I propose to take Questions Nos. 1192, 1205 and 1231 together.
Under the provisions of the Courts Service Act 1998, management of the courts is the responsibility of the Courts Service, which is independent in exercising its functions. Furthermore, the scheduling of court cases and the allocation of court business are matters for the Presidents of the Courts and the presiding judges who are, under the Constitution, independent in the exercise of their judicial functions.
However, in order to be of assistance to the Deputy, I have had enquiries made and the Courts Service has informed me that they activated enhanced Covid-19 Level 5 protocols in January 2021, in agreement with the Judiciary. The enhanced protocols meant that Courts remained open for urgent matters in areas of family law, criminal matters (especially cases involving people in custody), bail and urgent Judicial Reviews or Article 40 applications. Non urgent proceedings were adjourned. Following the Government announcement to extend current Level 5 restrictions, the Courts Service and the Judiciary agreed to continue the existing Covid-19 Level 5 protocols into the month of March 2021.
In line with the direction of the President of the Circuit Court, Cork Circuit Court family trials are adjourned while restrictions are at level 5.
In relation to divorce cases, it is a matter for each Circuit Court to evaluate cases before it to decide how to proceed and whether they are suitable for remote hearing. A Cork Circuit Court Judge sat for two days last month and 30 consent divorces were dealt with in the courthouse on those days. A small number of additional cases were held last week to trial the use of Virtual Meeting Room (VMR) technology in such cases. If successful, I understand that more consent divorce cases can be listed.
The Courts Service informs me that the District Court Judge in Cork is hearing urgent domestic violence applications (protection orders, interim barring orders and barring orders) and cases involving emergency care orders. The Judge is also taking ex-parte applications and where there are signed consents between the parties, these are being ruled. Access and maintenance cases and safety orders are adjourned to dates later in the year. In addition, some additional Court dates have recently been added to allow more matters to be heard and disposed of.
The Courts Service has also advised that while facilities are not available to hear cases remotely in Midleton Court, a District Court Judge has sat on additional days to the scheduled dates so that the court list can be processed over more court days.
The Courts Service confirmed that cases involving lay litigants cannot proceed using VMR technology. This is to ensure that the in camera rule would not be breached, that there is no undue influence at play, or that matters are not recorded. VMR courts are being used to call over child care cases with a limited number of legal practitioners who practice in this area.
The Courts Service has assured me that the situation is kept under review in light of the current Level 5 restrictions. Any applications for a remote or physical hearing in respect of urgent matters as they arise can be made to the Judge in charge of the Family Law list.