Léim ar aghaidh chuig an bpríomhábhar

Dáil Éireann díospóireacht -
Wednesday, 25 Mar 1981

Vol. 328 No. 1

Courts Bill, 1980: Committee Stage (Resumed).

Question again proposed: "That section 30 stand part of the Bill."

The Committee on Court Practice and Procedure in their sixth interim report, and again in their twelfth interim report, recognised that this effectively absolute right to transfer from the Circuit Court to the Central Criminal Court was in need of curtailment. The President of the High Court has also expressed great concern at the provision. While the ostensible justification for this law is to provide an alternative location in the event that a local jury might be biased either for or against an accused person, many applications for transfer are made for much more pragmatic reasons than this. It may suit a party's legal advisers better to have the trial held in Dublin, or it may suit an accused person to take advantage of the long delays in the High Court generally to, as it were, put off the evil day.

While there will still be a need to offer a choice of jury to people accused of indictable offences, and indeed the prosecution, no end of justice is served by transfer up to a higher court. In cases outside of Dublin it is true that transfers to the Central Criminal Court mean that the jury will be drawn from a panel less likely to be influenced by local prejudice. But the same would apply in a transfer to another Circuit Court venue. In Dublin cases, as the law stands, there is no benefit by way of non-local juries to be gained by transfer to the Central Criminal Court, as juries for both courts are drawn from the same population base.

I have said already that no end of justice is served by a transfer upwards from the Circuit Court. In fact such transfers result in a serious disservice to the ends of justice. It is a startling and disturbing fact that over 80 per cent of the business of the Central Criminal Court over the last three legal years has been work transferred from the Circuit Court, a court which by law has full jurisdiction to hear such cases. The Central Criminal Court was set up to deal with crimes of the utmost seriousness but its capacity to deal with such matters is being seriously diluted by the sheer volume of cases transferred up to it. It is no mere cliché to say that justice delayed is justice denied. This is exactly what is happening to those accused of serious crimes. There is a delay of about seven months between setting down and hearing of a case in the Central Criminal Court and this delay is directly attributable to the volume of transfers from the Circuit Court.

What then are the options? Clearly one that has been the subject of serious consideration is the complete abolition of the right to transfer substituted by a discretion to be exercised by the Circuit Court judge where he was of the opinion that there was a serious possibility of bias or prejudice on the part of a local jury. This is not proposed at present, in part because it might not be considered fair to the House to introduce such a radical departure to existing law by way of an amendment to a Bill which deals principally with civil jurisdiction matters. I would like to make it clear, however, that the option still remains open in the future and if the situation warrants it we may well find ourselves debating just such a proposal in the context of a future Bill.

Given that a less radical modification would be more appropriate at this stage, what is now proposed is that the transfers should no longer be from the Circuit Court to the Central Criminal Court in Dublin but to the Circuit Court in Dublin. This right of transfer will be subject to precisely the same conditions, such as time limits for notices to the other party, as at present. This proposal will enable the parties in a country case to avoid a trial before a local jury. Consideration has been given to a number of other means of satisfying the requirement of transfer out of the original court. The possibility of transfer to any other circuit to be decided by the judge has been examined and, indeed, it has not yet been ruled out as a subject for future legislation. However, there are practical problems of pure organisation which would be involved in setting up a system to enable a judge to determine which circuit should take the case and obtain the consent of the judge of that circuit. In the limited time available it would not be feasible to solve these problems. The possibility of permitting transfers from Dublin to another circuit was ruled out because of the possibility that individual Circuit Court judges might be unfairly burdened.

I have discussed the section now proposed with the President of the High Court, the President of the Circuit Court, the chairman of the Courts Committee and the Director of Public Prosecutions and I am satisfied that what is proposed will meet the requirements of justice and will remedy and injustice caused by the practical effects of the existing provision on the High Court lists. I am also satisfied that the Dublin Circuit will be able to absorb any increased workload arising from this proposal. As I have said before, however, the proposal before us today is not necessarily the last word on the matter. It is as a result of the operation of this provision. If I find it necessary to propose further changes in the law I will not hesitate to bring a Bill before the House.

This is obviously the first time one has had the opportunity to hear the Minister on this very important section and it behoves us to spend a few moments teasing out precisely what is implied by it. I gather from what the Minister said that he recognises, as was mentioned on the Second Stage debate, that there is a problem in relation to the operation of the Circuit Court's criminal jurisdiction, that is, the fundamental right to a trial by jury of an accused person which is in itself essential and fundamental and should not be tampered with. There are times when this right is particularly appropriately obtained as, for example, when local circumstances or other reasons might prejudice the fair trial. There are, however, strong grounds for thinking that the procedure presently available is being to some degree abused and that there are some accused persons who transfer not because they fear the existence of prejudice on the part of the jury or any of the reasons which underlie the need for the transfer or the opportunity presented by it but because they are aware of and disapprove of the sentencing policy of the Circuit Court judge involved which, of course, brings in another dimension to all this, that is, as Deputy Fitzpatrick was saying earlier on in this debate, that there are certain judges that we might call defendants' judges and others who have different types of known dispensations in relation to how they treat the people who come before them. Is the Minister proposing in this section to abolish the absolute right to transfer? Is that what I understood him to say?

No. There is provision in the section for an application either by the prosecution or by the accused and either party, on giving seven days' notice to the other party, can avail the provision which provides for the right of transfer.

The judge makes a decision on the basis of an application from either party?

He has no choice in the matter.

How does the Minister see that the section will bring about an improvement, if the essential situation, the right of the accused to transfer, is as untouched as it was prior to this? Presumably every accused person who would, allegedly, abuse such a situation will continue to do so.

The right of transfer will now be from the rural Circuit Court to the Dublin Circuit Court. There is no right of transfer from the Dublin Circuit Court to another Circuit Court in Dublin. The right obtains only in county areas: someone from Monaghan, Roscommon or some other place may transfer to a Dublin Circuit Court for the reasons I have outlined. The whole purpose is to ensure greater opportunities for seeking a remedy and for expediting the hearing of these cases by reducing the pressure that exists in the High Court at present.

Does that mean that there will be a dual standard, that if you happen to be before the Dublin Circuit Court you have less rights to seek an alternative trial location than if you were from County Roscommon, for example?

In relation to the position of the jury, in Dublin there is a much wider panel of jurors to be selected from than anywhere else, but it is the same process. The view we have expressed here is that by transfer to the Dublin Circuit Court we are affording people an opportunity to be tried elsewhere, because they might feel that there was a certain bias or attitude prevailing amoong jurors in rural Circuit Courts.

That is fine in itself. What about the position of a person who might wish, due to the circumstances surrounding their alleged crime, their apprehension, incarceration and so on in the Dublin context, to be removed from their local environment? I can see how the need is met for somebody living outside Dublin who may feel that, because of their locale, prejudice might arise. They are now given a trial which will be independent of that, but what about a person in Dublin who feels similarly about a trial in Dublin? How is that concern and fear to be met by somebody living in Dublin? I appreciate that the grounds for such a fear might not be as great, but they can exist. I am anxious about creating a double standard, depending on where you come from.

A superficial analysis of the section now proposed will indicate that a distinction is being introduced between persons returned for trial in and outside the Dublin area. On closer examination of both the existing and proposed provisions it is clear that the distinction already exists. Transferring from the Circuit Court in Dublin to the Central Criminal Court under existing law does not avoid a jury drawn from a common pool which both courts share. That is something which is very relevant and important in relation to a reply to the Deputy's question. Thus removing the right of upward transfer does not worsen the position of the Dublin person who is accused. The distinction is, in any event, more apparent than real. The area covered by the Dublin Circuit Court contains in or around one third of the population of the State. It contains, as does any modern capital city, a representative cross-section of the various traditions of life as well as urban dwellers whose background is firmly rooted in city life. It contains a high proportion of people with strong links with rural areas, provincial towns and villages. A jury drawn from such a dense and cosmopolitan base cannot be regarded as local and is less likely to suffer from the natural local prejudice or bias towards or against the accused which might occur concerning a crime in a rural area or a provincial town where greater opportunities exist for knowing more about each other and each other's business.

The degree of knowing is what we are talking about. I accept that somebody from the city centre of Dublin is less likely to be prejudically treated in that regard than——

Does the Deputy take my point on that basis?

I do, but I am anxious to ensure that we do not create one standard of justice for Dublin people.

That will not arise. There is a common pool between the High Court and the Circuit Court in Dublin. Juries are selected from the same panel of jurors.

The Minister said he consulted with the Judiciary and others. Did he say "others" in this regard?

Yes. I am satisfied that what is proposed in the section is adequate to deal with the situation and necessary for the purposes of handling a very over-worked High Court at the moment.

I agree there is a problem. I am not yet convinced that this is the right answer to the problem.

The Deputy may rest assured that I will constantly review the matter.

I am a little surprised that the Minister has introduced this amendment. This provision was not in the original Bill and there is no note about it in the explanatory memorandum. I would like to know why the Minister suddenly decided to bring in this amendment. The Bill we are dealing with is mainly a civil Bill, a family Bill, and does not have criminal jurisdiction. When did it strike the Minister and the senior officials in the Department of Justice to bring in this amendment on Committee Stage without having made any reference to it before? The amendment has been tabled properly — I am not questioning that and it is in order — but it strikes me as strange and unusual to bring a matter relating to very serious criminal cases in to what is basically a civil matter. I should like to know what type of indictable offences will now be heard in the Circuit Court. What other types of cases has the Minister in mind to go before the Central Criminal Court? I presume the Minister intends keeping on the Central Criminal Court to deal with cases.

All indictable offences except murder, piracy or treason.

I hope the Central Criminal Court will not be overun by cases relating to the latter two mentioned. Do I take it that we are now going to reach a situation where a serious bank robbery, perhaps half a million pounds taken, with firearms used, may go to a Circuit Court? The accused will be originally charged in the District Court. If my interpretation of what the Minister said is correct, it means that a serious bank robbery case may be heard in the Circuit Court. What is the maximum sentence that a Circuit Court judge can give?

The sentence which is prescribed by law.

The Minister of State is opening up a huge field here.

The Circuit Court in normal times have the facility, the right and the jurisdiction to try these cases. It is only in very special times such as we are in at the moment and have been for some time that the Special Criminal Court is the place where the type of criminal case that the Deputy has referred to, armed robbery, is being heard, and the sentences provided for in that court and the Circuit Court are the sentences prescribed by law. There is no change in that situation and this section does not intend to change that. We are dealing with a facility to handle a very heavy workload in the High Court. I think I mentioned that the time at which I decided that it was desirable and necessary to have this new section included in the Bill at this time is not relevant. This Bill is the Courts Bill, 1980 and to consider it purely in the context of family law matters would be——

I said "civil" as distinct from family law jurisdiction as regards tort, contract and so on.

In the Bill we are ensuring that the best possible and maximum changes in the best interests will be provided for.

We are getting into a debate on the Bill now. We have an amendment before the House and we are broadening the case on this too.

The point I want to make is that very serious crimes that have been going before the Special Criminal Court I presume are going to continue for the present.

Yes, but that is not relevant to this.

I appreciate that.

There is no change in that. I remind the Deputy that on Second Stage he made quite a lengthy contribution on the delays in the High Court and I thought that maybe he would be the first to acknowledge what we are doing to try to alleviate this delay.

I appreciate that, but I would be concerned that very serious crimes that would be a matter for the High Court or Central Criminal Court may go before the jurisdiction of the Circuit Court.

No, the case that the Deputy makes in point goes before the Special Criminal Court. I have mentioned that murder, piracy, treason and related criminal cases must go to the Central Criminal Court.

Does grievious bodily harm go only before the Circuit Court?

All indictable crimes with the exclusion of the ones I have mentioned.

There is one other thing I would like the Minister of State to consider. Although it has been in existence since 1964, I would not like to see as a normal practice cases that could and should be heard in the ordinary way in a county circuit court venue transferred by the State from places like Castlebar in Mayo, Kerry and everywhere else to Dublin. I would not like to see this becoming a general rule because the defendants generally would be inconvenienced and put to considerable expense.

The right to apply for a transfer exists at the moment. This section provides a facility to make an application for a transfer from the rural circuit court to Dublin Circuit Court instead of to the Central Criminal Court. The question of where cases are prosecuted is a matter for the DPP who is a statutory officer independent and separate from the Judiciary or executive as such.

Amendment Agreed to.

I move amendment No. 35:

In page 13, before section 30, to insert the following section:

"30.—(1) The Minister may, by regulation, at regular intervals and not less than every 3 years after the enactment of this Act, vary the amounts specified in sections 2, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14 and 28 of this Act.

(2) In fixing the amount to be specified in subsection (1) of this section the Minister shall take into account the variation in the Consumer Price Index in the period for which the regulation is to be made and shall consult the Chief Justice and the President of the High Court.

(3) A draft of every regulation proposed to be made under this section shall be laid before each House of the Oireachtas and the regulation shall not be made until a resolution approving the draft has been passed by each such House."

This amendment relates to a new section which we wish to insert prior to section 30. The essence of this is to try to bring about some sense of realism into the costings, prices, fining policy and all monetary aspects of this legislation. I consider it nonsensical that we get inconsistency about the standards of law and justice in our courts day in and day out by virtue of the ludicrous, outdated, inflation-eroded figures that are contained in our Acts of Parliament. I do not believe that the mechanism of the ministerial order, which is better than none I suppose, or the mechanism of new legislation are appropriate to such updating, the former because ministerial orders are usually extracted unwillingly from a Minister only after he has been bludgeoned into some kind of submission.

That is the Deputy's experience.

That is the problem we have over here. Secondly, new legislation is, to use a cliché, pie in the sky and because of the way this House does its business I do not know how any legislation gets enacted. It is so protracted, and I suppose we are all party to that. As long as we have this linear approach to Bills we are going to have a log-jam of legislation and I do not know how we are going to get new legislation to up-date the figures involved in this. I defy anyone to say that it is not common sense that the Minister may by regulation at regular intervals, and not less than every three years after this Act comes into power, vary the amounts specified in sections 2, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14 and 28 of the Act. I could say in parenthesis that just yesterday we heard a demand from the Garda Representative Authority for updating in relation to fines some of which are as low as 5s which have been left there because nobody has bothered to up-date them over the years. That is a disservice to everybody, to the gardaí who are trying to do the job, to this House and to those people who wish to accord with reasonable standards of law and order. I ask then that a mechanism be put into this and every other Bill to remedy this. Deputy Ryan before lunch made a comment that perhaps some omnibus kind of legislation could be introduced into this which would allow a Minister to deal with this aspect of all legislation. Variations of these amounts would be commonsense variations to take account of inflation which at present, as the Minister knows, give or take a point or two, is running up to 20 per cent, certainly a lot more than it should be, and it seems it will continue to run at that level.

It was 25 per cent one time.

I resist the temptation.

We are not going to debate inflation.

No, it is a pity really.

The Deputy was wrong on that.

We will let the Minister off that one. We will not embarrass him by talking about inflation at great length. However, regardless of which Government are in power, it is likely that inflation is going to continue to erode the real values provided in the Bill. In subsection (2) of the section which we propose should be added we make the commonsense suggestion that in fixing these new amounts the Minister would take into account the variation in the CPI for the period in which the regulation is to be made and should consult the Chief Justice and President of the High Court with a view to the Minister, as the elected representative of the Government and the people of this country, being able sensibly and sensitively to make adjustments to the legislation without the necessity of dragging other legislation through this House and embroiling everybody in a long and tedious debate about something that is only commonsense to the average citizen. If a figure is seen as just at a point in time in the context of a particular Bill, then to continue that concept of justice applying to it, that figure should relate to the economic context of the day and should be regularly updated automatically without making controversy and without demur from anybody.

The Minister would be entrusted with this authority and if people were generally dissatisfied with his stewardship in this direction, they would have the option of a course of action which would allow them to comment, favourably or otherwise, on the way he did the job. In that section, thirdly, we ask that a draft of every regulation proposed to be made under this section shall be laid before each House of the Oireachtas and that the regulations shall not be made until the resolution approving the draft has been passed by each such House. That in itself is a very good safeguard and one which might meet the objections of the Minister for Justice who, when he was asked, via a Dáil question, about the possibility of introducing this flexibility and taking this authority unto himself, made the point that the fixing of such fines or of such monetary limits was of sufficient importance for the whole parliament to be involved. He had another reason of somewhat similar weight which eludes me at the moment. Both reasons were almost facetious.

We should be concerned here with matters of substance, of policy, of fundamental concern, not matters of updating fines to relate to the consumer price index which should be an automatic, administrative procedure. It is a joke to pretend that much of our legislation is just and fair when the amounts of money involved are derisory, having been long since outdated. This gives an incentive to those who have no high regard for the law to carry on wantonly. Take, for example, the Planning Acts. Breaches of these warrant a fine which is a joke.

I am making the case very strongly that this section, or some section which embodies the sense of this proposed section, would be enacted by the Minister to take into his hands the authority and responsibility for adjusting all references in this Bill to monetary limits in line with the prevailing economic indicators. We would then get consistent standards of justice, where fines or any monetary aspect of this Bill came into play. That would give consistency of justice meaning that there would not be good economic times for getting awards or bad economic times, or that the farther away one got from the enactment of the Bill the more jocose and derisory the actual award became. For example, the stress money we were talking about this morning is an example of one of the sections referred to here. That would automatically be updated and index-linked. We are not looking for anything revolutionary. We are looking for commonsense applied to legislation. One of the by-products of the Bill would be the streamlining to some degree of the work of this House in relation to at least this Bill. I would be happy to see this concept applied to all legislation so that we would not have to debate new fine limits, award limits or monetary limits of any kind because they would be automatic except in the rare cases where some basic revision or rethinking has gone on which indicated that there should now be major changes in that respect. I hope I am making myself clear to the Minister. It is nothing more than commonsense. I hope that the Minister will accept that and endeavour to embody our request in the legislation. I am not particularly concerned about our amendment which may not be the best technical drafting of the proposal. However, it embodies what I believe to be a commonsense approach to the legislation and to this Bill in particular.

The proposed new section would permit increases in certain jurisdictions of the District and Circuit Courts by way of Ministerial regulation. While I accept the reasoning behind the amendment in so far as it is aimed at doing things more efficiently, there are a number of objections, both of principle and practice, to the course proposed. First, it is my view, and the view of many Members of both sides of the House, that the setting of jurisdiction limits in the District and Circuit Courts is too important a matter to be left to Ministerial order and is appropriate to an Act of the Oireachtas alone.

The courts have a very special position under the Constitution which would make changes in the scope and extent of their jurisdictions a matter which should be decided only by the Dáail and the Seanad. I recognise that the Deputy, in the final subsection of his amendment, proposes that such changes should not take effect until a resolution approving them has been passed by both Houses. Whatever advantage by way of time is to be gained by such a procedure over and above the introduction of a Bill to deal with the matter, this would not, in my view, compensate for the Bill procedure which affords Deputies and Senators an opportunity of suggesting amendments to the detail of what is proposed.

The facility for Deputies and Senators is particularly important when, as in the present case, the new jurisdiction limits do much more than merely compensate for increases in the cost of living since they were last set. Substantial, real increases are being given to the lower courts. These will have the effect of changing the relationships between the courts of first instance so that they will be better able to reflect the changing role which is required of them in society. The necessity to alter jurisdiction limits periodically to account for shifts in money values affords an ideal opportunity for reviewing this changing role and can be followed by a Bill to implement both types of changes. The provision on the lines proposed by Deputy Keating would tend to fix the jurisdiction limits of the courts and the ratio set by this Bill and permit changes based only on the consumer price index. The proposal would not obviate the need for reappraisal of the ratios from time to time and alteration of those ratios would, in any event, require legislation.

Apart from these general objections to the section proposed by the Deputy, and leaving aside any technical points of drafting which arise out of this, there are one or two details on which I would like to comment. First, tying jurisdiction limits to the consumer price index in the way proposed by Deputy Keating would result in some extraordinary figures with fractional amounts of pounds. Secondly, while in any review of jurisdiction matters it is important to consult with the Chief Justice and the President of the High Court, I am at a loss to understand why Deputy Keating omits the Presidents of the Circuit Court and the District Court from the list of persons to be consulted. After all, it is in their courts that the effect of the Deputy's proposed restrictions would be most felt.

Nothing which the Minister has said answers the essence of the proposed amendment. His arguments are twofold — first, that if there be a change in the jurisdiction of the courts it should be a matter for discussion in this House, I would agree with him, if there were to be truthfully a change in the jurisdiction. However, the changing of a figure of £5,000 to £7,000 outside of a parliamentary debate merely to take into account inflation, the updating of costs and so on, simply cannot accurately be described as a change in jurisdiction, if the jurisdiction is defined as being the true cost or the true value of the money at that particular time.

I would not suggest that the Minister, or anybody outside the House, should have power to make major changes in legislation without going through the parliamentary process, but that has not been suggested. What has been suggested, no more and no less, is that we should take account of the fall in the value of money. That is all. Jurisdiction, per se, is not affected. It is simply recognising that the figure in itself is not the true jurisdiction. The true jurisdiction is that figure in the context of other economic indicators. That figure should remain more or less a constant; that is the argument. That constant should be automatic, otherwise we get different standards of justice. Someone who is today awarded a judgment which, let us say, is X times a certain economic prevailing value will find that in two, three or four years time, unless this section is accepted, that value has dropped.

I argue strongly that on no two days in the courts do we get a consistent standard of justice, merely because we are too sluggish and too tardy in this House to accept what is nothing more than good economic sense. I am not asking for a change in jurisdiction but for an honest recognition that values change, week in week out, and in the last number of years in this country they have changed very rapidly.

If the Deputy wants recognition of that, I will certainly give it. I stated, at the outset, that there is much reasoned argument in what the Deputy is saying. However, there are other practicalities which we must consider. One is a constitutional matter and the special position of the courts in this country. What the Deputy says may have some justification for consideration, but application of it in law might be very difficult indeed, because of the constitutional situation. I doubt if we could proceed to make the type of change proposed which, on the one hand, would be an interference with a court system and court procedure constitutionally protected since the founding of the State.

One would imagine that we were going to take over the running of the courts.

Now the Deputy is being facetious.

I am sorry if I am. The courts are for the service of the people, in any case. They are there to implement legislation, impartially, independently and with commonsense and to carry out the laws which we enact in this Parliament. No one has suggested any interference with that process and all I am suggesting is that if a particular figure is adjudged to be appropriate in 1980 it should not take lobbies and battalions of protest to Leinster House and numerous representations and the rise and fall of different Governments before that figure is once again in the fullness of time updated. I am making a strong case and I am supported in that case by the Garda Síochána and other interested parties who say that the current values of fines are derisory in many respects.

That is in a criminal matter.

I am dealing here with the principle of economic commonsense in legislation.

We are talking about principles in relation to the proposed section in matters of civil law and the Deputy is dealing with fines which are a matter of criminal law and are not relevant at all on this section.

I am trying to establish a principle whereby automatically, and without tedious debate inevitable in this House, such fines can be increased by some process or mechanism which is fair and just and does not require 148 good men and women, appropriate officials and the whole trappings of Parliament to recognise the simple fact that the pound today is not worth what it was in 1970 and will not be worth in 1990 what it is worth today. Mechanism can be introduced to do what I am asking. I do not care what mechanism it is. We have gone to the trouble of suggesting a particular one here. I am not tied to this if the Minister has a better one. A new Bill is not the way, because that would be a case of "live horse" and we will simply not get it. That is so far removed from reality it just will not happen and the Minister knows that in his heart of hearts. We certainly know it. It would also be unnecessarily cumbersome and unfruitful. However, even that is not being offered to us in some instances here.

In the preparation of this Bill and this particular section — the Deputy will be delighted to know this — very close examination and scrutiny was given to this particular matter. What the Deputy seeks was considered inappropriate for two reasons. With the best intentions and the best will in the world we could not, and cannot hope to bring about something in acknowledgment of the Deputy's pleas which would be reasonable. But the inherent importance of the issue, many would say, justifies the full attention of Parliament itself acting through the legislative process. That was one reason. A second reason was the special constitutional position of the courts, which arguably makes it inappropriate for Parliament to seek to delegate to any other authority the right or power to determine the level of jurisdiction of particular courts and, quite candidly, of the two that was singularly the most difficult one.

Does the Minister consider the updating, in the light of prevailing economic indicators, of a monetary sum in this Bill a change in jurisdiction in real terms?

It is technically.

The Deputy asks a question and he agrees with me and then all he attaches to it is that it is a technicality.

That is all it is.

There is much more than that involved. There are constitutional implications involved and, having taken advice from very eminent authorities, I am quite satisfied of that.

I am not impressed by any excuse or device put forward as a reason for inaction in the face of a commonsense demand.

If the Deputy wishes to continue this to a logical conclusion all he is doing is simply suggesting we should by law do something now that we never dreamt of doing hitherto and it is not the intention of this Government to do such a thing in the future, namely, to interfere in any way with the separation of the courts and their constitutional position. Indeed, the Deputy's statements would tend to cause very grave and serious concern among the public because they are tantamount to suggesting interfernce with what is enshrined in the Constitution and the special position of the courts.

That is a little grandiose.

It is not.

It is unjust.

The Deputy would be restricting the courts.

I am not interested in arguing whether or not we refrained from acting in that area hitherto. Many things that should have been done in the past were not done. All we are doing here is making a bit of a mountain out of a molehill. All I am asking is that we recognise automatically and without full parliamentary debate that a sum fixed in a certain year, which is in that year seen to be just, will simply graduate into degrees of injustice unless it is automatically updated. There is no interference with the true jurisdiction. I am sure it is the Minister's concern that there should not be, but there is nevertheless a recognition right throughout the country that to fix a limit, as we did earlier today, in relation to mental distress and pretend that that limit will be fair in ten or 20 year's time is nonsense. That must be admitted by the Minister and the Minister must therefore have some mechanism where by the figure can be updated to avoid injustice. That is all I am asking.

We are having a great deal of repetition and repetition is not in order.

I have acknowledged the Deputy's reasoning and that reasoning also occurred inside the Department and elsewhere in the preparation of this Bill but, because of the reasons I have outlined, particularly in relation to the Constitution, I am not prepared to risk——

Where there is a will there is a way.

——delaying this legislation, because we would possibly wind up having the validity of what is proposed challenged.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
Question proposed: "That section 30 stand part of the Bill."

Before we pass to the next section I want to bring a matter to the attention of the Minister.

There is no way the Deputy can make something that is not in the Bill relevant on Committee Stage.

Unfortunately, I have not got an amendment down.

The Deputy may not propose an amendment at this stage.

He can propose an amendment to section 31.

If it is not in the Bill, it will not be relevant.

It is in connection with the Civil Liability Act of 1961, which has already been dealt with.

The Chair is dealing with section 30, which deals with repeals. The Deputy may not raise extraneous matters.

On a point of order, I should like to have the matter clarified further before we come to the Title of this Bill.

We have not come near the Title yet. We have another section and we have two or three further amendments.

I shall raise it when those amendments have been dealt with.

Question put and agreed to.

I move amendment No. 36:

In page 14, before section 31, to insert the following section:

"31. —(1) This Act shall not come into operation until the Minister for Justice shall make a declaration enunciating that Court personnel, facilities and services are adequate to ensure the working of the Act.

(2) The Minister for Justice in making a declaration under subsection (1) of this section shall consult with the Chief Justice and the President of the High Court.

(3) As soon as may be after the making of such a declaration, the Minister for Justice shall cause it to be published in Iris Oifigiúil.

This section is one that we have been hinting at throughout the debate. Its effect, if accepted, would be to ensure that this Act does not come into operation until the Minister for Justice shall make a declaration that court personnel, facilities and services are adequate to ensure the working of the Act; secondly, that the Minister in making a declaration under subsection (1) of the section shall consult the Chief Justice and the President of the High Court; and, thirdly, as soon as may be after the making of such a declaration the Minister for Justice shall cause it to be published in Iris Oifigiúil. We propose this new section because many of our courts are kips, hovels——

Are we discussing 36b and 36c?

No. We are discussing amendment No. 36, which proposes to insert a new section.

They are places which, if they were not in public ownership, would undoubtedly have been condemned. I shall try not to repeat much of what we said earlier about the propriety of dealing with family law cases in courts that I could name which do not have a consultation room, seeing, according to the Bill now introduced, the future of a child of eight, nine or ten years of age being debated under an umbrella in the rain outside the court or in a bar across the road or in a car, places where in some cases the legal representatives of one party or the other had to bring in cardboard to try to stop the rain coming through the ceiling, where justices not usually the most provocative of men have gone on record as describing the conditions in which they have to work as disgraceful—in short, environments which . are inimical to standards of justice which we consider appropriate.

It is not as if we were unaware of this; if we are unaware of it we must be asleep. I should like the Minister to take a little time to visit, if necessary with some of ourselves, some of the court facilities we refer to. He should look, for example, at the Children's Court, which has long been a subject of abuse. Without exaggeration, it rivals on occasion, depending on the atmosphere prevailing and the number of cases, the Black Hole of Calcutta. It is not a place in which I would want any child about whom I knew or indeed any child at all to have to spend very long. We know that sometimes circumstances arise where cases, particularly in the District Court, have to be dealt with rapidly. I wonder to what extent the appalling conditions in some of those courts contribute to rough and ready justice being administered. That is no reflection on the people involved, but simply an understanding that we work best in reasonable conditions. If conditions are such as to impact detrimentally on standards of justice or the administration of law in the court—I submit they are—we do justice itself a disservice. We have an immediate obligation to allocate whatever resources are necessary to bring about improvement.

I would not wish to be fobbed off with the answer that I am talking about hundreds of thousands of pounds; I am not. The idea of the court as a vast hall with columns in front and steps up which one walks and where one is usually dealt with deferentially in hushed tones is I believe, something out of the past. I see no reason why a local community building cannot be a court, or a school classroom in certain circumstances, or why we could not use badly under-utilised public buildings all over the country. All we are looking for is decent standards for the unfortunate clients who daily have to parade through these courts, the personnel who have to work in them daily and for the men and women—hopefully more and more women—we expect to administer judicial commonsense and sound judgment. That is not too much to ask. If these people were in any other walk of life they would have gone on strike long ago.

Therefore, we are concerned that the increased jurisdiction which this Bill foists on the District Courts and Circuit Courts cannot but mean that as soon as the Bill becomes operational there will be an increased workload at District and Circuit Court level. In my view that argument is not open to contradiction, Yet there has not been an iota of extra resource commitment to handle this increased workload. The Minister has said that he and his senior colleagues will monitor the situation carefully. It will be part of the great national pastime of keeping matters under review, areas to be looked into.


Yes, "updated", "constant monitoring" and "regular review". I know what that means—that the Minister hopes it is the responsibility of somebody else in the future. I do not blame the Minister as a human being for that, but I believe we could do better without asking for major economic resources at a time when such resources are obviously very scarce. I cannot remember any time when they were not scarce, but we are told they are very scarce at present and we see the evidence all around us. We are not asking for the building of new courts but simply asking for decent facilities in which unfortunate people who are brought before the courts, and whose good or ill fortune it is to be there, can operate. That is not too much to ask. We ask it because of our concern with the standards of justice, and that is what the Minister is concerned about. He has said repeatedly that this Bill is designed to give people greater access to the District Court, people who formerly had to go to the High Court. That is great, but if the Minister is truly concerned about access he must accept that people will take the opportunity and that more cases will come before these courts.

Take Rathfarnham, and there are similar cases all over the country. I have letters from people in the legal profession who testify that they have to work in what one describes as a cowshed and another as a place more resembling the club room of a football team than a court. I do not know all these cases first hand. I know some because we have a certain number in my own constituency and a fair number of my constituents find themselves among the patrons of the courts—perhaps in time we may be able to change that also if we honestly believe that we can bring about these changes. I simply ask will the Minister today give a guarantee that he will recognise the increased workload of the District Court and the Circuit Court, and that he will do so by allocating pro rata resources that are obviously necessary?

I could quote from the Incorporated Law Society's submission on the Bill and from various bodies and groups that have made representations. The Minister has these also. Suffice it to say that they are unanimous on few things more than this one. There is no point expecting two pints to fit into a point bottle. I firmly believe that, if this Bill becomes law without the necessary resources being made available, we will be doing many people a disservice and injustice will arise as a result.

Why should a case of family law, about the guardianship of a child, be dealt with in a court in which there is not even room for the family to sit down and discuss with their legal advisers the right way to go about their case? That is a statement of fact. Where will that family be accommodated? How will the interests of the child be respected? Does the Minister consider it appropriate that the future of a young child is to be decided on the edge of a footpath? Are the people representing the child supposed to take instructions, give counsel's opinion, listen to counsel and discuss the case in a makeshift way? That is not good enough and nobody can accept it. I am asking the Minister to accept this.

Before this legislation becomes law I want the Minister, having consulted with the Chief Justice and the President of the High Court, to make a declaration to this House, that the people most involved have agreed that the proper facilities are available and that the court personnel are adequate to ensure the working of the Act. The declaration will then be published in order to satisfy everybody that the circumstances in which this Act is to be operated are satisfactory. I feel very strongly about this, not because it is a matter of industrial relations in the courts, which is important, but because quality of justice in the courts will be to some extent dictated by the circumstances, by the availability of personnel and by the resources and facilities available. At the moment they are very bad.

In his Second Stage speech at column 81 of the Official Report, the Minister said:

Deputies will be aware, of course, that legal responsibility for courthouse accommodation around the country generally rests with the local authorities and that particular problems have arisen in a number of areas in this regard. However, a good deal of essential preparatory work in improving the situation has been done and I am glad to be able to tell Deputies that I have in preparation a set of proposals relating to courthouse accommodation which I will be putting to the Government in the near future.

I am anxious to know what stage these proposals have reached? The time has come when the provision of courthouses must be the total responsibility of the Department of Justice. Local authorities have enough problems on their hands. The provision of courthouses is very low on the priority lists of many county councils and it is unlikely that they will rise on that list in the near future. I have been in many courts over the years. I have been in dance halls, bingo halls and billardrooms where courts were held and I considered the conditions in some of those places to be scandalous. In western films we see courts being held in saloons. They were like the European Court when compared sith some of the places where justice was administered in this country where there was no proper heating, seating, toilet facilities and so on.

This situation will not be resolved satisfactorily until responsibility for courthouse accommodation rests squarely on the shoulders of one person — the Minister for Justice. To this end a major policy decision is necessary. Because of the additional work in the District Courts there will have to be increases in the number of District Court clerks, shorthand typists, welfare officers and those who provide ancillary services. It is essential that major changes be made. This Bill should not become law until we make adequate provision and rapid improvements to the places where courts are held. I am particularly concerned about family matters being held in District Courts where present accommodation is so unsuitable, and I would be totally against family law matters being heard in some of our existing courthouses.

We have seen a number of very funny television programmes, such as the Frank Hall programme, dealing with different aspects of life. We were very lucky the producers did not get around to visiting our courthouses, because in many cases they make a mockery of the places where our courts are held. I am making this comment more in sadness than anger. I am not trying to make a political argument, because courthouse accommodation did not get bad suddenly over the last few years. They have been a disgrace for at least 20 years. Our District Courts are a national scandal. The reason for this is divided responsibility.

When local authorities build new libraries they could provide additional rooms for courthouses. If there is a breakdown in our court system it will fundamentally affect everybody. When people leave the court after a decision has been arrived at, they should be happy in the knowledge that they got a fair hearing and that everything was proper and just. At present many people have a real sense of grievance and the accommodation situation is largely responsible. I believe we should have microphones installed in courthouses. In many instances people in the body of the court are unable to hear what is being said and cannot follow the case. The Minister should examine this matter. The whole District Court situation is abominable.

My understanding was that amendments Nos. 36b and 36c were to be discussed with amendment No. 36 as they deal with the same matter. I should like the Chair to give a ruling on this.

The Chair's brief was that amendment No. 36 was being taken on its own, but I agree that the other two amendments deal with the same subject, that is, the time when the Bill would become operative. I would think that the other two amendments could be debated with amendment No. 36. Is that agreed?

It is agreed, but it would have helped if we had known earlier.

The Deputy may speak on the other two amendments if he wishes.

The Deputy's proposal for a new section is contradictory and serves no useful purpose. it is contradictory not only because it is incompatible with the commencement provisions in section 31 of the Bill, which it is not proposed to delete, but also because it runs directly counter to some of the points the Deputy has been arguing forcibly during the debate.

Section 31 is framed in such a way that some provisions of the Bill will take effect as soon as it is passed, and provides a time-lag for the remainder. The provisions which are to take effect immediately relate to the new judgment debt interest rate, the new limit for mental distress in fatal accidents and the changes in the law relating to the Judiciary. In none of these instances is it necessary to make the declaration which the Deputy would have the Minister make. Indeed the amendment which the Deputy has put down to section 28 is aimed specifically at making the change in the level of compensation for mental distress effective at an earlier date than proposed. The adequacy of court personnel, facilities and services is simply not relevant. Nonetheless, the Deputy's proposal could only delay the implementation of the jurisdiction changes and the other provisions and would hold these important provisions up also.

As regards the arrangements for introducing the new jurisdiction limits, the provisions for registering District Court decrees and extending the application of interest, section 31 provides for a time-lag for their coming into effect. This delay will permit the rule-making bodies to make Rules of Court which will be necessary in order to make the new arrangements fully effective. Having given further consideration to the likely work involved in preparing and bringing into effect these new rules, and the other likely practical requirements for the operation of the new jurisdictions, I am of the opinion that a time-lag of 12 months rather than six months would be more appropriate, and amendments Nos. 36b and 36c give effect to the revised period. This extra time will also provide an opportunity to make better progress on the accommodation proposals which the Minister referred to on Second Stage and to give detailed consideration to the administrative arrangements for the best use of the available court time and accommodation. I am satisfied that by the time the main proposals of this Bill regarding jurisdiction come into operation, the arrangements for the distribution of business in the District Court will be such that that court will be able to handle whatever increase in workload may result.

I have said before that the operation of the lower courts will be kept under close review for some time after the introduction of the new jurisdiction arrangements. At the best estimate available at present, it is likely that the District Court will be the only one whose caseload will increase as a result of this Bill; demand on Circuit Court time is not likely to change significantly. However, if as a result of actual experience in either court under the new dispensation there arises a need for the appointment of additional judges, justices or court staff, I will not be slow to take whatever steps are required to fulfil that need. It is not possible to estimate the effect which the improved access to the courts afforded by this Bill will have on the volume of business. It follows therefore, that it would be a futile exercise to make new appointments on the basis of what can only be, at this stage, guesswork.

As the Minister indicated on Second Stage, the proposals in this Bill have been drawn up following careful consideration of the practical consequences. In saying this, I would like to place on record that consultations on these proposals have taken place not only with the Chief Justice and the President of the High Court, but also with the Judiciary in the Circuit and District Courts and with many other interested persons and bodies. Thus the section proposed for insertion in the Bill is unnecessary, and is opposed.

Deputy Enright inquired when the new proposals for improvements in court structures and accommodation will be made known. I expect they will be going to the Government within a matter of weeks.

Can the Minister give us any information about these proposals?

It is not the usual practice to inform the House before the Government.

It would be churlish of us not to acknowledge that the Minister has responded somewhat generously to our promptings on more than one occasion. In this case he has at least allowed the time before the Bill becomes operative to be increased from six months to 12 months.

The Minister points to alleged contradictions in my approach. If that is the case, one is also slightly mystified at the Minister's assertions this morning that the new £7,500 mental distress figure is adequate and appropriate and will come into effect almost immediately, yet at the same time he has increased from six months to 12 months the period before the Bill will become operative. This means that it will probably be about three or four years before mental distress sums are likely to be paid.

Am I right in assuming that responsidiction bility for the maintenance and improvement of court buildings rests with the local authority?

That is the case in almost all situations. Regarding mental distress, the section provides for the implementation of that aspect as soon as the Bill becomes law.

Have the local authorities responsibility for maintenance of courts?

Yes. All these matters are being considered.

What does the Minister expect will be the rate of inflation this year and next year?

We are dealing with the Courts Bill, not predictions of inflation.

Would the Minister accept that it will be in the region of 18 per cent?

I would not accept anything the Deputy would say about inflation.

Would the Minister accept anything the media would say about inflation?

I would not do so in order to support the Deputy.

Could we accept that the figure for inflation will be about 18 per cent?

I do not necessarily accept it.

The Minister must be aware that the increase in the allocation this year to his local authority is 12 per cent on last year's figure. Is that correct?

The Deputy's comments have no relevance to the Courts Bill. I have explained my intentions to the Deputy. There is no more mileage in this for him.

I am not talking about mileage. I am trying to establish facts. I am suggesting that the appalling conditions of courthouses which are the responsibility of the local authorities will, in the absence of a real commitment from the Minister, do nothing other than degenerate further on the basis that this year's allocation to local authorities is not adequate to cope with inflation. Even spokesmen from the Minister's party have accepted this.

The Deputy has got a commitment that I have said will be honoured.

I do not wish to be curt or rude about this matter but a number of commitments were given in a now infamous document and many of them were not implemented. I am stating that standards in our courthouses leave much to be desired.

I have never denied that.

This year those whose job it is to maintain the courts have less money than last year but we are asking the courts to undertake more work. I am asking how that adds up. I am not talking about future commitments but about tomorrow and next week.

The Deputy is posing questions that should be addressed to the Minister for the Environment. They have no relevance to the commitment I have given in relation to this Bill.

Does the maintenance of the courts concern the Minister?

That is not my responsibility or the responsibility of the Minister for Justice.

I am asking the Minister if they concern him.

Of course they do. Many matters that are not my direct responsibility concern me, including the possibility that the Deputy might misrepresent me.

I have no doubt the Minister will be the first to correct me if that is the case. I would not wish to do that, deliberately or otherwise. I do not think it can be denied that the amount of money local authorities have available to spend this year is less in real terms than their allocation last year. That is not misrepresentation: it is a statistical fact.

That is a matter for the Minister for the Environment.

It is a matter for the Government. This is a Government Bill.


This Government have collective responsibility.

Very well. Then the Minister accepts that this is a matter about which he should be concerned?

I have said I am concerned.

How does the Minister expect that the condition of courthouses can be improved if the Government do not give adequate money to the responsible agency? By that I mean even the same amount as was given last year, even though by definition this would not be adequate because inflation is running at 18 per cent. In effect the Minister is asking the District and Circuit Courts to take on work for which they are clearly unsuited. The result will be a further deterioration of standards. I am completely dissatisfied with the Minister's commitment. I believe he means well but his colleagues will not give him the money because it is not there.

I have said the proposals will be before the Government in a matter of weeks and, if accepted, I am satisfied they can adequately cater for what is in this Bill. It is irrelevant to guess at any figures provided to local authorities at the moment.

Does the Minister deny any of the figures I have given?

I am not in the business of being in conflict with the Deputy with regard to figures he is just mentioning off the top of his head. He does not know what are the Government's proposal.

That is in the future. We are dealing with this Bill now.

The Bill will come into force in the future. I am telling the Deputy that all of this will be adequately provided for in the next 12 months.

I would be a fool to be lulled into complacency on the basis of promises from that side of the House, especially after the experience of the past three-and-a-half or four years.

There is another year-and-a-half to go. That may help the Deputy to change his mind.

There are a number of matters that will have to be implemented in the near future such as dealing with cases of mental distress and suffering or the loss of a person which may arise under a civil liability Act and the extension of jurisdiction of the District and Circuit Courts. Because of the sensitive nature of family law cases we should refrain from placing such work in the District Court until work is undertaken on improving the courthouses. I will not go over that ground again because it has been dealt with quite adequately.

I take it that the Minister's proposals will be before the Government in a matter of weeks, perhaps even before 1 May. I would be very seriously concerned if the Government proceeded with the proposal that family law matters be heard in existing courthouses. That would be totally unsatisfactory and irresponsible. Such places are a disgrace and place a question mark over the whole system of District Courts. I ask the Minister to come back to the House if possible before June with regard to the proposals. The matter is urgent.

During this discussion the Minister has made many references to reports of the Committee on Court Practice and Procedure, indicating he was guided to a considerable extent by the reports. I should like to quote one sentence from the 1970 report — the 12th interim report. Paragraph 21 of that report states:

The facilities at the courthouses in many of the less important venues are unsuitable for the hearing of civil cases which take any length of time.

During this debate the Minister gave considerable weight to the committee's deliberations and he should respect their findings in this case also. I could quote from comments made by the Incorporated Law Society and other organisations who are not prone to making anything other than seriously considered remarks. All of them are at one on this matter. They do not share the Minister's relative satisfaction and they have sought guarantees that the facilities be made available prior to the legislation coming into operation. Apparently that will not be the case. The people will be the losers.

Is the amendment being withdrawn?

Is the Minister not accepting it?

Amendment put and declared lost.

I move amendment No. 36a:

In page 14, subsection (3), line 9, to delete "20 to 23" and to substitute "20, 21, 23".

Amendment agreed to.

I move amendment No. 36b:

In page 14, subsection (3), line 10, to delete "six months" and to substitute "on the day that is twelve months".

Amendment agreed to.

I move amendment No. 36c:

In page 14, subsection (4), line 13, to delete "six months" and to substitute "on the day that is twelve months".

Amendment agreed to.
Question proposed: "That section 31, as amended, stand part of the Bill".

We understand that the Minister will have to look at section 23 in relation to amounts of less than £150. If we can get agreement on that matter we are satisfied. Otherwise we will put the section to a vote to record our dissatisfaction. We appreciate the progress made on Committee stage and we look forward to Report Stage.

I had intended to table an amendment but through a misunderstanding I did not succeed. I would have asked that the Civil Liability Act——

This is totally irrelevant.

I should like to be able to discuss this on Report Stage. I am referring to the liability of a road authority in relation to the maintenance of a public road.

It has not the slightest relevance to the Bill.

I will be putting down an amendment on Report Stage.

Question put and agreed to.

I move amendment No. 37:

In page 14, Part I, column (3), to delete "Section 35 (3) and reference number 45 in the Fourth Schedule" and to insert "In section 10, subsection (2) and, in subsection (3), the words ‘, or where he is not available, the senior ordinary judge of the High Court who is for the time being available'; Section 35 (3)".

Amendment agreed to.

I move amendment No. 37a:

In page 14, Part 1, after "No. 39 of 1961", to insert—

"No. 39 of 1964; Courts Act, 1964; Section 6".

Amendment agreed to.

I move amendment No. 38:

In page 14, Part II, under "No. 48 of 1936", to insert—

"No. 39 of 1961; Courts (Supplemental Provisions) Act, 1961; Reference number 45 in the Fourth Schedule.".

Amendment agreed to.
Schedule, as amended, agreed to.
Title agreed to.
Bill reported with amendments.
Report Stage ordered for Wednesday, 1 April 1981.