Limerick East): I move:
That a sum not exceeding £17,030,000 be granted to defray the charge which will come in course of payment during the year ending on the 31st day of December, 1985, for the salaries and expenses of the Office of the Minister for Justice, and of certain other services administered by that Office, and for payment of a grant-in-aid.
I propose that all the Votes for which I am responsible be taken together, but I shall endeavour to answer any questions on any particular Vote.
The total Estimate for all the Votes for which I am responsible is £315,111,000, an increase of 7 per cent over the expenditure for these Votes of £295,454,000 in 1984. The Estimate is made up as follows:—
Vote 23 — Office of the Minister for Justice, £17,030,000; Vote 24— Garda Síochána, £233,818,000; Vote 25—Prisons, £49,715,000; Vote 26 — Courts, £8,623,000; Vote 27 — Land Registry and Registry of Deeds, £5,806,000; Vote 28 — Charitable Donations and Bequests, £119,000.
The element of expenditure which is greatest is pay and allowances etc., which accounts for 81 per cent of the total estimates and shows an increase of 3 per cent compared with 1984.
The overall provision for the Garda Síochána in 1985 is £233,818,000. The major items included in this figure are £179 million for salaries, allowances and overtime and £31.5 million for the pensions of former members and widows of former members of the Garda Síochána. In addition, £9.5 million is being provided for travelling, subsistence and miscellaneous expenses, £7 million for Garda transport and £4.3 million for radio, computer, office and other equipment.
The provision for salaries and allowances provides for the continuation of Garda recruitment in order to maintain the strength of the force at approximately 11,400. As I have already announced the general restriction on public service recruitment is not being applied to the Garda Síochána and any vacancies occurring during the year will be filled. Over 100 recruits have been appointed so far this year and on the basis of current trends, I expect that about 150 further appointments will be made in 1985— the precise number will depend on the number of vacancies arising from retirements, resignations, etc. Overall, approximately 1,200 recruits have been appointed since the Government took office, but allowing for wasteage due to retirements etc., the net increase in the overall strength of the force in the period is over 700.
In considering the Estimate for the Garda Síochána it is inevitable that attention should be focussed to a substantial extent on the present crime situation. For some time now this has been one of the major issues confronting our society. Before dealing with some of the specific measures that have been taken to deal with crime I want first of all — even at the risk of repeating views that I have expressed before in this House — to make a few general remarks about it.
The maintenance of law and order in society is a primary responsibility of Government and it is a responsibility which this Government have taken and continue to take very seriously. When we took office in 1982 crime was increasing very rapidly and it was recognised that urgent measures needed to be taken to deal with the situation both in terms of physical measures such as prison accommodation and in terms of much needed reform in the criminal law. As Minister for Justice charged with the responsibility of implementing the Government's policies in this regard, I am happy to say that considerable progress has been made in combating crime, and Deputies will recall that earlier this year the House endorsed the action I have taken and am in the course of taking when debating a motion on the subject.
I know that some people have in the past said, and may again say, that the measures that are being taken to deal with crime fail to address themselves to its underlying causes. The causes of crime are many and varied, and there is general agreement that poverty and social deprivation have a lot to do with it. Yet, as I have pointed out before in this House, that fact of itself does not give a complete or satisfactory answer. For one thing, it does not explain how it is that many people who are poor or live in what might be termed deprived circumstances never commit crime at all. However, as the House knows from what I have said before, I accept that, by and large, persons involved in crime come from underprivileged backgrounds. These are matters we must take into consideration in formulating a balanced policy for dealing with all the ills of our society, including crime — but in the meantime we must attack the phenomenon itself and the perpetrators of it, because the people of this country expect the Government to do no less than that. Because the people have a legitimate right to demand security in their persons and property now and not at some time in the future, it is the duty and responsibility of the Government to do all it can to provide them with this.
Notwithstanding the general impression that may have been created lately of spiralling crime — an impression created mainly because of the problem of car stealing in Dublin and attacks on elderly people in some western areas— the fact is that, for the first time in many years, the level of serious crime has dropped.
In 1981 crime increased by about 23 per cent over the previous year; in 1982 the increase was about 9 per cent and in 1983 it had dropped to about 5 per cent. last year — 1984 — crime was down by 2.6 per cent in the State as a whole. In the Dublin Metropolitan Area 57,664 indictable offences were recorded, a decrease of 4.8 per cent on the figure for 1983. I am hopeful that this downward trend in serious crime can be maintained given the full co-operation of the public with the Gardaí and given the commitment of the Government to resolving the problem.
From the Figures I have given, it will be apparent that the measures that have been taken since I became Minister are proving effective. There are three main components of the policy I have been pursuing. First there is the question of reform of the criminal law — which was tackled in the Criminal Justice Act, with which the House is, I am sure, familiar and also in the legislation setting up the community service system — the Community Service Act 1984. Second, the policy aims to strengthen the Garda Síochána to make it a more effective force in the fight against crime and to increase the rate of detection of criminals, and the third main aim is to provide adequate prison accommodation to contain people sentenced to imprisonment and to ensure that those who represent a danger to society serve their sentences in full.
I do not propose to go over the ground of the legislation that has been enacted. The House has already spent a lot of time on that, and I will be coming before the House again shortly with the Complaints Bill and with the treatment regulations.
As regards the Garda Síochána. I have already mentioned that we are maintaining the force at its present high level. Maintaining the size of the force is, of course, only one of the measures being taken. Steps have been and are being taken to improve Garda effectiveness— including the technological capability of the force — about which I will say more in a moment — and to ensure that he available resources are used to best advantage. Particular emphasis is being placed on the provision of garda foot patrols, which are very important in the prevention of crime, and it is the policy of the commissioner to have as many gardaí as possible on foot patrol duty. There has been a substantial increase in the number of uniformed gardaí who are performing foot patrols and, in addition, the operation of new rostering systems is giving an improved garda presence on the beat at the times of greatest need. Of course, without the benefit of modern technological resources the force could not provide an adequate response to the crime situation and, accordingly, the development of improved communications and computer equipment for the Garda Síochána has been one of my major priorities.
The Estimate includes provision to enable the installation of the new national Garda communications network to proceed without delay. The first phase of this network is now virtually completed. This covers all of the 18 Garda Divisions outside of the Dublin Metropolitan Area and it provides the gardaí with their own independent radio communications system between divisions, between each division and its district stations and between these stations and the subdistrict stations attached to them. In all close on 700 stations will be linked in this way. This system is due to come into operation next month. The finishing touches are now being put to it and the necesary training of the Garda in the operation of the system is being done at present.
The second stage of the national network is the system for the Dublin Metropolitan Area and I recently signed a £2 million contract for the radio equipment which will go into the 43 DMA stations and the new central DMA control centre. Tenders for a computerised command and control system to be installed in the control room are now being evaluated and I hope that it will be possible to place a contract for this element of the system in the near future. Expenditure to date on the system is in the region of £7.5 million and the amount provided in the current year — £1.945 million — is sufficient to cover the amount of equipment that can be delivered and installed this year. As you can see, the costs associated with this communications network are very high but the Government are satisfied that it is something that the Garda must have, now more than ever, when there is such particular concern about the levels of crime. The system being provided is second to none in the world and I know that the Garda will put it to good use, to the benefit of us all.
The provision for Garda computer equipment for 1985 is also sufficient to enable planned development of the force's computer network to take place. Towards the end of last year a contract worth over £300,000 was placed for the purchase of a large number of additional visual display units and ancillary equipment. This has enabled all the 18 Garda divisional headquarters and some other major stations outside the Dublin Metropolitan Area, and a further number of the busiest stations within the Dublin area, to be linked directly to the Garda computer. This facility for immediate access to records — to check out, for example, stolen or suspect vehicles — is of very great practical assistance to the Garda.
The provisions made for both radio and computer installations demonstrate clearly, I believe, that the Government are ensuring that the Garda continue to have the benefits of most up-to-date technology and equipment.
In regard to the training of members of the Garda Síochána, as the House may be aware, the Garda Commissioner recently, with my approval, established a committee to examine Garda training needs at all levels, from recruit stage up to and including the courses appropriate to senior rank level. The committee include people from the private sector and the academic field who have valuable experience in personnel training and development. In view of the wide range of training that they have been asked to look at, it will of necessity take some time for them to complete their work. I have, therefore, asked the committee to give priority to the basic training to be provided for recruits as I am anxious to have an improved training curriculum ready for the next intake of recruits. I hope that it will be possible to implement the recommendations of the committee at a very early date following receipt of their report.
With regard to promotion in the Garda Síochána, as I have mentioned before, a new scheme setting out the procedures to be followed has been agreed by myself, the Garda Commissioner and the various Garda staff associations. The aims of the system are to select for promotion the candidates who are best qualified and most suitable in all respects and to do this in a way that is fair and accepted as fair. I am confident that this new scheme will make a very significant contribution to the well-being of the Garda Síochána. I hope also over the next few months to be giving further thought to other measures to improve the capability of the force to respond to the demanding challenges of to-day.
As well as tackling effectively the manifestations of crime, I believe that measures aimed at preventing it are vitally important and this view is shared by the Garda authorities. The Garda Síochána have within their ranks a full-time crime prevention advisory service. The total strength of this unit is 24, comprising a detective inspector and four sergeants based at Harcourt Square who serve the Dublin Metropolitan Area. There are two sergeants in the Cork East division and one sergeant in each of the other 17 Garda divisions. There is also an administrative unit at Garda Headquarters with overall responsibility for crime prevention. In addition, all members of the Garda Síochána have a responsibility in the prevention of crime as part of their ordinary Garda duties and the Garda authorities are anxious that all members of the force should promote public interest in crime prevention.
Neighbourhood watch is perhaps the most effective crime prevention method yet devised internationally and I am glad to say that arrangements are now in train — following a successful experimental period — to extend the scheme throughout the country so far as practicable. Because of its potential as a measure of crime prevention, the Government recently allocated funds — about £150,000 — specifically for the promotion of the neighbourhood watch scheme and an extensive television and radio campaign has now been launched to give information and advice to people as to how they can become involved. Other crime prevention measures will also be promoted including schemes such as the Muintir na Tíre developed community alert scheme in rural areas. Neighbourhood watch is a strategy designed to combat today's crime problems. It is a crime prevention programme intended to enlist the active co-operation of the community in a neighbourhood by getting them to observe and report suspicious activities, and by promoting the kind of anti-crime attitude and behaviour that should be found in a caring community.
In neighbourhood watch a community accept a responsibility for the prevention of crime in their own area, and individual citizens accept this responsibility for themselves and for their neighbours. In crime prevention the emphasis heretofore has been on the role of the garda alone. He was seen as being there to prevent and detect crime and to maintain public peace and good order. No structured role existed for members of the public to assist in this work. Citizens frequently turned a blind eye to suspicious and criminal activity believing that such activity was not their responsibility but that of the Garda. Neighbourhood watch creates a system in which the Garda and the community establish a partnership the aim of which is to prevent crime and create a better environment in which to live. It provides residents with constructive activities which have a positive effect on local crime levels, as well as being supportive of victims of crime.
Other measures to get the Garda and the citizen into closer contact are being pursued by the formulation and implementation of a policy of community policing. In recent years there has been a growing recognition of the need to involve the community at large in crime prevention activities and specific policies are being developed to this end. Measures are being taken to provide mechanisms whereby the community can play a more active role, in co-operation with the Garda, in crime prevention activities.
As part of this policy the Garda authorities recently established a number of police clinics on an experimental basis in the Finglas and Tallaght areas of Dublin. These clinics involve the attendance of a garda, once or twice per week for about one and a half hours, at centres at a distance from Finglas and Tallaght stations. The members who operate the clinics are in radio contact with the local station and are available to discuss aspects of local policing, provide crime prevention advice and supply various forms such as motor tax, driving licence, etc. While it is yet too soon to assess the effectiveness of the police clinic experiments, the early indications are that they merit further evaluation over a longer period.
The extent to which drug abuse has furthered in the past and continues to fuel the commission of serious crime is well known. The Garda have, I am glad to say, successfully got to grips with this problem in the last couple of years as evidenced by the quantities of illicit drugs which have been seized and in the numbers arrested and successfully prosecuted — some being the biggest pushers in the drug trade. I am informed by the Garda authorities that, as a result, they have reason to believe that since 1983 illegal trafficking in drugs has levelled off and that the situation is now improving. In 1984, despite an intensification in Garda activity there was a decrease in the level of drug seizures and in the number of persons charged with drug offences which is further evidence of a drop in drug trafficking. However, there will be no complacency and new tremds, particularly with regard to cocaine, will be carefully watched.
It is understood from the Garda authorities that 68 per cent of drug seizures in 1983 were made by uniformed and detective personnel (other than Drugs Squad) and in 1984 seizures by this group constituted 70.4 per cent. This is positive evidence of the success of the special course on drugs which is aimed at training and motivating members of the Garda Síochána generally to take a special interest in the problem of drug abuse and become actively involved in controlling it.
This debate gives me the opportunity to confirm the Government's unremitting commitment to deal with the threat posed to the security of the State by the Provisional IRA, whether it be along the Border or elsewhere in this country. Over the past 12 months or so we have seen a number of spectacular successes by the Garda and they are to be complimented on some outstanding police work. I have in mind the seizure of the most sophisticated bomb-making equipment in Lusk, the seizure of the arms shipment aboard theMarita Ann and the capture of those who sought to bring its deadly cargo ashore and the successful investigation into the armed robbery at Drumree. As the House knows, legislation enacted earlier this year, with the co-operation of all sides, enabled the Government to seize substantial funds held for the purpose of the IRA. I wish to extend my appreciation and thanks also to the Defence Forces who assist the Garda in dealing with the activities of paramilitary groups.
It is a matter of deep regret that, at a time of high unemployment when support and assistance is vital for young persons encountering difficulties in gaining employments, scarce resources have to be allocated to such an unproductive area. From the mid-seventies the cost of the violence in the North has accounted for about one quarter of total expenditure on security. However, the level of Garda commitment to preserve the security of the State is vital and it will be maintained. Nevertheless, one cannot but lament the fact that jobs could be created for school leavers but for the need to divert Government resources into measures necessary to tackle the destructive activities of those who believe in the bomb and the bullet as a means of exercising power.
Before leaving the Garda Síochána I want to refer to the ongoing policy of identifying particular tasks that can be performed by non police civilians—such as, for example, traffic by-law enforcement, typing, filing and other secretarial, either through the Civil Service Commission or otherwise, people who are specially qualified and trained to do these jobs. This policy has proved very effective up to now and we have 433 civilians already working in the Garda Síochána in jobs formerly done by trained gardaí. In addition there are now 125 traffic wardens. There is scope for more of this and I intend to do what I can to see that the policy is continued and extended.
So much for the Garda Síochána Vote; perhaps I may now turn to the Prisons Vote. The 1985 Estimate for Prisons of £49,715,000 will have to be revised later this year to cater for additional expenditure arising from the unprecedented growth in the numbers in custody. The level of that growth can be seen from the fact that at the beginning of this year there were 1,491 in custody whereas by the start of this week well over 1,900 offenders were being accommodated.
That is an extraordinary increase for any prison system to cope with over such a short period and inevitably makes heavy demands on the system. I am sure the House will join me in paying tribute to the efforts of the prison service in dealing with these demands. The increased numbers which can be held in custody have been made possible by maximising the use of existing custodial accommodation and by the acquisition of temporary additional accommodation such as Fort Mitchel on Spike Island and the education units at Cork and Arbour Hill prisons through the relocation of educational facilities at those institutions.
There can be no doubt that the number of offenders being accommodated in some of our institutions is, in terms of prison administration, undesirably high. This, however, has to be balanced against the need to ensure that offenders serve to the greatest extent possible sentences imposed on them by the courts. I think the message is at last getting across to people who indulge in criminal activity on a serious scale — particularly of the type which has given rise lately to great public concern — that there is prison accommodation to ensure that they will serve whatever sentences are imposed and that more will be made available if necessary. I do not intend to do anything which would reduce that deterrent.
However, we have to be realistic about the difficulties posed for the prison system by the high numbers in custody. While overcrowding in our prisons is mild compared to the level which has been resorted to in many other countries, it is inherently undesirable and I have been concerned to ease it as much as I can. This requires a flexible approach which has due regard to the capacity and nature of the various institutions and, at the same time, the need to ensure that sufficient accommodation is available to cope with offenders committed to custody for serious offences.
As part of that approach I have decided to temporarily transfer prison staff to Fort Mitchel so that additional offenders can be sent there. During the summer months particularly, I hope to use the accommodation at the Fort to alleviate pressure on the older institutions at a time when the burden of imprisonment with them can be all the greater.
The system of home leave which I introduced in 1983 as an alternative to "shedding" will continue to be availed of to an extent consistent with the nature of the scheme. Under the scheme offenders serving sentences for relatively minor offences are allowed periods of home leave subject to certain conditions such as a requirement to report to the local Garda station. The nature of offences where this scheme can operate is limited and leave is only granted after consultation with the Garda. Should any evidence emerge that an offender is in any way abusing the scheme he is returned to custody.
I am also prepared in certain circumstances to ease pressure on custodial accommodation by continuing to grant slightly more than the statutory remission to offenders who are of good behaviour in custody. I believe that this can be justified on a number of grounds. Sentencing is not so precise a science that a reduction of say two or three weeks in a sentence of six months could be said to defeat the purpose of the original sentence. Deputies will be aware from the representations which they receive that circumstances can change while an offender is serving his sentence which could justify some leniency.
In regard to temporary releases — parole—generally—of which there has been some unjustified criticism in recent times — I should say that they form part of every civilised prison system throughout the world. I would like to put on record that I will continue with our temporary release system in relation to proper programmes which are worked out for individual prisoners.
It is the case that some of the forms of release which I have outlined might be used to a somewhat lesser extent if extra custodial accommodation was available. But I am satisfied that they represent a justifiable response to a difficult situation and take into account the reality of prison administration and the need to protect society.
The use of the single officers' quarters in Portlaoise as custodial accommodation should add further flexibility to the prison system. I have not finally decided the exact use which will be made of the accommodation. I am thinking along the lines of a unit which could be used for the treatment of alcoholic prisoners or perhaps a unit to hold low risk women prisoners. This latter option has particular attractions because even with the work which is in hands to improve conditions in the women's prison in Mountjoy, it is very difficult to bring conditions there up to an appropriate standard. In determining the use to which the quarters will be put I will, of course, have due regard to its location and the understandable concerns of local residents.
In 1982 there was a daily average in custody of 1,236 whereas now the daily average is running at about 700 more than that. It is against that background of the large increase in numbers which are now being coped with that I want to deal with the charge made by a number of Opposition spokesmen that the present accommodation difficulties would not have arisen had the prison capital programme put forward by the previous administration not been halted by this Government. That charge is not true and if those who make it took time to consult with members of their own party who were directly involved in the capital programme they would quickly realise their mistake.
Putting it simply, the earliest major additional accommodation which could be made available under the capital programme was the place of detention at Wheatfield. That project has continued without interruption — indeed the bulk of the 1985 capital allocation of £12.13 million relates to it — but it will be 1987 before that accommodation is ready for occupation. It will be clear, therefore, that even if the entire capital programme had proceeded as planned it would not have been able to provide immediate accommodation to deal with the numbers now being committed to custody. In the circumstances I had no option but to provide additional accommodation in the manner which I have outlined.
Prison construction is of its nature expensive and I will be dealing with the prison capital programme in a few moments. I was always of the view that this was an area of prison administration which could benefit from a thorough review of penal policy generally in this country. Such a review is now being undertaken by a distinguished committee under the chairmanship of Dr. T. K. Whitaker and I understand the committee hope to present their report in a matter of months. I am sure all Members of the House look forward to the outcome of the first major review of our penal system since the foundation of the State.
The task of the committee is an enormous one. There are no easy answers in an area so fundamental to the way in which we as a society organise ourselves. I hope that when the report is published it will lead to an informed debate which will encourage a wider appreciation of the difficult issues which arise in our penal system and an acceptance that sometimes the more immediately popular "solutions" may not necessarily be the more effective. Among the issues which the committee are considering are alternatives to custody and the nature of the regimes which operate in the prisons. I believe the Estimates reflect the consistent progress which has been made by successive administrations in these areas.
One of the most significant developments in increasing the range of sanctions available to the courts has been the implementation of the community service scheme which I brought into operation last December. Already the scheme is having considerable success and about 140 orders have been made so far. A further 108 cases have been referred by the courts to the Probation and Welfare Service for assessment of the suitability of offenders for the scheme. In relation to the orders which have already been made I should point out that these are cases where custodial sentences would have been imposed had the Community Service Scheme not been in operation.
One of the main functions of the Probation and Welfare Service is to deal with offenders on probation and under other forms of supervision. The service has expanded greatly over the last decade or so and there are now about 200 staff assigned to it.
In dealing with offenders in the community it is important that resources should be available which would benefit these offenders and encourage them to lead a useful life in the community. For this reason my Department, through the Probation and Welfare Service, encourage the establishment by voluntary community groups in various parts of the country of hostels, day-centres and workshops to which offenders, especially young offenders, can be referred. Several of these centres are already in operation and more are planned. The provision for such centres is included in subhead G. of the Prisons Estimate and this year amounts to about £1.3 million which is more than double the level of expenditure three years ago. Services to offenders in custody are being developed as much as possible, although the high numbers in custody can make this difficult.
The provision for educational equipment and materials of £165,000 compares with a provision of £120,000 last year. I should stress that this amount is only intended to cover equipment and materials and does not cover staff or capital costs. These are met from expenditure by the vocational education committes who provide over 80 full-time teachers for the various institutions. I would like if I did not see any more comment about only £165,000 being spent on education in the prisons when the figure simply refers to equipment and there are 80 full-time teachers paid out of the Education Vote and the capital expenditure for the facilities in the prisons comes out of the prisons capital expenditure Vote.
In this connection I should mention that the decision to relocate the educational units at Arbour Hill and Cork should not be taken as indicating a lack of commitment to education within the prisons. The decision was necessary to provide additional secure accommodation for offenders, but the educational facilities are being relocated in those institutions. Although the new facilities are not as good, there should not be any diminution in the actual level of educational services available to offenders.
Increased provision has also been made for work-training in the institutions. Expenditure on equipment for this is provided for in subhead F. of the Prisons Vote, and this year's estimate of £396,000 compares with an estimate of £330,000 last year.
I believe that the provisions which have been made in the estimates in the areas of alternatives to custody and services within the prisons reflect a conviction that people should be sent to prison only where it is clearly necessary in the interests of society to do so and that, in prison, services must be made available to offenders to encourage them to lead better lives when they return to society.
As I have mentioned already, £12.13 million has been allocated to the capital programme for prisons and places of detention. Considering the financial restrictions of the present time, I am sure that Deputies will acknowledge that an allocation of this dimension indicates a serious commitment to making progress towards rectifying the shortage of custodial accommodation. Most significantly, the money made available is enabling work to continue at Weatfield. Site works, services, perimetering and services buildings were completed earlier last year and work commenced in September on the custodial buildings of a place of detention for young male offenders between the ages of 16 and 21.
The contract period is 36 months and it is expected that the project will be completed on target in 1987. It is being constructed to a plan substantially expanded over what was first envisaged, with provision now for 320 places rather than the original 150. Plans for the women's prison, to be located at Whatfield also, have been brought to the stage at which it is possible to invite tenders and place a contract when financial resources are available. The site has already been developed, serviced and perimetered but the custodial buildings still remain to be built.
A third project to provide 180 places on a site at Rathmore Road in Cork has not yet reached tender stage and is at a standstill for the present but could also be resumed if resources were there. Apart from these projects, new accommodation for education, work and recreation has been completed in Limerick and necessary security facilities have been provided there. Major work on the repair of about one half of the perimeter wall of Mountjoy is almost completed and work on the other half is due to commence very shortly.
I come now to the area of my Department's responsibilities relating to the courts. Broadly outlined these responsibilities range from the preparation and promotion of any necessary legislation governing the establishment, constitution, jurisdictions, and functioning of our courts to ensuring that, as far as practicable, all courts and court offices are enabled to function effectively.
I might make a preliminary point here. Courts are staffed in the general context of the civil service, and, as Deputies will be aware, there have been severe restrictions on recruitment to the public service since 1981. Inevitably this has had serious effects on the working of the courts and court offices, particularly in view of increasing workloads. Nevertheless we have made improvements on a number of fronts and I hope that further improvements will be possible despite the continuing difficulties.
A matter of particular concern to me at present is the delays which in recent years have developed in relation to the hearing of High Court jury actions and criminal and civil business at a number of Circuit Court venues. In an effort to improve the situation the Government have given their approval to the appointment of an additional judge of the High Court and an additional judge of the Circuit Court. The Bill containing these proposals has been circulated.
Statistics for the High Court for the 1984 legal year, i.e. the year ended 31 July, 1984, show some significant improvements in the state of High Court business. The main features are:
(a) an increase of 84 per cent in the number of jury actions disposed of during the year — 5,725 as compared with 3,107 in the previous year;
(b) an increase of 26 per cent in the number of non-jury (common law) actions disposed of—633 as compared with 503 in the previous year;
(c) a reduction from 20 months to 15 months in the average delay from the date of setting down to the date of hearing in the case of jury actions and from 13 months to three months in the case of non-jury actions.
While these improvements can be attributed to several factors, I think it appropriate to pay tribute to the President of the High Court and to his predecessor, now the Chief Justice, for their special efforts, and also to the judges and court officers concerned whose co-operative approach in this matter has been very significant.
In Cork the delay in hearing High Court jury actions has, in recent times, become somewhat more serious than elsewhere and as a result, the President of the High Court has doubled the number of sitting days in Cork in the current legal year, which commenced on 3 October last. It is my earnest hope that the extra sitting days will reduce the arrears to a more acceptable level. While there are some delays in hearing cases at other major centres at which High Court jury actions are held, they are not as serious as the delays in Dublin and in Cork.
The courts computer system, which has been issuing summonses and court lists for Dublin city and county, has been extended to prepare appeal papers. This has led to a substantial saving in time for court staff and has helped reduce the delay between District Court convictions and the Appeal Court hearing.
As regards the operation of the courts, one of the greatest problems continues to be accommodation. Responsibility for the provision and maintenance of court accommodation, with certain exceptions in the Dublin area, is vested by law in local authorities. This has given rise to particular problems in a number of areas, and most Deputies will be familiar with problems of this kind in their own areas. However, there have been improvements in a number of cases. The reinstatement of Waterford courthouse was completed in autumn 1982 and the new courthouse provided by Wicklow County Council in Bray became available in September last.
Work on the restoration of the fire-damaged courthouse at Monaghan started early in March and is expected to be completed within 18 months. Planning for the reconstruction of Cavan courthouse is at an advanced stage and it is expected that work on the project will start before the autumn. Other local authorities are dealing with less extensive works on an ongoing basis but, naturally, progress in this area is affected by the current financial situation.
In Dublin, work has started on the development of the Four Courts Hotel site as an office block to accommodate the various court offices at present housed in the Four Courts building, thus freeing further areas there for development as additional courtrooms and ancillary accommodation. The office block project should be completed within three years and conversion of the office space in the Four Courts will be put in hands as soon as possible after that.
The situation of the Children's Court in Dublin is a matter of some concern. The accommodation available to the court has been unsatisfactory for some years now and the position deteriorated in November, 1981 when the Dublin Castle premises were declared unsafe. The court is at present accommodated on a temporary basis in the Morgan Place wing of the Four Courts, but this is proving unsatisfactory for a number of reasons. The Office of Public Works are now in the process of adapting two houses at Smithfield to provide temporary accommodation for the court pending the provision of a purpose-built courthouse on an immediately adjoining site. I expect the temporary accommodation to be ready for use within a month and the purpose-built accommodation to be available by the end of next year.
Deputies will be aware that the money necessary to build the permanent Children's Court is being provided from the dormant funds of suitors in the High Court under the Funds of Suitors Act, 1984. The new Children's Court complex will provide generous waiting and consultation facilities, conference rooms and duty rooms for probation and welfare officers. This will ensure that all who are concerned with the welfare of children appearing before the Courts will be adequately facilitated. The plans include two courtrooms and judges' rooms, a retiring room for solicitors, and separate waiting areas for gardaí, witnesses and members of the public.
The 1985 provision for civil legal aid is £1,462,000. Although this allocation will not, of itself, allow for any expansion of the board's services, I am glad to say that, as I announced in the Dáil on 29 May 1985, the board will be able to expand its services this year due to funds available under the provisions of the Funds of Suitors Act, 1984 that will enable it to open new law centres in Tallaght and Athlone and a second centre in Cork. These centres will be financed until the end of 1987 from the monies available for civil legal aid under the Act. The residue of funds available under the Act will be used to open further law centres during 1986-1987 at Dundalk, Portlaoise, Castlebar and Letterkenny.
The 1985 provision for criminal legal aid is £2 million which represents an increase of £150,000 on the 1984 allocation of £1.85 million. This is due mainly to a likely increase in the amount of legal aid granted by the courts in 1985 compared with last year. The Supreme Court ruling that accused persons have a constitutional right to legal aid in certain circumstances should be borne in mind in this context. I might add that included in the £2 million allocation for 1985 is the cost of paying value added tax, currently at 23 per cent on legal fees payable under the scheme and this is ultimately recouped to the Exchequer.
As regards law reform, it is not within the rules of this House for a Deputy to advocate legislation in the course of an Estimates debate. Accordingly, all I propose to say on this subject is that my main concern is to implement the Government's programme of law reform in my area of responsibility as quickly as possible. With this in mind, I will be bringing legislative proposals before the House in the usual way, as soon as I am in a position to announce them.
The Land Registry and the Registry of Deeds is another area for which I have responsibility.
The work load in the Land Registry is continuing to be high with an average annual intake of approximately 218,000 applications during the eighties. About 120,000 of these, or 55 per cent are applications for land certificates, copies of folios and instruments and copy maps. In general, the Registry is providing a good service where applications in these categories are concerned, with average delays being maintained at a level of eight working days or less. There can, however, be significant differences in the time it takes to supply a copy document, in particular, a copy map. The main reason is that in about 50 per cent of cases the provisions of a copy of a registry map involves substantial preliminary work that includes the reconstruction of an existing map —which, apart from being on an old sixinch scale can at times be in very poor condition. The reconstruction is usually to the latest 25 inch ordnance survey scale.
The other main categories of work are applications for first registration, including the establishment of title acquired by possession, applications for registration in respect of land already registered and applications under the ground rents purchase scheme. There are long delays in finalising applications in these areas because of the complex nature of the work involved and because of the large volume of applications in relation to the number of staff available to deal with them. Like the rest of the civil service, the Land Registry is subject to the embargo on the filling of vacancies. Prior to the embargo its authorised staffing was 541. At the end of May, 1985, the authorised staffing had been reduced by 78, or 14.4 per cent, to 463. The overall volume of work in 1985 shows a 4 per cent increase over that for 1980, the year by reference to which the authorised staffing of 541 was settled. Despite the increasing workload and the decreasing number of staff every effort is made to finalise applications as quickly as possible.
Proposals for major improvements in both the Land Registry and Registry of Deeds are at present in abeyance because of the embargo. These include a reorganisation of the processing of applications under section 49 of the Registration of Title Act, 1964, the extension of compulsory registration, the amalgamation of the staffing structures of the Land Registry and Registry of Deeds and the computerisation of some of the records of the Registry of Deeds. However, within the existing constraints, other measures are at present under consideration, particularly the extent to which modern technology can be used in making the registries more efficient.
The computerisation of the Land Registry folios which commenced in December 1982 is proceeding. All the Dublin folios will be computerised by the end of this month. This means that about 20 per cent of the applications lodged for registration annually are now being processed by computer, although the number of Dublin folios represents only about 10 per cent of the total for the State as a whole. This is a major step forward for the registry and has already resulted in considerably increased efficiency. For example, the pre-computerised system is based on one original folio per registered property; post-computerisation, an unlimited number of copies is available within a matter of seconds, resulting in immediate service for people calling to public counters.
The extension of the computerisation programme to other areas is at present under consideration. The future role of the local registries which are attached to the 25 Circuit Court offices in the counties other than Dublin will have to be taken into account in this context and other preliminary arrangements, including the purchase of additional equipment, have also to be completed before the programme can be extended.
A source of much public complaint in recent years has been the telephone system serving the Chancery Street building of the Land Registry. I am happy to say that a modern PABX system will be provided later this year to serve the three Land Registry offices in Chancery Street, the Setanta Centre and Bow Street.
Votes 23 to 28 cover a large and varied volume of work and services. Accordingly, my remarks were not intended to be an exhaustive description of everything coming within the ambit of the Votes. As I said at the start of my remarks, however, I welcome Deputies to speak on any aspect of the Votes and I shall endeavour to reply to any points raised.