I am very glad to move this legislation in the Seanad. It is important that the role of the Seanad should be recognised and that, where possible, Bills should be initiated here to give Members the first go at expressing their views on legislation. Since coming into office this Government has moved a number of Bills here, thus enhancing the role of the Seanad, which is a good thing.
The Court and Court Officers Act, 1995, enacted at the end of last year contained wide ranging reforms of the courts and judicial system. Through the provision of extra judges in the courts and other measures, it was aimed in particular at tackling the main problem facing the court system, the arrears of cases and appeals awaiting hearing. That Act also contained many other much needed administrative and procedural reforms of the courts and judicial system.
In the past week, for the first time, serious criminal court cases were held in Cork. Until I made the changes in the 1995 Act that required the judge to agree to the transfer of cases, alleged criminals were using a mechanism to move their cases to the Dublin courts, thereby necessitating delays of up to three years and, in the meantime, they were out on bail and free to continue to commit crime. This week I had a call from a person in Cork who told me there was a sense of achievement among barristers, solicitors and the people involved in the judicial process in Cork at being in a position to present their cases in the city in which the crimes were committed and get sentences passed speedily against serious drug criminals. During the week two people were imprisoned for eight and ten years, respectively, for drug offences; they were sentenced by a court in Cork as opposed to having to wait another two years to have the cases taken. That was as a direct result of a section I put into the Court and Court Officers Act, 1995, having taken over the Bill which had been drafted before I came into office which fell with the fall of the Government in 1994.
The court system has been under immense pressure over a number of years and, frankly, has struggled at times to provide an unacceptable level of service. That is in no way to imply criticism of those charged with the responsibility of making that system work. The fact is that up to the enactment of the Court and Court Officers Act, 1995, it was clear that the level of resources made available to the courts and the reform of the system that was needed had not kept pace with the increasing demands on it.
The courts are a key element of our criminal justice system, with the Garda Síochána and the prisons. The measures I have put in place to reform the courts are central to my overall proposals to improve the criminal justice system which I announced last week. I established a working group on a courts commission last year, and I will refer to this in a few moments. I want to take the opportunity to refer briefly to some other legislative proposals for reform of the criminal justice system.
I am proceeding with my proposals for a combination of constitutional and legislative changes to the existing bail laws, details of which were given last week, including plans for a constitutional referendum next November. I also brought forward an amendment to the Criminal Justice (Drug Trafficking) Bill to restrict the right to silence in drug trafficking cases. That Bill was debated yesterday in this House. A Private Members' Bill on freezing criminal assets, which is currently before the Dáil and which I will substantially amend and redraft, should be passed into law later this month. I intend to publish a Criminal Justice (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill in the next week or two which will contain measures to improve the efficiency of court procedures and reduce the amount of time spent by gardaí in courts. It will also provide for issuing search warrants in connection with the investigation of serious crimes. At another time in this House I pointed out the inadequacies in some of our laws where, for example, a garda has the right to go in and search for a gun, if a gun was used in a crime, but does not have the power, has not had and will not have those powers, until my legislation is brought in, to search for an axe or a knife or some other weapon that might have been used to kill or injure people. Such anomalies have existed in our laws for many years. The criticism against me as Minister, and against this Government, begs the question why previous Ministers for Justice of another party did not make these changes before. It was not today or yesterday that the Garda Síochána looked for these changes. I am glad that I and this Government agree to make those changes in our Criminal Justice (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill. The Criminal Law Bill which passed Second Stage in the Dáil last month creates a new category of arrestable offences in respect of which the Garda will be able to arrest without a warrant. An arrestable offence will be any offence carrying a potential penalty of five years' imprisonment or more. That Bill also provides a clear statutory basis for powers of the Garda to enter premises to effect an arrest without warrant. This has been needed for many years and is now being done by this Government.
In recent years there has been a significant increase in both criminal and civil business in the Circuit Court. I do not intend to explore the background to the increased volume of legal business coming before the courts. What I will say is that not only has the workload been expanding but the trend is towards more complex and, therefore, more time-consuming cases.
The Courts and Court Officers Act, 1995, will make a very substantial contribution to alleviating the pressure on the court system, in particular, by the provision therein for the appointment of an additional three judges of the Supreme Court, three judges of the High Court, seven judges of the Circuit Court and five judges of the District Court. Yesterday the extra seven judges of the Circuit Court were appointed. Senators will be aware that the Judicial Appointments Advisory Board which was set up under the Act went to work early this year on the considerable task of assessing the candidature of applicants for some of these judicial posts. To date, the three additional Supreme Court judges have been appointed; two additional High Court judges have also been appointed and a third person was nominated for appointment by the President yesterday.
Yesterday, the Government also announced the nomination of nine Circuit Court judges, including the seven additional Circuit Court judges, one of whom is to replace a judge who was sent to the High Court and another of whom is to replace a judge who will be retiring in about a month's time. The District Court appointments will be made shortly. There were extensive lists of candidates for the positions which are being handled by the Judicial Appointments Advisory Board. There seems to be a great deal of interest among solicitors and barristers in becoming a judge of the District Court, which is very good. There was a time when barristers did not want to be District Court judges but the number of applicants clearly indicates that many experienced lawyers would like to be judges.
In the relatively short period since the enactment of the Courts and Court Officers Act, I have had calls to look again at the arrears of cases, in particular in criminal cases and appeals before the Circuit Court. In light of this, the Government approved my proposal, contained in this Bill, to amend the courts Acts to increase the maximum statutory limit on the number of Circuit Court judges by three to 28 judges, including the President of the Circuit Court. This is an important part of my proposals to deal with crime. It is intended that these three additional appointments will be made as soon as possible. Obviously these positions will have to be advertised when the legislation is enacted so that the Judicial Appointments Advisory Board can consider applications and this should be done as soon as possible.
The Law Reform Commission in its report last year on the law of bail pointed out that one way the number of offences committed on bail could be reduced is by reducing the length of time persons are at liberty before trial. In this context the Law Reform Commission recommended that a real attempt should be made to address the root cause of delay. The commission concluded that the appointment of more judges with the appropriate courts staff and back up services would address the current situation where cases which are ready to proceed have to wait their turn because there is not a judge to deal with the case. I am satisfied that the appointment of more judges in the Circuit Court will help to address the problems associated with the length of time at the disposal of those persons remanded on bail who commit offences while on bail and waiting for their cases to be heard. To that extent this Bill forms part of the Government's constitutional and legislative response to the problem of offending on bail.
It has to be recognised that there are more ways than one of dealing with the issue of persons reoffending while on bail. We have a composite package comprising the referendum, legislation and the speeding up of the time between arrest and trial and in turn the delay between conviction in one court and appeal to a superior court. If we speed up the time between the different stages, there will not be much time for the accused to be out on the street committing more crime.
Developments in the family law area and changes to the limits of the jurisdictions of the courts have had a major impact on the amount and complexity of business coming before the courts system as a whole. The growth in the number of cases and appeals arising from these factors has been particularly acute at Circuit Court level. There are unacceptably long family law lists, as has been pointed out by the Law Reform Commission in its recent report on family courts, to which I will refer later. Those awaiting the hearing of personal injuries actions in the Circuit Court face long delays. Inevitably, there is pressure too on the disposal of criminal business in the Circuit Court. The personal injury action tends to be put to one side if there is a serious criminal case to be taken.
Two other factors have heightened the demands on the Circuit Court. First, the Courts (No. 2) Act, 1991, increased the jurisdiction of the Circuit Court from £15,000 to £30,000. This brought about a very substantial increase in the volume of civil business for hearing in the court. The indications are that this increase in civil business will be sustained in the immediate future, at least. Civil cases before the Circuit Court are now more numerous, more complex and more time consuming that before.
Second, there has been a huge increase in family law business at Circuit Court level. The Judicial Separation and Family Law Reform Act, 1989, transferred the majority of family law business in the courts to the Circuit Court. The Family Law Act, 1995, which comes into effect next month also confers a substantial additional jurisdiction on the Circuit Court. The breakdown of family relationships gives rise to great trauma for those involved. Delays in the hearing of family law business in Circuit Court venues can contribute to the trauma and serve to exacerbate an already very difficult situation. The heavy volume of family law business in the Circuit Court seems set to continue and may grow still further with the introduction of divorce. Prior to the Courts and Court Officers Act, 1995, these legal reforms and social developments had not been met by corresponding commitments to extra judges. Those lists have been growing steadily over the past five to six years. No action was taken to increase the number of judges to handle the extra cases. That has led to the logjam in our courts. If we had been steadily increasing the number of judges during the early 1990s we would have kept pace with the increase in the number of cases. We now have a backlog and the extra judges will have to work doubly hard to clear it and get back to a reasonable length of time for a case to be heard.
This Bill, following the appointment of additional judges to the courts under the 1995 Act, is in my view an essential further step to turn around the business of the Circuit Court and to improve matters in that court with immediate effect. It would be wrong, however, to adopt this approach as the only response available to deal with the problem of delays. Other measures can play an important part in alleviating delays. The 1995 Act, for example, conferred additional powers on county registrars. A county registrar is assigned to each Circuit Court office and his or her function is the control and management of the business of that Circuit Court office. County registrars now have new and much wider powers which will have the effect of saving a considerable amount of Circuit Court time as they are empowered to deal with many motions that formerly only judges could handle. The 1995 Act also gave the Superior Courts and Circuit Court Rules Committee the power to make rules requiring parties in High and Circuit Court personal injuries actions to disclose, without having to apply to court, the reports of experts such as doctors whom it is intended to call to give evidence. I understand this matter is under consideration by the Superior Courts Rules Committee. This measure is aimed at speeding up the hearing of actions in the High Court and in the Circuit Court.
On the criminal law side, the 1995 Act addressed the problem of additional delays in the Dublin Circuit Court caused by the switching of criminal trials for hearing from Circuit Court sittings outside Dublin to the Dublin Circuit Court. The Act provides that an application to transfer the trial to Dublin will only be granted by the court if the judge is satisfied that it would be manifestly unjust not to do so. That is working. There is not much public recognition of the effects of these measures such as expanding the role of the county registrar and the Circuit Court Rules Committee so that it can amend its rules to change how business is done. People slip into bad habits. Barristers, solicitors and their clients have slipped into bad habits. We all know the syndrome of settling on the steps of the court. I do not know whether people realise — Senator Mulcahy is a solicitor so he will know——