Is cúis athais dom bheith ar ais arís don dara huair inniu leis an mBille seo.
This Bill forms the first part of a package of legislative reforms which the Minister for Justice proposes to introduce in relation to the courts and the legal profession.
The Bill provides for substantial increases in the monetary limits of the civil jurisdiction of the Circuit and District Courts. These proposals are contained in sections 2 and 4 of the Bill. In the case of the Circuit Court the existing jurisdiction limit of £15,000 in contract and tort matters will be increased to £30,000. The District Court's jurisdiction limit in contract and tort will be increased from £2,500 to £5,000.
The Bill also includes a number of other important provisions. These include provision for the variation in future by Government order of the monetary limits of the jurisdiction of the Circuit and District Courts, provisions dealing with the costs that may be recovered when a case is taken in a higher court than is necessary, an increase in the number of judges of the High and Circuit Courts and in the number of justices of the District Court, a change in the "style" of address of judges of the District Court and provisions for the service by post of District Court summonses in cases of summary jurisdiction.
The current civil jurisdiction limits of the Circuit and District Courts were set in the Courts Act, 1981. The jurisdiction of these courts were fixed originally by the Courts of Justice Act, 1924, and were increased first in 1953, and again by the Courts Act, 1971 and most recently by the Courts Act, 1981.
The proposed increased civil jurisdiction limits for the Circuit and District Court, which represent a doubling of the existing limits, are justified on the basis of changes in the cost of living which have occurred since the last revision.
The Fair Trade Commission in its recent report into restrictive practices in the legal profession suggested that the jurisdiction of the Circuit Court should be increased to £25,000 and that the jurisdiction of the District Court should be increased to £5,000. The proposals in the Bill go somewhat further than the limit recommended by the Fair Trade Commission in the case of the Circuit Court and provide that the new jurisdiction limit of that court will be £30,000. A number of other jurisdictions of the Circuit Court which have traditionally been linked to the contract and tort limit will also be similarly increased.
The Circuit Court jurisdiction limit in actions relating to the title of land and equity matters are fixed at £200 rateable valuation by the Courts Act, 1981. However, the court's jurisdiction under the Registration of Title Act, 1964, is limited to land with a rateable valuation not exceeding £60. The Bill provides for an increase in the Circuit Court's jurisdiction in registration of title matters from £60 to £200 which will bring it into line with its jurisdiction limit in other actions concerning land.
As in the case of the Circuit Court, it is proposed to increase the other jurisdiction limits of the District Court which are traditionally linked with that court's contract and tort limit to the revised limit of £5,000.
The principal objective in increasing the jurisdiction limits of the lower courts is to make access to the courts cheaper, speedier and more convenient. The proposed increases in the jurisdiction of the lower courts should allow a greater range of cases to be dealt with in these courts and thereby make access to the courts less costly though savings in legal costs, travelling costs and time absent from work for both litigants and witnesses.
The increased jurisdiction limits should result in more personal injuries actions being heard in the lower courts and this should have a major beneficial effect on the cost of motor insurance. The Government are concerned about the continuing problem of the high cost availability of motor, employer and public liability insurance. These increased jurisdiction limits are important measures to help deal with that problem by cutting court litigation costs which are a significant element in the cost of insurance claims.
The Bill also proposes, in sections 11 and 12, to increase the jurisdiction of the lower courts in important areas of family law. It provides for an increase in the weekly amount that the District Court, and the Circuit Court on appeal, may order under the Family Law (Maintenance of Spouses and Children) Act, 1976, for the maintenance of a spouse and dependent child, from £100 to £200 for a spouse and from £30 to £60 for a child. These increases will assist many deserted spouses in obtaining substantially increased maintenance for themselves and their children.
A similar increase in the weekly amount that may be awarded by the District Court for the maintenance of a child under the Guardianship of Infants Act, 1964, from £30 to £60 is also proposed.
Section 16 of the Bill contains an important provision which will allow the Government in future to revise, by order, the monetary limits of these courts having regard to changes in the general value of money since the limits were previously revised. This provision will avoid the necessity of amending legislation each time the Government consider that the jurisdiction limits should be revised to take account of changes in the value of money. It will, therefore, be possible to maintain the real value of the monetary limits of the lower courts at the levels approved by the Oireachtas in this Bill.
The provisions of section 16 will apply to all monetary jurisdiction limits conferred on the courts in civil matters, whether conferred in courts legislation or in other enactments. It will also allow for the variation of amounts specified in section 14 of this Bill in regard to the recovery of costs by a plaintiff in a civil action. I will return to this matter later.
The Government have decided that, because of the importance of any decision to increase the jurisdiction limits of the lower courts, a motion of both Houses of the Oireachtas approving of any proposed Government draft order will be required before the order can take effect.
The Bill includes provisions at sections 17, 18 and 19 for increasing the numbers of the Judiciary. The maximum number of High Court judges is being increased from 14 to 16, in addition to the President of the High Court. This increase will allow the High Court to cope with the increased workload resulting from the Criminal Law (Rape) Amendment Act, 1990.
The number of permanent ordinary judges of the Circuit Court is being increased from 15 to 17. Provision is being made for eight Circuit Court judges to be assigned permanently to the Dublin circuit and two to the Cork circuit. At present six judges are permanently assigned to the Dublin circuit and one judge to each of the other circuits. The number of permanent justices of the District Court is being increased from 39 to 45, in addition to the President of the District Court.
These increases in the numbers of the Judiciary in the lower courts are necessary to enable these courts to deal with their current workload which has necessitated the appointment of two temporary Circuit Court judges and six temporary justices of the District Court.
Section 21 provides for a change in the mode or style of address of judges of the District Court from "justice" to "judge". Under the Constitution, district justices are judges but they have been styled as "justices" since the foundation of the State. The existing statutory provisions are contained in the Courts (Establishment and Constitution) Act, 1961, which provides that each judge of the District Court shall be styled "justice of the District Court".
The proposed change in the style of address from "justice" to "judge" will come into effect three months after the Bill is passed. This will allow for the passing of other Bills currently before the Oireachtas which contain a reference to a "justice of the District Court", without having to amend them. As and from the commencement date, all references to "justice" contained in any statute or statutory instrument in operation on that date, will be construed as references to a judge of the District Court by virtue of section 21 of the Bill.
The District Court deals with a substantial amount of the business which comes before our courts. It has a significant and vital role in the administration of justice. It is, therefore, appropriate that a judge of the District Court should be addressed as "judge" and I am sure that this proposal will be widely welcomed.
Section 14 of the Bill is a comprehensive provision which proposes to amend the existing law governing the recovery of costs by a plaintiff in a civil action by substituting a new section 17 in the Courts Act, 1981.
It is essential if this Bill is to lead to a reduction in legal costs that plaintiffs are encouraged to take actions in the lowest court with jurisdiction to hear them. The principle of limiting the costs which a plaintiff may recover when he proceeds in a higher court than is necessary was given statutory effect in section 12 of the Courts Act, 1936. However, that section applied only to certain types of actions. It was replaced by section 17 of the Courts Acts, 1981, which extended the principle to all types of actions.
Section 17 of the 1981 Act gives a wide discretion to the courts to award costs in excess of the level of costs appropriate to the lowest court with jurisdiction to hear an action. Experience has shown that further restrictions are necessary. Section 14 of the Bill, therefore, proposes to limit the courts' discretion to award higher costs to cases in the High Court where damages between £25,000 and £30,000 are awarded. In such cases Circuit Court costs only will be payable unless the judge certifies that it was reasonable, in the interests of justice, that the action should have been determined in the High Court. In the case of an action taken in the High Court, where the damages awarded are between £15,000 and £25,000, Circuit Court costs will only be recoverable and where damages are between £5,000 and £15,000 a successful plaintiff will be entitled to recover the lesser of an amount equivalent to the damages awarded or the amount of costs at the Circuit Court level.
A further disincentive to taking an action in a higher court than necessary is included in the provisions of subsection (5) of the new section 17 of the Courts Act, 1981. The courts are being given a new discretionary power to penalise a successful plaintiff who takes an action in a court other than the lowest court with jurisdiction, by requiring the plaintiff to pay to the defendant the equivalent of the additional costs incurred by the defendant in having to defend the action in a higher court than was necessary.
This provision reflects the Government's determination to effect a real reduction in legal costs as a consequence of the increases in the jurisdiction of the lower courts proposed in the Bill while at the same time providing reasonable scope to a plaintiff in deciding on the appropriate court in which to commence an action if he is not to be penalised in relation to the amount of costs he might recover.
A further provision in the Bill in section 15 will enable the Circuit Court to transfer actions to the District Court at the request of a party to an action where the court decides that the action should have been commenced in the District Court. In an action for unliquidated damages which is remitted to the District Court that court will be empowered to make an award up to £10,000, that is, twice its proposed new jurisdiction limit. The High Court has power already to remit a case to the Circuit or District Court on similar grounds.
Section 4 of the Bill provides that the District Court will be empowered to hear and determine an action above its statutory limit of £5,000 where the parties to the action consent. This section should further assist litigants to keep legal costs as low as possible. A similar provision operates already in the Circuit Court.
A further reforming measure in the Bill, in section 22, provides for the service of summonses by registered post in summary cases. Under the existing law summonses must be served personally by the gardaí. The vast bulk of these summonses relate to road traffic offences.
Personal service of summonses is a costly and time consuming procedure. The proposed mode of service, when implemented, will release about 60 gardaí in the Dublin area who are at present assigned to summons service duties. When the new provision is fully implemented it should be possible to release a further 70 gardaí in the rest of the country who are fully occupied on this work for operational duties. In addition to releasing gardaí for operational duties, the new system should effect an improved rate of summons service and result in an increase in revenue to the State.
This new mode of service will not replace the existing system of personal service of summonses which will be retained for summonses which cannot be served by post, but it will provide a more efficient method of summons service suited to modern circumstances and will allow for the reallocation of Garda manpower resources to deal with the problem of crime.
The proposals in the Bill effecting changes in the jurisdiction limits of the Circuit and District Courts will come into effect one month after the passing of the Bill. Other proposals that require rules of court to be made as a procedures will come into force after three months. The proposal to change the style of address of judges of the District Court will also come into effect three months after the Bill is passed. The proposals for increases in the judiciary will come into effect immediately.
As I indicated at the outset, this Bill represents part of a package of legislative reforms which are planned in relation to the courts and the legal profession.
The Minister for Justice proposes to introduce a Court and Court Officers Bill which will include provision for establishing a new Court of Civil Appeal. Generally, the intention is that the Court of Civil Appeal would hear appeals from decisions of the High Court, other than appeals in the more important cases involving issues of law and appeals in constitutional actions.
Last year the Fair Trade Commission published a very comprehensive report on its study into restrictive practices in the legal profession. The Minister for Justice will be introducing a Solicitors (Amendment) Bill very shortly. It will be major legislation which will take account of the various recommendations made by the Fair Trade Commission for changes in the law relating to solicitors.
The Bill will include important provisions relating to the disciplinary provisions governing solicitors, including the system for dealing with complaints and various new measures for the protection of solicitors' clients.
The Minister for Justice has had discussions with the Bar Council about the Fair Trade Commission's recommendations relating to the barristers' profession. The Council have recently decided to introduce a number of changes in the profession and this is a most welcome development.
A new procedure in the District Court for dealing with small claims, which will not require legislation, is being established. The small claims procedure will be established as soon as the necessary rules of court have been made. Small claims procedures operate successfully in other jurisdictions and it is hoped that the new procedure will provide a mechanism for resolving small claims against suppliers of faulty goods or services. A problem up to now has been the prohibitive cost of taking an action to court where the claim is for a relatively small amount.
The procedure will be established initially on a pilot scheme basis in the Dublin Metropolitan District Court, in Cork and at two other District Court venues. It is intended to extend the procedure to all District Court venues as soon as the pilot scheme has been fully evaluated.
The Bill makes a major contribution in the area of access to justice and reform in the law relating to the courts. It allows for an increase in the judiciary and the introduction of a modern system of summons service which should release more gardaí for operational duties. The main objective of the Bill is to make access to the courts cheaper and quicker by increasing the civil jurisdiction limits of the Circuit and District Courts and this is being done by doubling the existing limits.
The Bill also includes other important measures which should assist in securing the efficient administration of justice in our courts.
I commend the Bill to the House.