I move: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."
The main purpose of this Bill is contained in section 1 which provides for an increase from seven to nine in the statutory maximum number of ordinary judges of the High Court, ignoring for the moment the terms of section 14 of the Law Reform Commission Act, 1975, which provide inter alia that, in certain circumstances, the number shall be one more; an increase from nine to 11 in the statutory maximum number of ordinary judges of the Circuit Court; and an increase in the statutory maximum number of justices of the District Court—in addition to the President—from 34 to 39.
The Bill also contains certain changes in existing legislative provisions regarding assignments of Circuit Court judges. These changes are to some extent made necessary by the increase in the number of ordinary judges proposed in section 1. However, the opportunity has been taken to consolidate in one Bill all the existing provisions relating to assignments. Section 3 contains certain consequential provisions, including the necessary substitution of a new paragraph for paragraph (b) of subsection (1) of section 14 of the Law Reform Commission Act, 1975.
Recent years have shown a very substantial increase in High Court business. Between 1970 and 1976 the number of cases set down for hearing increased by 151 per cent and, although there was an increase of 143 per cent in the same period in the rate of disposal of cases, serious arrears have accumulated. As a result, the position at the end of the Michaelmas term in December last was that 1,335 cases awaited hearing. This unsatisfactory state of affairs has been exacerbated by the fact that Judge Pringle was appointed full-time chairman of An Bord Pleanála in January of this year which has resulted in the time of one of the ordinary judges of the High Court now being fully absorbed by sittings of the Special Criminal Court, and this will continue while the existence of that court continues to be necessary.
To highlight the seriousness of this situation it is sufficient to point out that the average time-lag between the setting down of a jury action and its coming on for trial is now about ten months. The last occasion on which an increase in the number of High Court judges took place was in 1973 when the Courts Act, 1973 increased the number of ordinary judges from six to seven. At that time there was a time-lag of about 12 months between the setting down of a jury action and its coming on for trial. As a consequence of the appointment of the seventh judge this time-lag was reduced by mid-1975 to five months.
I should also mention here that in the past two years there has been a sharp increase in the number of family law cases coming before the High Court. The coming into force of the Family Law (Maintenance of Spouses and Children) Act and the Family Home Protection Act during 1976 has intensified that increase and the growth in the number of such cases is expected to continue. The position has already been reached where the hearing of these cases accounts, for all practical purposes, for the full time of one judge. I am sure the House will agree that, having regard to the nature and special urgency of such cases, any avoidable delay in dealing with them cannot be justified.
As Deputies will be aware, I have already arranged for the provision of special additional court facilities for the hearing of family law cases in rented accommodation in the immediate vicinity of the Four Courts. These facilities are intended as a temporary measure pending completion of the redevelopment of the Four Courts Hotel site which has been purchased for the purpose of enabling the existing courtroom accommodation within the Four Courts proper to be considerably increased.
The Government are satisfied that the growth in the volume of High Court business generally will continue for the foreseeable future and that, accordingly, the proposed increased complement of High Court judges will be fully occupied even after sittings of the Special Criminal Court cease. This, then, is the background to the proposal to increase by two the statutory maximum number of ordinary judges of the High Court.
The maximum number of permanent ordinary judges of the Circuit Court authorised by statute—section 2 of the Courts Act, 1964—is nine. However, section 14 of the Courts of Justice Act, 1936, authorises the Government temporarily to increase that number whenever it appears to the Government that such a step is necessary to prevent the work of the Circuit Court getting into arrears either generally or in any particular circuit or circuits. Successive Governments have, over the years, found it necessary from time to time to increase temporarily the number of Circuit Court judges to cope with the persistent growth in the business of that court and, in recent years, to contribute judicial time to the sittings of the Special Criminal Court. At the moment the full complement of Circuit Court judges includes two "temporary" judges. These appointments were necessitated by the continuing growth in the volume of court business and the involvement of Circuit Court judges in sittings of the Special Criminal Court the membership of which now includes three such judges.
The business of the Circuit Court has, as I have already indicated, continued to grow over the years and this growth has accelerated in recent years. Between 1970 and 1976 the growth in the overall business of the court has been of the order of 30 per cent. The Government are satisfied that the business of the Circuit Court will continue to grow for the foreseeable future and that, accordingly, the existing complement of 12 judges including the President of the Circuit Court, is the minimum number that is now required and that will continue to be required to cope with the business of the Circuit Court even when sittings of the Special Criminal Court cease.
The Government are also satisfied —and I am sure the House will agree with them in this—that in such circumstances it is unjustifiable that two judges should continue to hold office on a temporary basis. Accordingly, the Bill provides for an increase of two in the statutory maximum number of ordinary Circuit Court judges. I may add that it is the intention of the Government that the two serving "temporary" judges be made permanent so that the question of new appointments does not arise as a result of this provision.
Section 28 of the Courts (Supplemental Provisions) Act, 1961, provides that the number of justices of the District Court, in addition to the President of the District Court, shall not be more than 34. However, as in the case of the Circuit Court, the Government are authorised to increase that number temporarily whenever it appears to them that such a step is necessary to prevent the work of the District Court getting into arrear. This authority is contained in section 51 of the Courts of Justice Act, 1936.
At the present time, in addition to the complement of 34 permanent justices, five "temporary" justices stand appointed. One of the temporary justices is, of course, required to make good the loss of the permanent district justice who acts as full-time chairman of An Bord Uchtála. The number of such justices was increased from one to five during the years 1973 and 1974 because of the need for more justices to cope with the then rapidly increasing volume of business and the substantially increased demand that sittings of the Special Criminal Court were making on the services of district justices. The overall volume of District Court business increased by about 43 per cent between 1970 and 1976 and the Government are satisfied that the volume of business will continue to increase.
Another pertinent factor is the growth in the number of maintenance cases following the enactment of the Family Law (Maintenance of Spouses and Children) Act, 1976. Due to their complexity and delicateness each of these cases can account for a proportionately large amount of court time compared with, for example, parking cases. The position has been reached where the existing complement of 39 justices, in addition to the President of the District Court, is the minimum number that is now required and that will continue to be required for the forseeable future to cope with the business of the District Court even when sittings of the Special Criminal Court cease, and also to continue to provide a full-time chairman for An Bord Uchtála.
As I have already pointed out in relation to the Circuit Court, it is, in the Government's view, unjustifiable that in such circumstances five justices of the District Court should continue to hold office on a temporary basis. Accordingly, the Bill provides for an increase of five in the statutory maximum number of District Justices. Here again, it is the Government's intention that the five existing "temporary" justices should be given permanent appointments so that the question of new appointments does not arise.