I propose to share time Deputy John Paul Phelan. I welcome the opportunity to speak on the Court of Appeal Bill 2014 and I congratulate the Minister on getting the legislation to this stage. I also congratulate the Minister for Justice and Equality on her continuation in office. It is appropriate that, on this day, there is another justice reform being progressed by a Government that has made more reforms in this Department, and so many others, than the last crowd did in its 14 years in office.
The Bill is technical in nature and we all know how we got to this point. The Bill follows a referendum in October 2013 and gives effect to the decision, bringing the country in line with best international practice in having a court of appeal. We know the phrase that justice delayed is justice denied and a backlog in the Supreme Court means many people face substantial delays in having cases heard by the Supreme Court. It is not an adequate situation. The Court of Appeal was mooted for many years and the previous Government established a working group on the issue. The working group reported in 2009 and was chaired by the current Chief Justice, Ms Susan Denham. That we have arrived at this point is welcome, as is the commitment of the Minister, earlier today, that the court will be in place for the commencement of the new legal term in the autumn.
I will use this opportunity to comment on greater matters concerning the Judiciary, some of which is linked to the Bill. Looking at the gender balance on the High Court and Supreme Court, the list on the Courts Service website shows that three of our Supreme Court justices are women. The Chief Justice is one of those. The High Court has six women out of 36 judges. It is an appallingly low rate on a day when the Cabinet doubled its representation of women. This amounts to the highest number of women ever in Cabinet although it is still quite low. We must ask ourselves about gender balance in our court system, particularly the High Court where women represent six out of 36 or one sixth. It is an interesting and a worrying statistic.
The Minister referred to judicial appointments in her speech on Second Stage. There have been controversies about appointments in general. I am not sure there is ever a perfect system and a significant amount of work is being done on this. One of the themes of the review is the potential for the Judicial Appointments Advisory Board and this is welcome. As well as the board, we should look at the criteria for judges. Gender is a factor that should be considered. We need the Judicial Appointments Advisory Board to complement the reforms the Minister is making in introducing this new court.
There is a question of who judges the judges. I have come across this in my constituency. Judges are human beings and can make mistakes. It is very important to have separation of powers, which I strongly support and respect as essential in a democracy. There must also be a degree of judicial oversight, something that has been talked about for many years. Are we really saying that impeachment is the only way to address a matter if a judge makes a genuine error or if there is an allegation of wrongdoing? I came across a family law case recently where a judge had given an oral verdict on custody, access and other issues. The order produced by the registrar did not mirror what the judge said in court, in the eyes of one of the parties. Under current rules, I cannot write to the Minister about it, which is proper order given judicial independence. I cannot write to a judge, nor should I. The court registrar does not seem to have a role in this. If there is a genuine error, are we telling families in family court case that they must return to court? There must be a process that allows the errors that occur in all our lives to be quicker and easier to remedy without putting substantial new costs on people who are already struggling with the high cost of the law in this country. I ask the Minister to examine this matter in respect of typos in judgments. Typos can make a big difference where, for example, the first Saturday of every month is replaced with the second Saturday of every month. I have seen an extensive exchange of correspondence between my constituents and the Courts Service and it seems the only option open to the family is to return to court, join the waiting list, get a hearing and run up more legal fees. We must examine this.
We must also examine our free legal aid system and resourcing it. The Minister is aware of the report released this week or last week on the number of people using free legal aid in respect of personal debt. This is due to the economic situation the country found itself in and people finding themselves in this situation has placed an additional burden on our free legal aid structures. This must be examined and we cannot have a situation where someone is up against a bank in court for mortgage arrears or to protect a property and is entitled to free legal aid but cannot access it in time.
This legislation arises in the context of giving effect to a decision in a referendum. A commitment in the programme for Government refers to having an electoral commission. It does not come under the responsibility of the Minister for Justice and Equality but I appeal to her, as a member of the Cabinet, to fulfil the commitment in the programme for Government. The former Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government, Deputy Phil Hogan, did substantial work on it. We will have a series of referendums in this country. It is inefficient to set up a referendum commission every time because we can do so much in respect of voter education, voter registration and providing people with information. There is a commitment about the electoral commission in the programme for Government. The referendum commission did a good job in terms of providing people with information about the Court of Appeal referendum. Considering a court of appeal is of such benefit, it was quite difficult for the referendum to get the hearing it deserved because it was run on the same day as the referendum on the Seanad. I welcome the establishment of the new Court of Appeal and I welcome the fact that we are at this point. I welcome that the court structures will be in place by autumn. I ask the Minister to examine gender in judicial appointments, judicial oversight, and the broader issue of how we conduct referendums and provide people with information in the run-up to a referendum.