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Chief Justice, members of the judiciary, members of the Board, distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen; I am very pleased to be here today to accept the Courts Service’s Annual Report for 2011.
I wish to thank the Chief Justice and Chairperson of the Courts Service Board, the Honourable Mrs Justice Susan Denham, her fellow Board members, the Chief Executive Officer, Mr. Brendan Ryan along with all the officials of the Courts Service throughout the country and to congratulate you on the continuing excellent, professional service which the courts provide. The Service deserves all the more appreciation for the efforts which are made by all involved against the background of, as the Chief Justice describes in her message in the Annual Report, the "very changed circumstances over the last few years".
There is no doubt that the changed economic circumstances of the country demand that all public service organisations assess how they can best use the reduced funding and resources available to them while maintaining critical services. The Courts Service is an example of what can be achieved in this respect. Despite the continuing significant demand on its services and, indeed, increases in the number of cases in certain areas, with reduced resources the Service has successfully met the challenges it faced during the year and pursued a variety of initiatives to better utilise resources. During the year the Chief Justice and members of the judiciary ensured that lists and case management were to the fore and that, where necessary, additional sittings were arranged to ensure that cases were dealt with as promptly as possible. The officials of the Courts Service have also contributed in terms of managing the demands on the organisation in new and more efficient ways while maintaining high standards of service. I am conscious of the extra pressure that the number of retirements and vacancies during the year caused to judges and I am very grateful to all concerned for their hard work and cooperation. I should also record my gratitude for the exemplary dedicated work by members of the judiciary in conjunction with my Department to identify measures designed to achieve savings and efficiencies across the criminal justice system.
At this point, I am pleased to be able to tell you that the Government, at its meeting this morning, approved proposals for a number of major reforms to our Courts structures. The initiatives accepted by my Government colleagues require the holding of a Constitutional Referendum and have the potential to achieve significant changes to the courts structures which have remained largely unchanged since 1924.
The Government’s decision was to approve, in principle, the holding of a Referendum to amend Article 34 of the Constitution to enable the Oireachtas establish additional Superior Courts, which would include the establishment of a Court of Civil Appeal and a new Family Court structure. This proposal would also allow the Oireachtas to consider the establishment of other specialist Superior Courts in the future, should they be required.
The Government also agreed that consideration should be given to other constitutional changes including, for example, possible amendments to Article 26 dealing with the reference of a Bill by the President to the Supreme Court. I am of the view that we need to review the procedure whereby the Supreme Court is confined to delivering one judgment only and no minority judgment may be delivered in the determination of an Article 26 application. This may create an artificial appearance of unanimity and consideration is being given to whether there should be greater transparency and whether it is in the public interest that individual members of the court should be enabled to deliver individual judgements. Also, consideration is being given to conferring a power on the Supreme Court to determine whether a Presidential reference of a Bill to the Supreme Court under Article 26 should be capable of rejection by that Court for such adjudication due to the absence of a proper factual or evidential basis on which to conduct such adjudication. I would encourage public debate about such matters.
The Government also feels that consideration is merited regarding possible amendments to Article 26 and Article 34, in respect of Bills referred by the President to the Supreme Court, to enable possible future constitutional challenges to Bills already upheld as constitutional following such reference. For example, such further constitutional challenge could be appropriate with regard to legislation where a question arises not addressed by the Supreme Court in its original decision under Article 26, and/or following the lapse of five years or some other specified period from the date of the original decision. Another area for consideration is the possibility of enabling the Government to refer international agreements that it proposes to ratify to the Supreme Court for an advisory ruling on whether the terms of the agreement in question are in accordance with the Constitution. Such a mechanism would be likely to be used principally with respect to amendments to EU Treaties and would facilitate the Government clarifying relevant legal issues in a non-contentious way without the necessity of an individual initiating a constitutional challenge.
With regard to the establishment of a Court of Civil Appeal other issues also arise for consideration such as whether, following the High Court adjudicating in a constitutional matter, an appeal should be made directly to the Supreme Court or whether the Court of Civil Appeal should play a role. At first glance, it seems preferable that such appeal should be made directly to the Supreme Court even following the establishment of a Court of Civil Appeal. The final issue to which consideration is being given is the provision of an optional secular judicial declaration to be made by judges on their appointment, as an alternative to the current declaration contained in Article 34.5. It is my hope that these matters will result in considered public debate and discussion.
I would like to pay tribute to the Chief Justice who chaired the Working Group on a Court of Appeal for her clear analysis of the stark structural issues facing the superior courts. As all of us present are aware, the Chief Justice has been to the forefront of reform for the past two decades and most recently articulated the case for fundamental reform at the UCD Constitutional Studies Conference last month when she set out the benefits of a new Courts framework. I am confident that arising from this morning’s Government decision we can set about the task of putting appropriate amendments to the People with a view to significantly improving and modernising the Courts to provide for a more flexible responsive structure. It is my intention that work on these matters will commence shortly and a final decision on when to hold the referendum will be made at a later date. I believe there is an opportunity and obligation to engage, over the coming months, in public debate on these matters as I believe the time has come to explore the much needed reform of the current structures. The development and maintenance of an efficient courts system, which is appropriately structured in the light of the demands on it, is of critical importance to the State.
In the wider context of identifying how to achieve efficiencies, I wish to express my thanks to the Chief Justice for her assistance in introducing an overarching forum which is pursuing the goal of delivering quality services in a more efficient and effective manner. Late last year the Chief Justice and I established a Working Group on efficiency measures in the criminal justice system in the Circuit and District Court. This Group, whose work is on-going, is an extremely useful forum through which representatives of the judiciary, the Courts Service and the relevant State agencies who interact with the Courts can come together to ensure that the arrangements operating in respect of criminal cases before the Circuit and District Courts are the most efficient, productive and cost effective that can be achieved. It has the advantage that judges from both the Circuit and District Court as well as senior representatives of the relevant agencies are involved in order to ensure that the initiatives are translated into action on the ground. I wish to record my thanks to those involved for their on-going efforts in this Group.
I might refer to just two initiatives which the Working Group is developing by way of example of how the aim for greater efficiencies can produce real benefits. Firstly, the increased use of both video conferencing facilities within the courts and linking the courts to the Irish Prison Service in appropriate circumstances has the potential to save significant time and money for the agencies involved and for users of the courts system. The Working Group has been considering what needs to be put in place to ensure that happens. Of course, the Courts Service itself has undertaken significant work during 2011 to optimise the use of video conferencing and other similar technologies. Secondly, the innovation of having a pre-trial procedure was originally recommended nearly a decade ago in the Report of the Fennelly Group on the Criminal Jurisdiction of the Courts. Such a procedure could speed up the progress of cases, assist the judiciary in managing the cases and save valuable court time and legal costs in the process. The Working Group is developing a proposal to introduce such a procedure on a pilot basis in certain areas.
In terms of other notable achievements of the Courts Service itself, I note that your "Criminal Justice Interoperability Project" continued to deliver considerable savings in 2011 and that this project was awarded the overall award in the eGovernment awards in March 2011. The project also won the "Best Cross Agency" category related to the delivery of public services electronically.
Other initiatives such as commencing the roll out of the integrated case management system for criminal court cases in Circuit Court offices show the on-going efforts to deliver efficiencies. From the perspective of the users of the courts, the increased use of video viewing and video conferencing facilities and digital audio recording demonstrate the drive of the Courts Service to ensure the availability of modern, efficient courtrooms.
Turning to the report itself, it obviously contains much detail illustrating the work undertaken during 2011. For example, when one looks at the Chapter on "Court Statistics" it is clear that the Courts Service manages a very significant volume of business across a diverse range of areas including, appeals to the Supreme Court, appeals to the Court of Criminal Appeal, other criminal business in the Circuit and District Courts and civil cases across the system involving matters such as judicial review, personal injury, family law, examinership, etc.
The report sets out in detail the valuable achievements of the Courts Service both in terms of the volume and complexity of matters dealt with and it covers the initiatives being pursued by the judiciary and the officials of the Service which are aimed at making the Irish courts efficient and effective and ensuring that the taxpayer gets the best value for their investment. I wish all concerned continued success in your important work.