I wish to thank the Deputy for raising this important matter.

As I recently outlined to the Deputy in reply to a parliamentary question, the Courts Service has informed me that there are currently 9 cases in the High Court and 1 case in the Supreme Court in which judgements are awaited for between 3 and 6 months. I am also advised that there are 15 cases in the High Court and 19 in the Supreme Court where judgments have been reserved for in excess of 6 months, 3 of these have awaited judgement in the High Court for over 12 months and 7 have awaited judgement in the Supreme Court for over 12 months.  The corresponding figures for judgments awaited for less than three months are 50 cases in the High Court and 4 cases in the Supreme Court.  

This is of significant concern as under the European Convention on Human Rights, member states are obliged to ensure that excessive delay does not occur in domestic proceedings.  Article 6(1) of the Convention establishes the right to a fair trial, and within this provision "trial within a reasonable time" is protected.  The length of trial is measured up to the moment the national judgment becomes final, so the length of time a judge takes in giving judgment would be considered in establishing whether there has been a violation of Article 6(1) in a particular case.   If the right is found to have been violated, as in the case of McFarlane v Ireland, the injured party may be entitled to compensation.    Notwithstanding the independence of the judiciary, therefore, it is incumbent on both the Government and the Judiciary to take all possible steps to ensure that delay does not become excessive.  

As the House will appreciate, the delivery of judgments following completion of a court hearing is a matter for the judiciary and the Presidents of the courts who are independent in the exercise of their judicial functions, subject only to the Constitution and the law.  In addition, I have an obligation to take action, within my area of responsibility as Minister, to seek to address particular problems as they arise, including through legislation.  Following the decision in McFarlane, I established an Expert Group on Article 13 of the Convention to consider, inter alia, how delays might be remedied and I look forward to considering their report when it is to hand.  

In the context of delays on judgments, I understand that the Chief Justice has brought forward a welcome series of initiatives to facilitate a review of the reserved judgments list in the Supreme Court on an ongoing basis, including the implementation of an electronic database of the list.  Active management of the list is being facilitated by a series of processes which have been put in place by the Chief Justice to minimise current delays and to establish new systems for the future.  Considerable progress has been made in reducing delays generally before the courts and the situation is being kept under constant review.

I am also informed that the Chief Justice and the President of the High Court regularly meet with senior officials of the Courts Service to review matters relating to the operation of the Supreme and High Courts in order to ensure efficiency in the disposal of court business.  In addition, where possible, supports are provided to assist judges in the preparation of judgments, including the engagement of Judicial Fellows and judicial research assistants. The use of Judicial Fellows, since their introduction in 2008, to assist High Court Judges with research and with the drafting of written judgements has, I am informed, had a positive impact in terms of delay generally within the High Court and in particular in reducing the time taken for the delivery of reserved judgements.

The Deputy may also recall that a Register of Reserved Judgments in civil proceedings was introduced in 2005. It provides that if judgment is not delivered within two months from the date upon which it was reserved, the President of the Court which heard the case must list the proceedings before the judge who reserved judgment at two-month intervals. That judge must specify the date on which he or she proposes to deliver the judgment. The register provides a mechanism to remind judges of outstanding judgments and supports the Chief Justice/President of the High Court in ensuring that judges who need it can be given time out of court to write reserved judgments.

The Commercial Court, which was established in 2004, continues to contribute greatly to reducing the disposal time for cases admitted to the High Court.  Despite an increasing case load the average time for completion of cases in the Commercial Court is 20 weeks from commencement.
The President of the High Court has been pro-active in reducing the delays experienced in judicial review proceedings in asylum/immigration cases in which leave has been granted and the court has held additional hearings during vacation periods to reduce backlogs and delays.

It is worth noting that the Supreme Court operates a priority list system to expedite urgent cases. Cases such as Hague Convention/Child Abduction and European Arrest Warrant Appeals are automatically prioritised. In all other cases, a party may apply to the court for priority once urgency or some other basis for the application can be shown. Urgent matters can and are heard and judgment issued at extremely short notice.

Court Rules are also amended on a regular basis with a view to improving efficiency in court practice and procedure. In particular, case progression rules have helped ensure that proceedings are prepared for trial in a manner which is just, expeditious and likely to minimise the costs of the proceedings, for example through recourse to Alternative Dispute Resolution where appropriate, and that the time and other resources of the court are employed optimally.  

Finally, the establishment of a new Court of Appeal is also relevant in the context of the caseloads of the superior courts. The establishment of a Court of Appeal is included in the Programme for Government and it is my intention to finalise examination of the detail in relation to establishing a Court of Appeal and to progress the matter at the earliest suitable opportunity.  As the Deputy is aware a referendum is necessary to proceed and a decision remains to be taken by Government as to when such a referendum will take place in the context of other future referenda.  However, I do not anticipate that the holding of a referendum will occur before Autumn 2012.  

I should add that the Council of Europe Committee of Ministers which monitors how member states implement ECHR judgments has recently recorded satisfaction with how Ireland is progressing in dealing with delay.  For this reason, I am most anxious to ensure that we do not regress and I very much welcome the Chief Justice’s recent initiatives in this regard.  

I want to thank the Deputy for raising the matter and I appreciate her legitimate interest in ensuring the efficient and effective administration of justice in Ireland.  

15 December 2011