That leave be granted to introduce a Bill entitled an Act to amend the Referendum Act 1994 to provide for a time frame within which the Courts must ordinarily hear and make a finding on a referendum petition and related matters.
On 22 May, the people of Ireland expressed their democratic will and voted overwhelmingly in favour of marriage equality. However, it appears that the will of the people may be subject to indefinite delay as the courts deal with a petition challenging the outcome of the referendum. While it is the right of a citizen to initiate such a petition, this is not the first time a petition challenging the outcome of a referendum has resulted in a lengthy delay for citizens in being afforded the protection of their newly recognised rights. The children's rights referendum was passed on 10 November 2012, but the High Court only reached a decision on 24 April this year on the petition lodged, a delay of two and a half years. A further example is the delay experienced following the divorce referendum when a petition challenging the result caused a delay of six months. Delays in implementing the democratic will of the people, as expressed in a referendum, are not acceptable.
The current legislation only stipulates that the courts must deal with petitions as a matter of priority. This is not adequate, as the courts are not adhering to this provision. We all know that the system is clogged, but when constitutional rights and newly decided referenda decisions are impacted on, extraordinary measures must be available and priority status accorded. The Bill seeks to amend the Referendum Act 1994 to provide that the High Court would ordinarily make a finding on such a petition within 90 days of it being heard. It further seeks to provides that where such a finding is challenged by way of appeal, the Supreme Court would endeavour to make a finding on a petition no later than 90 days from the date on which the appeal was lodged. This would give the courts a clear timeframe within which to deal with any petition, while retaining the necessary flexibility required by the administration of justice.
The intention of the Bill is to send a clear message to citizens, including our friends in the LGBT community, that we have not forgotten about them. When the people speak, the State must listen. There is nothing that can trump the democratic will of the people. The arms of the State must, at all times, protect it above all else. We cannot allow a situation where legal delays impact on a citizen's hard fought for rights. That is why we are asking the Government to support the Bill to bring such delays to an end.