I am pleased to have the opportunity to introduce the Courts Bill 2015 to the House and look forward to engaging with Members as we progress the Bill through the various Stages. It is brief in content, having just one single purpose, to provide for an increase in the maximum number of High Court judges from 35 to 37. Under Article 36 of the Constitution, the number of judges of the different courts is fixed from time to time by legislation. The existing cap on the number of ordinary judges of the High Court was set in 2007 by the Courts and Court Officers (Amendment) Act. As is the case with the Bill before the House, that Act amended the Courts and Court Officers Act 1995 by providing that there would be no more than 35 ordinary judges of the High Court. Earlier I looked at the OECD figures for the proportion of judges to the population. Ireland is very low down in that OECD comparison, although people sometimes erroneously think it is not.
The best part of a decade has passed since the last adjustment of the statutory number of High Court judges. I am sure Senators will acknowledge the growth in that period of time, as in so many other areas, in the volume and complexity of proceedings and litigation before the courts system as a whole. While the pressure on the courts has been managed very effectively and professionally by the Judiciary and the Courts Service, in some important areas of High Court business waiting times are longer than any of us would want them to be. The allocation of a further two judges to the High Court is not solely about addressing waiting times, although this measure will address, in particular, the waiting times being experienced in the Central Criminal Court. In fact, it is more to do with ensuring the court can work more efficiently, for example, by reducing the number of reserved judgements handed down. I will return to the position in the Central Criminal Court and the question of reserved judgments.
A separate problem that I cannot overlook relates to the changes in the High Court due to the setting up the Court of Appeal and the recent loss of a significant number of judges from the High Court. Some of this loss is, of course, accounted for by retirements but much of it is due to the fact that we have set up the new Court of Appeal, to which nine High Court judges were appointed to ensure the Court of Appeal would be up and running. Senators will be aware of the significant work that has been done in the past year and the numbers of cases that have been dealt with by the Court of Appeal under the presidency of Mr. Justice Seán Ryan. It has been really effective in dealing with the various cases referred to it and made a lot of headway. These judges have been replaced by a strong cohort of new judges, but, clearly, I must make the point about the huge loss of experience. Another point that will be of interest to Senators concerns the huge number of cases now taken by lay litigants. This is an option people are choosing to take, but it is also leading to cases taking far more time to deal with for obvious reasons.
All of these factors are leading to increased waiting times for cases to be heard in some areas of the courts and an increase in the number of cases not proceeding on days listed for hearing, as well as a significant number of reserved judgments. For these reasons, I asked the Government to approve additional resources. The actual provision is just a net change in numbers and amends section 9 of the Courts and Court Officers Act 1995, as amended by the Courts and Court Officers (Amendment) Act 2007, to increase the number of ordinary judges of the High Court from 35 to 37.
It is worth looking at some of the changes we are seeing in the courts in terms of their business that underline the business case for the assignment of two more judges. Pressure points in the High Court that the Bill will substantially alleviate include the number of cases in which reserved judgments are given. While there are good reasons for reserving judgments in many cases, giving judges time to reflect on evidence and the law, the amount is of particular concern to the Judiciary. Clearly, this can be most unsatisfactory from the point of view of all concerned, not least the parties to the action or matter in hand.
Reserved judgments are frequently handed down in judicial review matters, commercial court cases and chancery actions. The increase in the number of reserved judgments can perhaps be seen as an unintended consequence of the efforts being made by the Judiciary to stay on top of waiting lists across the various areas of court business. In the Central Criminal Court, a marked trend is the increasing duration of trials due to the greater complexity of evidence coming before the court. This is evident in a lot of areas, including in the work of Tusla in relation to child protection cases.
Waiting times are a matter of concern. I note that the President of the High Court recently found it necessary to appoint a fifth judge to the full-time hearing of cases in the Central Criminal Court. I regret to say that the waiting time for a trial is approximately 18 months. One can only imagine the difficulties and distress this causes for victims of crime and their families. In many instances, cases cannot proceed on the date listed for trial, which then has implications in terms of costs, practitioners and witnesses. I am concerned about this, but I anticipate that the allocation of an additional judge to that court will make a difference. Two additional judges in the High Court would be very supportive.
Medical negligence litigation now represents a sizeable portion of business before the High Court. Given the lengthy duration of most of these actions, which we read about frequently in the newspapers and on which issue we had a discussion during our debate on the Legal Services Regulation Bill 2011, the President of the High Court, as I am sure everybody here will agree, makes a convincing case for the deployment of judicial resources to manage these actions at the earliest possible opportunity. Early intervention by a judge offers the best prospect of limiting the duration of hearings through early identification of the issues, which can lead to earlier settlement. These are usually very upsetting cases for families and all concerned. Better and more proactive management of these cases would make a difference to everybody. For this reason, the pre-action protocols to which Senators agreed during our Committee Stage debate on the Legal Services Regulation Bill 2011 is an important initiative.
The new Companies Act is predicted to generate an increased level of company-law-related applications to the High Court. These applications, many of which relate to the restriction for directors of insolvent companies, can take a number of days of court time and it is estimated that at least one extra High Court judge will be required to manage this business. The more effective the operation of our courts system, the better it is for the economy. It is important in the context of our reputation, economically and internationally, that we have a court system that is effective and efficient. Judicial reviews of decisions of courts and other bodies where reliefs and remedies are sought arise frequently in such areas as planning matters, challenges to the constitutionality of legislation and debt and other cases. It is a critical area of activity for the court, and more judicial resources are needed because practically all judicial reviews require written judgments. The point regarding the importance of written judgments and the time required in that regard has been repeatedly made to me.
I hope Senators can support the Bill which I believe will have a positive impact on the work and output of the High Court. I believe it will help with the efficient conduct of business in our courts. It is important that access to justice is seen to be efficient and timely and that there are not lengthy waiting times in this regard. While the Bill is a response to the volume of cases coming before the High Court, including judicial reviews, medical negligence actions, asylum applications and company-law-related applications, its specific benefit will be to enhance the efficiency with which the business of the court is managed as a whole and how, in particular, judgments are handled.
It ties in with the establishment of the Court of Appeal last year which was probably the biggest single reform we have seen in the courts over a long period. It has dealt with hundreds of cases since its initiation and has brought in a system of case management as well which has led to greater efficiency all round. I commend the Bill to the House.