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.