CHECK AGAINST DELIVERY
Speech by the Minister for Justice and Equality, Charlie Flanagan T.D.,
at the presentation of the Courts Service Annual Report 2017
Phoenix House, Smithfield
Tuesday, 17 July 2018
Chief Justice, members of the Judiciary, members of the Board, distinguished guests, I am delighted to be here again to accept the Courts Service Annual Report for 2017.
Given my own legal background, I have a strong appreciation for the important role played by the Courts Service and the judiciary in the administration of justice.
And so I would like to start by commending the Chief Justice and Chairperson of your Board, Mr. Frank Clarke, and all the board members as well as the Chief Executive, Brendan Ryan, and his staff on the excellent service provided by our courts.
This government is committed to, and investing in, our Courts.
In 2012, we announced a major infrastructure package, and in the last couple of months, we have really seen the fruits of that commitment. Last year, I was delighted to participate, with former Chief Justice Susan Denham, in the opening of the Drogheda Courthouse. In the last few months, I had the pleasure, with Chief Justice Frank Clarke, of opening courthouses in Letterkenny, Wexford, Limerick, Waterford and Cork. Now, just Mullingar Courthouse is outstanding, and when its refurbishment and extension is finished, it will mark the completion of the Courts PPP Bundle, a massive programme of modernisation of our court facilities
It’s been a huge investment on the part of the State - the total cost of just under €150 million for the 7 projects is the largest single investment in regional court structures in the history of the State. It’s also the single largest capital project ever undertaken by the Courts Service. So I want to congratulation everyone involved in delivering these terrific new and refurbished courthouses. I’m really pleased that we are now in a position to provide state of the art and accessible facilities at each location.
Because facilities do matter. A visit to the courts can be a very stressful experience so anything we can do to make it easier is worthwhile.
But we are still trying to do more.
I am very conscious of the concerns expressed by the judiciary, legal practitioners and victims groups about many Family Court facilities. I know you are aware that a dedicated and integrated purpose built Family Law and Children's Court complex, together with a new Supreme Court and Courts Offices on the Hammond Lane site was included as one of the key Justice Sector projects in the Government's Infrastructure and Capital Investment Plan 2016 to 2021. I can just tell you that an updated Project Appraisal and Business Case with revised costings was submitted to the Department in April. It is being actively considered, and in due course, if it is approved, it will also require sanction from Department of Public Expenditure and Reform.
Of course what goes on inside the buildings is really important too. And legal reform is a priority for this Government, as it was for the one which preceded it. You can see that in what we have done from the establishment of the new Court of Appeal, to the new Legal Services Regulatory Authority, to the new Office of the Legal Costs Adjudicator. And more reforms and initiatives are still to come.
We are committed to the establishment of a family law court structure that is streamlined, more efficient, and less costly. My Department is developing a proposal for a dedicated Family Court which would be supported by the provisions of the Mediation Act 2017, within the existing court structures. Its objective would be to promote mediation as a viable, effective and efficient alternative to court proceedings, including proceedings relating to maintenance of children - that in turn would reduce legal costs, speed up the resolution of disputes and relieve the stress involved in court proceedings.
Protecting and supporting victims is a key priority for this Government.
In June, I signed Orders commencing increased protection of victims of crime during court trials. The protections include allowing the giving of evidence from behind a screen, the use of video evidence at trial stage and prevention from cross-examination by an accused person.
I also launched a new ‘Know Your Rights’ campaign. The Crime Victims Helpline campaign aims to raise awareness of the new rights afforded to victims by the Criminal Justice (Victims of Crime) Act 2017. The Helpline is one of the country’s main strategic victim support services and these new user-friendly resources will be a valuable source of help to all victims and those supporting them.
I am delighted that the Domestic Violence Bill 2017 was passed by both Houses of the Oireachtas in May.
This was one of the most important pieces of legislation to come before the Oireachtas this year. Domestic violence can have devastating physical, emotional and financial consequences – and the enactment of the Bill is a key part of the Second National Strategy on Domestic, Sexual and Gender-based Violence.
One of the important things the Bill did was ease potential financial worries. From 1 January this year, the financial contribution required from applicants for civil legal aid in domestic violence cases in the District Court, was removed. And I believe this practical change removes a barrier to access to justice and will help ensure that victims of domestic violence feel confident about turning to the courts.
I am very pleased that a Group to review the administration of civil justice in the State, chaired by the President of the High Court Mr. Justice Peter Kelly, was established in 2017. The Group will make recommendations for changes with a view to improving access to civil justice in the State, promoting early resolution of disputes, reducing the cost of litigation, creating a more responsive and proportionate system and ensuring better outcomes for court users and is to report to me within two years.
I understand that the deadline for submissions has now closed and that the Review Group, and its sub-committees, have held a number of meetings to consider these submissions. I look forward to receiving their report in due course.
I am also pleased that work is progressing in the phased commencement of the remaining Parts of the Legal Services Regulatory Act 2015 Act that deal with legal costs and I look forward to the establishment of the new Office of the Legal Cost Adjudicators.
As you are no doubt all aware, the Government is working towards reforming the system of judicial appointments. The commitment in the Programme for a Partnership Government is for a new structure that will include an independent chairperson selected by the Public Appointments Service and approved by an Oireachtas Committee. It is also to have a lay majority with independent people who hold specialist qualifications.
The Bill which provides for these new changes was passed by Dáil on 31 May 2018. The Seanad Second Stage took place on 20 June 2018 and it is currently in Seanad Committee (12 July).
I am also pleased that Judicial Council Bill is moving through the Houses of the Oireachtas. The need for a Judicial Council has long been recognised, both domestically and internationally and it will have an important role in promoting and maintaining excellence and high standards of conduct among judges.
I am certain that these two Bills will underpin public confidence in the judiciary and will ensure that the quality of our judicial system is maintained. And I want to assure you too that the while we await passage of those Bills, the government is committed to resourcing the Courts and to filling judicial vacancies on a continuous basis.
We know just home important an excellent court system is. That is why, as a government, we continue to provide substantial resources to the Service.
In 2017, the gross allocation, which included the once off funding provided for the seven major building projects was €140 million. This year, the Courts Service received over €131 million, with capital funding accounting for €40.8 million and €8.17 million of it being allocated for ICT. We also provided additional funding of a half a million euro to boost staffing across the Courts Service, improve frontline services and help drive reform.
I know the Courts remain extremely busy, but I am happy to note that, in general, across the system, waiting times have either been maintained or, reduced. I wish to commend both the Judges and courts staff for all their efforts in this regard and of course, encourage everyone to continue working to bring about further improvements.
And finally as I acknowledge the work of the Courts, can I also acknowledge the work of my Department and the way it combines with yours.
I know that my officials are very grateful, on an on-going basis, for the expert assistance of many people throughout the Courts Service – not just in policy formulation and preparation of legislation - but also in the day-to-day parliamentary accountability process. And I am confident that we will all continue to work well together to maintain this high level of cooperation and to deliver necessary reforms.