Written Answers. - Courts Service.

Bernard J. Durkan

Ceist:

119 Mr. Durkan asked the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform if he has provided the necessary resources to the Courts Services to facilitate ongoing needs and demands of the service, including the provision of extra courthouses and refurbishment where necessary; if sufficient facilities are available to the Family Law Courts to ensure the elimination of backlogs and the smooth operation of that service; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [27697/01]

Bernard J. Durkan

Ceist:

467 Mr. Durkan asked the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform if he has received indications from the Courts Service outlining the need for resources to address the issue of backlogs in the courts including the family law services; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [28046/01]

Bernard J. Durkan

Ceist:

468 Mr. Durkan asked the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform if he has received an indication from the Courts Service requesting specific funding for the provision or replacement of courthouses throughout the country; the adequacy or otherwise of the funds provided to meet the targets identified; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [28047/01]

I propose to answer Questions Nos. 119, 467 and 468 together.

Our courts system has recently undergone the most comprehensive and radical reform of court administration since the foundation of the State. In November 1999, I established the independent Courts Service on a statutory basis under the Courts Service Act, 1998. Under the Act, responsibility for the management of the courts system is now conferred on the Courts Service.

The structures which have now been put in place will put the Courts Service in a much better position to meet the demands placed on it and to provide a first class service to judges, practitioners, court staff and most importantly of course, the users of the system. In order to reflect the Government's commitment to ensuring the success of the Courts Service, I have obtained Government approval for an increase in the allocation to the Courts Vote from £30.4 million, (38.6 million in 1997 to £64.9 million, 82.4 million, this year – a 113% increase.

The Courts Service has published a strategic plan for the period 2000 – 2003 in which it set out the high level goals of the organisation, having regard to its statutory mandate. In line with Government policy on decentralisation the Courts Service is in the process of establishing seven regional offices to provide a local administrative structure for the service. These offices will have responsibility for devolved functions in a wide range of areas including, IT, building projects, human resource issues, streamlining of procedures, budgetary matters, etc.
I have provided funding for an additional 21 staff to implement these new regional structures. This will assist in ensuring the effective and efficient delivery of court services at local level. The Courts Service's strategic plan also recognises that information technology has the potential to transform the way the courts work, and provide the foundation for the future delivery of high quality services to all court users and at the same time implement Government policy in relation to the information society. To this end the Courts Service has prepared a five year strategy for information technology entitled "eCourts", which has been submitted to my Department and the Department of Finance. The funding of this plan is currently being considered by my Department and the Department of Finance. I might mention, in this regard, that I have secured an increase in the provision for IT development in the courts of over 700% – i.e, from £954,000, 1.2 million, in 1997 to £7.8 million, 9.9 million, this year. This has allowed the service to make significant progress already in the IT area.
Comprehensive statistics in regard to waiting times generally were published in the Courts Service Annual Report, 2000, which is available in the Oireachtas Library, and I am aware that delays exist in relation to the hearing of divorce and judicial separation matters in some Circuit Court venues. In this regard I arranged, with Government approval, for the appointment of an additional judge of the Circuit Court in February last year and the appointment of a further extra judge in January of this year. The allocation of these judicial resources is, of course, a matter for the President of the Circuit Court.
With regard to the High Court, provision is being made in the Courts and Court Officers Bill, 2001, at present before Dáil Éireann, for an increase in the number of ordinary judges which may be assigned to the High Court from 24 to 25. There are also proposals in the same Bill for significant changes in the civil jurisdictions of the Circuit and District Courts which may impact on the numbers of judges needed in the various courts, and I will be keeping this matter under review.
In so far as the hearing of family law business generally is concerned, I might mention that a sub-committee of the Courts Service Board has been established to review the current procedure and manner in which family law is dealt with by the courts and to make recommendations to the board in relation thereto. If, arising from the work of this sub-committee, which is ongoing, the board decides to make formal proposals to me in relation to legislative change or any other matters which may lie within my area of responsibility as Minister, I will, of course, give such proposals my full consideration.
With regard to the provision of courthouse accommodation, section 5 of the Courts Service Act, 1998 provides,inter alia, that the functions of the service shall be to provide, manage and maintain court buildings, and to provide facilities for court users.
The continued upgrading of the courts building stock was identified as a key objective by the Courts Service in its Strategic Plan 2000-2003. The Courts Service has finalised a seven year capital building programme 2002-2008 in line with this strategic plan. This programme is under consideration in my Department at present and the possibility of utilising a public-private partnership approach is being examined in this regard.
I am pleased to have been able to obtain Government approval for the allocation of significant funds for courthouse upgrading in recent years. During the lifetime of this Government, the financial provision for court buildings has increased from £8.9 million, 11.3 million, to £22.5 million, 28.6 million, this year, which represents an increase of over 150%. I expect to be in a position to provide at least this level of funding for court buildings in the coming year.