevant Ministers may hold hearings remotely, subject to certain criteria. A person required to attend a hearing in person shall be required to do by remote means and the designated body shall have the power to make any arrangements to conduct hearings by remote means. Designated bodies will also have the power to determine, following representations from the subjects of the hearing, whether the holding of a hearing remotely would be unfair to that person or contrary to the interests of justice. For both sections 30 and 31, where a body is the responsibility of more than one Minister, all Ministers must be consulted before a designation order is made.
Before moving on, I would ask the House to note that I intend to bring a small technical amendment to section 31 on Committee Stage.
Section 32 is aimed at bringing about efficiencies in our legal systems and provides for the execution of documents such as contracts or deeds in counterpart, subject to the requirements set out in the section.
Section 33 assists the Courts Service in the operation of the District Court. Under paragraph 26(1)(f) of the Courts of Justice Act 1953, the Courts Service must prepare and issue a statutory instrument each time it needs to vary District Court opening hours or locations. The experience of the Courts Service is that the making of orders under paragraph (f) can be quite complex and time-consuming and does not supply the flexibility necessary to address its requirements in situations such as, but limited to, the current pandemic. Section 33 inserts a new section to the 1953 Act providing that each time the Courts Service needs to vary the hours of operation, sitting location, etc., of the District Court it shall publish a notice outlining the need for change on its website. Before issuing such a notice, the Courts Service must consult with and receive the consent of the President of the District Court. This approach is less complex and more efficient than the current provision of the 1953 Act. The amendment is essential in assisting the Courts Service in ensuring the efficient operation and continuation of the business of the District Court.
This Bill contains important steps in the process of modernising our courts and our civil and criminal law systems in the light of the current pandemic and beyond. The measures I have outlined to the House today will ensure the continuity of the essential services our courts provide in manner that is efficient and safe for our citizens. I commend the Bill the House and I look forward to engagement with colleagues on its contents.