Courts (Establishment and Constitution) (Amendment) Bill 2019: Report and Final Stages

As there are no amendments on Report Stage, we proceed to the Order for Fifth Stage. When is it proposed to take Fifth Stage?

Bill received for final consideration.
Question proposed: "That the Bill do now pass."

On behalf of my colleague, the Minister for Justice and Equality, Deputy Flanagan, who is occupied in the other House on Government business, I am pleased to commend the Courts (Establishment and Constitution) (Amendment) Bill 2019 to the House. No amendments to the Bill were proposed on Report Stage.

The Minister has asked me to acknowledge in particular the co-operation and support that has been given to this Bill by colleagues and party spokespersons across the House. It is hoped that, subject to the completion of today's proceedings and the conduct of business as may be agreed by the Houses, the Bill can be completed for enactment before the summer.

As the House is aware, the purpose of the Bill is to provide for an increase in the maximum number of ordinary judges of the Court of Appeal from nine to 15. The Bill, therefore, provides for an amendment of the Courts (Establishment and Constitution) Act 1961 to increase the statutory number of ordinary judges of the Court of Appeal from nine to 15.

At present, the court comprises a President and not more than nine ordinary judges as set down in statute. There has been no change in this configuration since the court's establishment in 2014. The Court of Appeal plays a pivotal role in dealing with a whole range of appeals arising from both civil and criminal proceedings across a number of court jurisdictions. However, we are now at a point where it is clear from the current trend in waiting times that, without additional judges, the Court of Appeal, before too long, will be facing the kind of delays which necessitated its establishment back in 2014.

Information received from the Courts Service confirms that, as matters stand, hearing dates for civil cases before the Court of Appeal have already been fixed, up to and including May 2021. While some allocation has also been made within that schedule so that more urgent appeals can also be dealt with, the time available for civil appeals is essentially fully allocated up to that time. The President of the Court of Appeal has also highlighted the need for this Bill with the strong support of the Chief Justice.

On behalf of the Minister, I thank my colleagues for facilitating this Bill and for their co-operation and support.

The Minister of State is correct that no amendments were tabled on Report Stage.

We have been supportive of this legislation since it was introduced in the House. It is important. As the Minister of State has said, the Court of Appeal is an extremely busy court. Since it was established, it has been very efficient in dealing with appeals from the High Court and in taking the pressure of work off the Supreme Court, which primarily deals with constitutional cases. It is worthwhile increasing the number of judges in the Court of Appeal to the 15 provided for in this legislation. At present, there is a delay in hearing a case in the Court of Appeal. One would be lucky to have a case heard in 2021. One could probably have a case heard at the end of 2021 if one were seeking it now. There is a considerable delay in the court and it is important that we do not turn the court into one where there are very lengthy delays. Individuals are entitled to have their cases heard promptly. They are also entitled to have their appeals heard properly. We support the legislation and welcome it.

I was thinking of tabling an amendment in respect of the retirement age of judges. I did not do so because I believed it might be complicating for the Government and we want to get the legislation through promptly. As I said previously to the Minister, Deputy Charles Flanagan, there is a strong argument that the retirement age of judges should be increased from 70 to 72. Previously the age was 72 for judges at the superior courts. It has been reduced to 70. Sometimes people do not apply to become a judge until their mid-50s but this results in a disincentive because they do not get their full pension entitlements if they serve only 15 years in the superior courts. It is a matter that the Government should examine. People are living longer and are more sprightly. We should consider allowing judges to serve until they are 72. I welcome the legislation, however, and we support it.

I have not much to add beyond what has already been said. This is useful, simple and important legislation. There is clearly a very significant backlog in the Court of Appeal. We support extending the number of judges to try to deal with the backlog. We will constantly be supporting the legislation and will allow it to proceed.

We are also supporting the Bill.

Question put and agreed to.