Thursday, 30 July 2020
Civil Law and Criminal Law (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill 2020: Second Stage
I thank Deputies for their contributions and their support for the vast majority of what is proposed in this legislation. I appreciate the concerns they raised regarding how quickly the Bill has been introduced and that it required the House to waive the process of pre-legislative scrutiny. I thank colleagues for their forbearance and co-operation in this regard. We have an obligation to keep our judges, jurors, witnesses, our prison population and all of those working in the Courts Service and the Prison Service safe. I refer to the Covid pandemic and the very difficult times we are going through. This Bill is, for the most part, specifically focused on that issue, although there are, as the final speaker identified, a few unrelated provisions.
The measures in the Bill dealing with criminal and civil procedures relate to extending the use of modern technology, which is part of a wider agenda and plan to modernise the way in which our courts and prisons systems operate, and enabling the Judiciary and Courts Service to manage their business better and in a more efficient way. This is extremely important and necessary at this time as we deal with the Covid-19 pandemic.
In the criminal law context, the Bill addresses some historical inefficiencies and practices in regard to the execution of warrants for persons who are already in prison and the huge burden that places on prisons. The measures contained in the Bill deal with issues identified by the Judiciary itself and they have been developed in close consultation with the Judiciary, the Courts Service, the legal profession and the Attorney General. All of the measures relate to necessary improvements to current practices and reflect changes that have been sought for years. These are not measures that were identified only in the past number of weeks or months. They certainly were not developed by vulture funds, banks - I will speak on this in more detail presently - or anybody other than the Judiciary, legal teams, and the Attorney General. They are the people who asked for these measures to be introduced to help them deal with Covid, but the provisions will have far-reaching positive implications as well.
I will outline specifically who has sought some of the particular measures contained in the Bill. The provisions concerning remote hearing of civil proceedings were developed following detailed discussions with the Judiciary and the Courts Service. In the case of e-filing and statements of truth, the need for those provisions was highlighted as part of the external Courts Service organisational capacity review, which was carried out in the context of the Civil Service renewal plan completed in 2018. In regard to the admissibility of business records, the provisions are based on the LRC's recommendations in 2016. They were not included because of a particular case that happened recently and they mirror provisions already contained in the Criminal Evidence Act.
The measures proposed in regard to video links were recommended for some time, including by the working group on efficiency measures in the criminal justice system, which identified the increased use of video links as an important tool in reducing the need to transport prisoners between prisons and the courts. We have already seen an increased use of video links in allowing prisoners to communicate with their families during the Covid lockdown period. That practice was part of the reason there were no cases of Covid-19 in our prisons over the past few months, which is an absolute credit to our Prison Service but also to the prisoners themselves, who have engaged and co-operated with management in implementing those arrangements. The use of technology was vital in this regard, and the importance of technology is recognised in the Bill.
The civil justice medium-term planning group, which included members of the Judiciary and senior officials from the Courts Service and my Department, identified the need to address the lack of capacity for flexibility in the operation of the District Court. These are all extremely important measures and they have all been sought by our senior Judiciary. They are not proposals that have come about only in recent weeks and months. I believe they will address not just the immediate concerns around the Covid-19 pandemic but will also help us in developing an effective plan of modernisation, a piece of work that is currently under way within the Courts Service.
I will now address more specifically some of the issues and concerns that were raised by Deputies. Deputy Martin Kenny argued for the inclusion of a sunset clause in the Bill, as proposed in one of the amendments that has been tabled. I accept his point that in the vast majority of cases where legislation has been introduced to deal with Covid-19, such a clause has been included. In the case of the pandemic unemployment payment and the wage subsidy scheme, provision has been made to extend those measures far beyond 7 November. In the case of this legislation, there is a requirement under Standing Order 164 that I, as Minister, report back to the House within 12 months of its enactment. That requirement gives us a timeline and ensures there is a safeguard in place. I go back to the point that much of what is contained in the Bill has been sought for some time. If we were obliged to review every Bill that is enacted in this House every three months, we would be doing little else for years to come. Particularly where measures have been well thought out and sought for some time, it would be very difficult and would hinder the overall legislative programme to have such a requirement in place.
I thank Deputies for their very positive remarks concerning the coroner service. Deputies Howlin and Harkin had a specific question about the backlog in the service. I do not think we have ever seen anything like what we saw in Dublin, where there was a two-year backlog. That was not acceptable-----