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Address by the Tánaiste and Minister for Justice and Equality
Frances Fitzgerald T.D.
Presentation of the Courts Service Annual Report 2015
12 July 2016
Chief Justice, members of the Judiciary, members of the Board, distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen; I am pleased to be here today to accept the Courts Service Annual Report for 2015.
I would like to take this opportunity to commend the Chief Justice and Chairperson of the Courts Service Board, Chief Justice Denham, and all the board members as well as the Chief Executive, Brendan Ryan, and his staff on the excellent service provided by the courts.
Barack Obama described the law as “a long-running conversation” or a “nation arguing with its conscience”. If that is the case then a country’s courts service could be described as the fair and impartial moderator of those conversations and arguments. The courtroom should be the place where we are most equal and where the only thing that separates us is whether we are on the right – or wrong – side of the law.
Budget and Staffing
That is why an excellent court system is a fundamental keystone of any functioning democratic country and this Government has continued to provide substantial resources to the Service, with a gross allocation of nearly €108 million for 2015. I was very pleased last year, when preparing the Estimates for 2016, that we were able to secure an extra €1.25 million for additional staffing for the Courts Service throughout the country. I am glad to learn that this has enabled the Courts Service to fill 30 new posts in vital areas.
As technology advances at its rapid rate, in some cases the physical presence of the court house or the court room is no longer required for the application of the law. We are all aware of the significant demands and challenges for the courts in relation to upgrading their ICT infrastructure and positioning the service to be able to maximise efficiencies from developments in technology. On that basis additional funding totalling €2.5 million is being made available for ICT investment in 2016 and my Department will continue efforts to support these important developments.
PPP projects/Hammond Lane
At the same time the provision of satisfactory court accommodation and resources remains a very important requirement.. The conclusion and signing of the contracts for a Courts Public-Private Partnership (PPP) Project in December last year was a major achievement in the modernisation of our Court facilities and is a very significant investment with project costs estimated to be €135 million. New courthouse buildings are being built in Drogheda, Letterkenny, Limerick and Wexford and substantial refurbishment and extension works to existing courthouses are to be carried out in Cork, Mullingar and Waterford. I am pleased to hear that construction has commenced in all 7 locations and, while still at an early stage, the work is on schedule in all locations. All projects are scheduled to be delivered in 2017.
There are also plans for a dedicated and integrated Family Law and Children’s Court building, together with additional courtrooms for the Supreme Court and other Courts offices, which were agreed by Government last year. I am very conscious of the concerns expressed by the judiciary, legal practitioners and victims groups in relation to the poor state and set-up of many Family Court facilities. The new development will be situated on the Hammond Lane site in Smithfield and will ensure appropriate state-of-the-art facilities where family law cases can be heard. A dedicated Project Board, chaired by High Court judge Mr Justice Michael White has been set up to oversee planning for this ambitious development and will be working closely with the OPW State Architect and his team along with the judiciary and staff of the relevant courts to accomplish this task. I appreciate all the efforts involved in planning for this important project which we anticipate would commence in 2017/18 for completion before 2020.
While the Courts remain extremely busy I am happy to note that, in general, across the courts system waiting times have either been maintained or, in certain areas, there has been ongoing progress in reducing waiting times and backlogs. Judges and staff are to be commended for all their efforts in this regard. One significant reduction, as noted by the Chief Justice in her foreword to this report, is the reduction in the High Court waiting time for pre-leave asylum cases from 30 months to 6 months in the last two years which I am sure makes for a more efficient and humane system for all involved.
Court of Appeal
Since the establishment of the Court of Appeal, the Supreme Court has made progress in addressing its backlog and has been engaged in a proactive review and management of its total caseload under the direction of the Chief Justice. The Courts Service has assisted the judges of the Court of Appeal in the development of judge led case management to ensure appeal cases can be dealt with in a timely and expeditious manner. The new appellate regime has already had a significant impact on waiting times, and thus greatly improved the overall efficiency of the Irish Courts System.
Second Special Criminal Court
In this context I would also like to highlight the establishment of the Second Special Criminal Court. In 2015 waiting times for Special Criminal Court cases to be heard reached almost two years. The appointment of 7 judges to the bench of the Second Special Criminal Court in October last year thereby bringing the Court into existence, confirmed the Government’s commitment to ensure that those who commit serious crimes affecting the security of the State or certain organised crime offences will be brought swiftly to justice. The Court sat for the first time in May 2016 and I would like to take this opportunity to thank the judiciary and the Courts Service for their cooperation and work in ensuring that the Second Special Criminal Court could begin hearing cases in such a timely manner.
Supporting people with mortgage arrears
A huge amount of work has already been done under the last Government’s Action Plan on Mortgage Arrears last May, with a number of new measures put in place to support mortgage holders who are in arrears. In a major reform of the Personal Insolvency legislation in 2015, the Courts were given the power to review and, where appropriate, to approve insolvency deals that have been rejected by banks if the borrower’s home mortgage is involved. This is already resulting in more cases being processed to a successful outcome through a Personal Insolvency deal.
Court rules and procedures for repossession cases were also streamlined to assist people who are unfamiliar with Court rules and proceedings and to guide more cases towards the available State supports such as the Insolvency Service. This, builds on the 2013 provision that allows a home repossession case to be adjourned so that the defendant has an opportunity to consult a Personal Insolvency Practitioner.
One of the most innovative developments was the presence of staff from the Money Advice and Budgeting Service (MABS) at courthouses to provide information and ‘signposting’ support for householders issued with repossession proceedings against their homes. This service was piloted successfully in July 2015 and has been provided for all Circuit Court repossession hearings nationwide since 1 October 2015. I would like to commend the cooperation between MABS, the Insolvency Service and the Courts Service in developing and rolling out this important initiative.
I’m particularly pleased to note that the new Aid and Advice Scheme for borrowers at risk of losing their homes due to mortgage arrears, which I announced earlier this year, is now fully prepared and is expected to ‘go live’ in the next week or so. This is a major new Scheme to ensure that distressed borrowers can get access free to the independent, financial and legal help, advice and expertise they need to identify solutions that can keep them in their homes where possible.
So all in all, another busy year for our Courts and I know that my officials are very grateful for the expert assistance of many people throughout the Courts Service. We will continue to maintain this high level cooperation and excellent working relations to allow us to achieve necessary reforms.
Again, Chief Justice, I thank you for the report and I wish you and the Courts Service continued success.