Amendments No. 112 and 113 can be taken together. Is that agreed? Agreed.
I move amendment No. 112:
In page 15, subsection (1), line 4, before "Proceedings" to insert "In".
I agree with the thrust of section 33 and the effort to make the proceedings as informal as possible, consistent with administration of justice. Nevertheless I am concerned that the phraseology in the section as set out in the Bill is somewhat meaningless. It is very difficult to define. It would be very difficult to get the same approach from different judges and, therefore, I believe it would be unfair to some litigants. I suggest that the section should read, "In proceedings before the District Court", under the various Acts listed in the section, "the district justice may order that such rules of procedures as he decides may be dispensed with in the said proceedings. . .". That means you are not tied to wigs and gowns, whether you must sit around a table or particulars like that and yet it is related to the rules of procedures. In other words, it is tangible and you can understand what you are dealing with. You are either using all of the procedures or you are not using all of them. The Bill as it stands says that the proceedings shall be "as informal as is practicable" and I think that bears tidying up.
I also added in at the end of the amendment the words "shall be heard separately from other proceedings in that Court". I am very concerned that there be some separation of family law proceedings, in particular in areas outside Dublin, as between contract cases, criminal proceedings — I do not know if that is so relevant — and different types of cases that are heard before and after family law cases. It must be very difficult to maintain an informal atmosphere and a different approach, which this Bill requires if one hears that the next case has to do with probate law or whatever. Therefore, as far as practicable it should be the case that they be heard separately.
I want to raise a point in regard to the suggestion in amendment No. 113 of laying it exclusively on the shoulders of the district justice to ensure that proceedings are as informal as practicable. Rather sad developments took place in the Metropolitan Children's Court in the past in Dublin where I understand that it was very much at the behest of the district justice presiding there that his concept of the informality of those proceedings was that Garda Síochána attending and working at the court should do so in uniform. For that reason I think it helps to highlight the fact that views of district justices on what is or is not informal can vary dramatically. I prefer the wording in the Bill as it stands because it is wider and allows for all parties to have a role in saying what is and what is not informal. Obviously, the administration of justice in any particular court is the ultimate responsibility of the presiding judge but nonetheless, to have a broad-based expression of legislative will in this area is a desirable precedent to set. It will be available to any party concerned with the administration of justice in any court as a guide and as an aid in arguing for a development or relaxation of facilities. In regard to the amendment I think it reposes too much of that in the hands of the district justices presiding and, that is not necessarily the best way of dealing with this.
With regard to amendment No. 113, I think it is unnecessary. Section 33 (1) is framed on the same lines as section 23 (3) as amended by the special committee on 29 June last. It is unnecessary to provide, in addition, that the district justice may dispense with the rules of procedure.
Amendment No. 113 also aims to provide that the family law proceedings in the District Court shall be held separately from other proceedings in that court. We have already discussed that matter in full when dealing with section 22.
Deputy Colley's amendment would appear to go further than is required under section 22. My opposition to the mandatory wording of section 22 has already been fully explained and I do not want to delay the proceedings by repeating it again. Suffice it to say that the same arguments arise here.
The mandatory wording of the final part of Deputy Colley's amendment No. 113 is equally objectionable in that it may bring about the imposition of a charge on the Exchequer. I must oppose it for that reason, although I am not opposed to the principle of what she is suggesting.
I am anxious that the Bill should bring about a uniformity of approach on the part of district justices. As the section is originally phrased, it deals adequately with the position. I would share the views expressed by Deputy McCartan. I would not agree with the Minister about the latter portion of the wording of Deputy Colley's amendment which I would have happily inserted if we could take it on its own. I am referring to the part which says, "and such proceedings shall be heard separately from other proceedings in that court". That, in reality, is the current position anyway and that is one of the reasons why it was not necessary to put it in the Bill. My experience of District Courts and family cases, not just in Dublin but outside Dublin, is that nowadays in practice all district justices — I stand to be corrected on this but certainly any of the cases I have seen happening or I know of — are currently hearing these cases either in chambers or in a court that is cleared at a time when they are not hearing other matters.
Indeed, if Deputy Colley wants to withdraw the amendment and put in the latter part of the wording, "and such proceedings shall be heard separately from other proceedings in that court", on Report Stage, I will happily accept it. We have such a provision in other sections relating to the other courts although the Minister does not agree with it. There is no particular reason why we should not have it here for the sake of uniformity in the Bill, though in practice the reality is that this is now happening. I would have some reservations about leaving it to different district justices as to what they mean by informal. I am not sure there is a great deal of difference between myself and Deputy Colley on this but, perhaps, she might consider holding back on this amendment until Report Stage and, possibly, bringing one back containing the last portion of what is contained in it.
I remain to be convinced that the phrase, "shall be as informal as is practicable" is one that is workable. That is my objection to the section. I do not believe that that is workable. Deputy McCartan referred to the fact that he felt district justices on their own will not make such a decision, that it will be open to any of the parties to make an application. I do not know how that will happen under the section as it is presented. I feel this is very nebulous. Notwithstanding that, and taking into account what Deputy Shatter has said about the last part of the amendment, I agree to withdraw it and retable an appropriate one on Report Stage.
I suggest that the report of the Special Committee be as follows: "The Special Committee has considered the Bill and has made amendments thereto. The Bill, as amended, is reported to the Dáil". Is that agreed? Agreed.
I would like to take this opportunity of thanking the Minister, Deputy Alan Shatter and the various party spokespersons for their co-operation during the Committee Stage of the Bill. In particular, I should like to thank the party spokespersons who submitted amendments within the time limit set down. I know that was difficult and I appreciate the fact that the time limit was complied with. I should also like to thank the members for their co-operation in the course of the meetings, for not making a political issue out of the proceedings on most occasions and for dealing with the Bill in a very constructive and positive manner.
I should like to thank the Chairperson for her assistance in handling the delicate issues that arose now and again.
As the mover of the Bill, I thank the Chairperson for her perseverance, tolerance and guidance in carrying us through the Committee Stage which has been somewhat lengthy. I should like to thank all members of the special committee on all sides for their co-operation in coming back during the vacation period and allowing us to complete the Committee Stage before the Dáil resumes after the summer recess. May I express the hope that we will be able to similarly co-operate with all parties in the House to have Report Stage brought before the Dáil well before the Christmas recess so that the Bill can be completed and taken out of the Dáil and sent on to the Seanad.
I should also like to thank very sincerely the administrative staff for the very efficient way they dealt with the business of the Special Committee, particularly Jane Mathews. When the Dáil was in session there was a lot of pressure on the administrative staff. I should like to thank the new clerk, Dick Caffrey, who has been with us today. I do not think we expected to see him only for one day but I would like to thank them all very sincerely for the way they guided me, a Member who has never chaired a committee such as this in the past.
On a point of order, do we have to fix a tentative date for the Report Stage?
The procedure is that I will be making a report to the Dáil and will move that the report of the proceedings of the Special Committee be published and that the Bill, as amended, be printed. A date for Report Stage will then be agreed.
The Special Committee concluded business at 5.10 p.m.