Dáil debates

Wednesday, 21 February 2007

Courts and Court Officers (Amendment) Bill 2007: Second Stage


6:00 pm

Photo of Michael McDowellMichael McDowell (Dublin South East, Progressive Democrats)
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I move: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."

The maximum number of ordinary judges of each court is prescribed by law and can only be altered by way of primary legislation. Legislation currently provides that the number of ordinary judges of the High Court shall not be more than 31. When I use the term "ordinary judges" I am referring to judges other than the President of the court in question. The Bill before the House provides that the maximum number of ordinary judges of the High Court can be increased by four to 35. The Bill also provides for an increase in the number of ordinary judges in both the Circuit and District Courts. In the case of the Circuit Court the Bill provides for an increase of four judges from 33 to 37 and in the case of the District Court the Bill provides for an increase of six judges from 54 to 60. This Bill allows for an increase of 14 more judges which must be a substantial increase in the size of the Judiciary.

I take this opportunity to pay tribute to the Judiciary, collectively and individually. I have on occasion been represented in the newspapers as attacking the Judiciary. I have never done so and never would consider doing so. I have the height of respect for our judges, collectively and individually and I believe they are independent officers under the Constitution and that it would be very unbecoming for a Minister to attack them, either collectively or individually. I never speak on the outcome of individual cases, although I am often asked to do so. I have in the past referred to particular aspects of sentencing policy but always in terms which I consider have been measured and respectful of the Judiciary and likewise with respect to bail. I wish to put on the record of the House that with regard to the controversies about bail, I went out of my way to say that so far as I was concerned, I was not certain whether the problems lay in the manner in which the law was administered on the one hand or whether it was, so to speak, on my side of the fence and in the way cases were being prepared and prosecuted. I would like the record of the House to show that I never attacked the Judiciary, either collectively or individually and that I respect and honour the Judiciary as a group of men and women who are serving this country very well under the Constitution, that I admire their independence and independence of spirit and that I know each and every one of them does his or her utmost to be loyal to the declaration they make on assuming office which is to uphold the law and the Constitution.

I am promoting this legislation because I believe the appointment of additional judges is required to deal with delays and to generally speed up the judicial process. I am also taking this measure to strengthen the criminal justice system in the context of a package of measures now in train to deal with serious crime.

I have taken the following factors into account in coming to this decision to appoint 14 extra judges. The President of the High Court has indicated to me that he wishes to appoint additional judges to minimise waiting periods in the Central Criminal Court and also to speed-up judicial review cases, in particular, review cases arising from major infrastructural projects.

Photo of Jim O'KeeffeJim O'Keeffe (Cork South West, Fine Gael)
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May we have copies of the Minister's speech?

Photo of Michael McDowellMichael McDowell (Dublin South East, Progressive Democrats)
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They are on their way.

Photo of Kathleen LynchKathleen Lynch (Cork North Central, Labour)
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Is the apology included in the script?

Photo of Michael McDowellMichael McDowell (Dublin South East, Progressive Democrats)
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No, Deputy. It is not an apology. The statement I have just made is for the record of the House because it is important that when one has an opportunity to talk about the Judiciary without being interrupted, without being misquoted and without being selectively quoted, that one tells the truth.

In the case of the Circuit Court, cases are becoming more complex and as a consequence they are lengthier. The available judges are allocated by the President of the Circuit Court in such a way as to minimise backlogs in criminal cases. However, this has a knock-on effect on civil and family law business. As a result, cases in some circuits are taking up to two years to reach court and this is not acceptable. The workload of the District Court is also becoming more complex and lengthy. In particular, additional judges are required in order to fully implement the provisions of the Children Act 2001, which the Minister of State, Deputy Brian Lenihan, is implementing in full. The population of the State is increasing, Garda numbers are at an all-time high and we are living through a period of economic prosperity. All of these factors impact on the courts in their own way.

I think it appropriate at this stage to make some comments on the courts system. The establishment of the Courts Service as an independent agency in 1999 represented the most radical re-organisation of court services since the foundation of the State. The mission statement of the agency is "to manage the courts, support the judiciary and provide a high-quality and professional service to all the courts". There is probably general agreement that the Courts Service is fulfilling this task admirably.

Apart from judicial salaries which are paid from the central fund, I am responsible for ensuring the service is adequately funded and, in this regard, €102.8 million has been provided in 2007 for the Courts Service. This represents a 20% increase on 2006. Since its foundation, the service has made great progress in improving the stock of courthouses around the country. Many of our county town courthouses have been refurbished and other major upgrading works have been completed in Cork, Limerick, Dundalk and Castlebar. Some county courthouses remain to be refurbished but the courthouse estate has been fantastically refurbished and some are magnificent buildings which are a source of pride to their local communities. The allocation for capital works on courthouses for this year stands at €29.6 million, which is €10 million more than the previous year. Courthouse refurbishment projects due for completion this year include the magnificent courthouse at Nenagh, the courthouses in Tullamore, Fermoy, Thurles and a new courthouse at Blanchardstown. In addition, a maintenance fund for courthouse repairs, comprising €11.7 million, is allocated for 2007. This fund includes €4 million for minor works and is designed to ensure our courthouse stock is maintained in good condition in keeping with its role as the public expression of the importance of the administration of justice in the State.

A new criminal courts complex in Dublin will be the first PPP project undertaken in the justice family. The new state-of-the-art complex will be constructed on a State-owned site in Parkgate Street adjacent to Heuston railway station. It will be developed in accordance with best practice on similar projects elsewhere. The new complex is due to be completed in 2009. The building will be designed to concentrate all central Dublin criminal business in one serviced location. This will involve the transfer of courts and administrative offices from three jurisdictions, District Court, Circuit Court and Central Criminal Court, to the new facility. The new complex will contain an underground point of entry for prisoners, appropriately equipped holding cells, victim support facilities, separate jury and witness facilities, press and media centre, consultation and waiting areas and cafeteria. The centralising of all criminal business in the new complex will also mean the Four Courts complex will be freed up for civil business. Approval has been given to the Courts Service to proceed with nine other greenfield court projects, by way of the PPP system, as part of a new envelope of €50 million for such projects over the next two years. These include full District and Circuit Court services for locations nationwide. The Courts Service will use a new investment methodology known as bundling. This approach allows the marketplace a flexibility to bid for group or individual schemes, generating best value for the taxpayer and early delivery.

I hope the appointment of additional judges will also assist in the fight against organised crime. As Deputies will be aware, last December I announced a comprehensive package of measures to deal with this fight. I will set out the components of this package which includes a further increase of 1,000 in the strength of the Garda Síochána to bring the total up to 15,000 over the next three years; sanction for 300 additional civilian administrative support posts for the Garda Síochána; the recruitment of seven senior civilian posts recommended in the recent reports from Kathleen O'Toole and Senator Maurice Hayes; an increase in the retirement age for gardaí, sergeants and inspectors from 57 to 60 years; a proportionate increase in the targeted strength of the Garda Reserve from 900 to 1,500; and increased staffing for the Forensic Science Laboratory, the Office of the Director of Public Prosecutions and the Courts Service. I wish to emphasise there will be no limit on the funds available for the witness protection programme. Unprecedented resources have been devoted in recent years to the criminal justice system and these measures follow from this policy. These have been accompanied by a comprehensive programme of modernisation and reform.

I will bring before the House in the near future a package of proposals to specifically counter the gangland and drug culture. I will deal with the details at a later stage. The copies of my script which have been supplied to Deputies carry this information.

Sentencing is, of course, a complex matter and there are many variable factors to be taken into account in each individual case. However, in order to address the issue, the board of the Courts Service established a steering committee in October 2004 to plan for and provide a system of information on sentencing. The initiative of the board is designed to provide a systemic form of information as a reference point for judges. The terms of reference are to plan for and provide information on sentencing. The membership of the committee is as follows: Mrs. Justice Susan Denham, chairperson; Mr. Justice Kevin O'Higgins; Mr. Justice Esmond Smyth; Judge Miriam Malone, and Professor Tom O'Malley.

The steering committee has reviewed sentencing systems around the world and decided to establish a pilot project in the Circuit Court in Dublin. The objectives of the project are, first, to identify criteria and other information employed by the Judiciary in sentencing for particular offence types in criminal proceedings; second, to record and retrieve such information in individual cases; third, to design and develop a database to store the information retrieved and enable its retrieval in accordance with various search criteria; fourth, to share or disseminate the information, utilising information and communications technology, via a judges' intranet or other means, and, fifth, to assemble appropriate material on sentencing for a bench book and website. Briefing meetings to explain the project have been held with the judges of the Dublin Circuit Criminal Court and court registrars involved in the initial phase of the pilot project.

A pilot project commenced in the Dublin Circuit Criminal Court in January. I understand two researchers have begun to collect and collate information on sentencing outcomes in cases on indictment in designated courts in accordance with criteria specified by the committee. It is anticipated the pilot project will run for an eight-week period and that it will be evaluated prior to a further pilot project.

Apart from the pilot project, one must not ignore the current position which is that the law enables a judge to exercise his or her discretion, within the maximum penalty, by reference to the conclusions he or she has reached after trying the case, hearing all the evidence and assessing the culpability and circumstances of the accused. Our system of recruitment to all levels of the Judiciary is based on the concept of bringing in experienced and trained legal practitioners. Consequently, judges, on appointment, have a wide knowledge of the law and its application.

Work on the scheme of the judicial council Bill is at an advanced stage of development in my Department and I expect to be in a position to bring it to Government for approval early this year. The Bill will establish a judicial council with responsibility for a number of matters. Among these, the council will devise a code of ethics and investigate complaints about judicial misbehaviour. An important feature of the disciplinary process is that lay people, that is, people who are not judges or lawyers, will be involved in the process. The council will also be responsible for judicial education and training and the exchange of information among judges on such matters as sentencing.

The Bill will build on the report of the committee on judicial conduct and ethics, chaired by the former Chief Justice, Mr. Ronan Keane. That report recognised the need for a procedure to deal with complaints of judicial misconduct which, while serious, might not warrant the ultimate sanction of impeachment by the Oireachtas. Consultations on the proposed Bill have, as is usual, taken place with the Office of the Attorney General. I have also considered it prudent, given the nature of the subject, to consult the Chief Justice. These consultations are ongoing and I hope they will conclude quickly. When the scheme of the Bill has been approved by Government, I intend to make it available to the Joint Committee on Justice, Equality, Defence and Women's Rights. Any views that may emerge from that committee can be taken into account during the drafting of the Bill which will be proceeding at the same time.

There is little use in having extra judges and a well resourced courts system if many people are, in effect, priced out of the legal process. The issue of legal costs is one which I have always believed was worthy of investigation. Deputy Cassidy, as Chairman, called me before the Joint Committee on Enterprise and Small Business on one occasion to ask me what I proposed to do in this regard. On foot of that hearing, I established the legal costs working group, chaired by Mr. Paul Haran, a retired senior civil servant, to examine the issue.

There are three main strands to that group's report. First, it recommends the following: a legal costs regulatory body to formulate recoverable cost guidelines based on an assessment of the amount of work reasonably required to be done in typical cases; a simplified assessment process, based on the recoverable cost guidelines prescribed by the regulatory body, to be carried out by a legal costs assessment office where legal bills are disputed; and, where assessments are appealed, an appeals process conducted by an appeals adjudicator. Second, the report calls for significant improvements to be made in the quality and quantity of the information that a solicitor is required to provide for clients and the manner in which it is to be supplied. Third, the report recommends a number of legislative and procedural changes to reduce delays in court hearings and generally designed to expedite the legal process.

After I secured the Government's endorsement of the report's recommendations, I established an expert group, chaired by the accountant, Mr. Desmond Miller, to advise me on the implementation of the report's recommendations. I have now received the implementation advisory group's report and will be making a further announcement on it in the next couple of weeks. I have no doubt that once the new costs arrangements have been put in place, the market for civil legal services will become more predictable, consistent and transparent to consumers. This will lead to the market becoming more economic, as people will be in a position to shop around and exert some downward pressure on legal costs and bills presented to them. This transparency will also make it easier for consumers to recognise competitive prices for the services they require.

Before turning to the provisions of the Bill, I want to mention what I consider to be an exciting development. The Courts Service recently launched its first report on family law proceedings, Family Law Matters. This will be the first in a series of reports which are a Courts Service initiative to shine a light on the family courts and dispel myths and misunderstandings which may arise from an historical lack of information in this very relevant and human arena of law. This initiative was permitted by a change to the in camera rule which I introduced in legislation earlier in this Dáil.

Dr. Carol Coulter was engaged to carry out the reporting of family law on a pilot basis. The staff of the service provided tremendous assistance and information for her in producing this report for the public. The report provides information under three headings: reports, trends and statistics, and judgments. The reports are newspaper-style records of what happened in a bundle of cases across the country. The identity of participants is totally protected and the area of law examined is explained in accessible and useable language. I congratulate Dr. Coulter on the quality of that work and the Courts Service for the way in which it has supported her work.

The Bill is a simple one. Section 1 deals with definitions. Section 2 increases the number of High Court judges from 31 to not more than 35, an increase of four. Section 3 deals with Circuit Court judges and increases their number to 37, an increase of four. Section 4 provides that the number of judges of the District Court, in addition to the President of the District Court, shall be not more than 60, an increase of six. Section 5 is a technical provision which, simply put, makes the additional judges of the District Court unassigned judges rather than assigning them to particular districts. As such, the six additional judges can be allocated by the President of the District Court as she sees fit. Section 6 sets out the Short Title and collective citation. Given the size of the Bill, there is little more I can say about its text.

I hope the Bill will command cross-party support. It is not contentious; it provides for additional judges and will assist in reducing delays in the courts and generally speed up the judicial process. It complements the measures being taken in regard to organised crime. It will result, I hope, in earlier trials and bring the level of judicial resources to a record high. In the circumstances I recommend it to the House.

Photo of Jim O'KeeffeJim O'Keeffe (Cork South West, Fine Gael)
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The Minister opened his remarks with what can only be described as an abject apology for his foghorn public criticism of judges. I want to open my remarks by referring to a matter I regard as even more serious, namely, the arrest today of a recognised journalist from a reputable newspaper. I understand this arrest arises from an article written in that newspaper last August. Ireland has had a unique relationship with the press and a long tradition of freedom of speech. The arrest of a recognised journalist from a reputable newspaper in the course of his duty is, therefore, a hugely serious matter. This case calls for a statement from the Government. I raised the issue with the Taoiseach in the Dáil this morning but he declined to comment. The Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform, Deputy McDowell, needs to clarify the issues surrounding the arrest. The arrest of a journalist is no ordinary matter, if we believe in freedom of speech and the freedom of the press. However, the case is somewhat unique, thankfully, and requires to be dealt with as such. The Minister needs to clarify what is at issue. He needs to explain to the House and the public how much he was aware of in regard to the matter. He must also tell us whether he had a role in a situation where, apparently, an arrest arose as a result of a matter leaked to the media. I seek the Minister's statement on this, particularly because the Minister himself has a recognised reputation as a leaker to the media. I recall the leaking of confidential Garda documents to a national newspaper about another journalist with whom he disagreed.

Photo of Michael WoodsMichael Woods (Dublin North East, Fianna Fail)
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The Deputy has made his point. He should return to the Bill.

Photo of Jim O'KeeffeJim O'Keeffe (Cork South West, Fine Gael)
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I am just completing it. I also recall a draft Bill which I arranged to lodge in the Bills Office and which was sent over to the Minister's office — dealing with issues surrounding the chaos created last year about child rapists walking free — and next thing I saw it on the front of a newspaper, leaked by this Minister. He owes a full statement to the public as to what is going on in this case. The journalist is still under arrest and the House and the country want to know why.

The Minister tells us he wants more judges. I have been saying we need more judges for a long time. Part of the problem with our criminal justice system is that we are short of judges. Why was the issue not being dealt with long ago? We also need to deal with two related issues. First, is it correct that we have the lowest number of judges per head of population in Europe and, if so, why do we allow that situation to continue? Second, this Bill further limits the number of judges because while it increases their number, it provides an upper limit. Why do we need an upper limit under legislation for judges? Why is it not within the Government's remit to appoint judges when required? This question has often intrigued me. Perhaps, when dealing with the more serious issues I have raised, the Minister will also deal with this question in his reply. It would be worth getting a response on the matter.

Photo of Michael McDowellMichael McDowell (Dublin South East, Progressive Democrats)
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Judges' salaries are a charge on the Central Fund and, therefore, there must be legislation underpinning their appointment.

Photo of Jim O'KeeffeJim O'Keeffe (Cork South West, Fine Gael)
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I have tabled amendments and I suggest the Minister adopts them because in this situation, with it being a charge on the Central Fund, the Opposition cannot get amendments accepted. Why do we not increase the number of judges to a much higher number so that they can be appointed when required? Why do we set a limit?

Despite the increasing crime we have seen in Ireland in recent years and the falling detection rates, there is still a record number of cases going before the courts. The waiting lists for cases to be heard are getting longer. There are unacceptable delays in the criminal courts and one of the reasons is the lack of judges. No matter how hard they work — some work very hard — they cannot keep up with the pace of dealing with crime.

This brings me to the earlier comments of the Minister on the Judiciary. It is not appropriate for the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform of the day to publicly excoriate judges for populist reasons. There are plenty of opportunities for the Minister to convey his remarks to the President of the District Court if he considers it appropriate. It does not add anything to our democratic system to have what amounts to a public stand-off between the Minister and the Judiciary. Either judges will not be able to respond or they will have to make comments that it would be better for them not to have to make. This is not the way to do business.

Perhaps the Minister was encouraged by polls that suggested judges are imposing sentences that are too lenient. He should examine his conscience in this regard. Does he not realise that with regard to sentences it is, to a large degree, the Oireachtas that has a role? I am not talking about the issue of minimum mandatory sentences, but about assisting judges to get a consistent sentencing policy. However, we have not done so. The minimum judges should have available is a database of sentences.

The Fine Gael Party, supported by the Labour Party, debated a Bill in the House and argued for the establishment of such a register of sentences, but it was voted down by the Government. The least we could have, as other countries have, is a database that would establish the basic things judges should know when dealing with a particular crime. Such a database would allow them refer to similar offences in the past and is the minimum that should be available if we want consistency in sentencing.

I would like to go far beyond that point. In the same way as happens in parliaments in other common law countries, the House should establish sentencing tariffs. I would like to see a situation where a maximum and a minimum sentence are established by the Oireachtas. This happens in virtually every other common law jurisdiction, including England, Wales, New Zealand, Canada and South Africa. Why do we continue as we are here? Why do we not accept the fact that there is no need to reinvent the wheel and do what has worked in other countries?

Regarding sentencing policy, I would like to see tariffs established and guidelines provided for maximum and minimum sentences. Also, because we must respect the independence of the Judiciary to go above or below the tariffs, I would like to see a situation where judges would be required to explain why they went outside the tariffs. This would not interfere with the independence of the Judiciary, but would put an onus on them to explain their reasons for not imposing a minimum tariff or for going beyond the maximum guideline.

It is ludicrous for us to continue with a situation in our courts where the prosecution counsel is not allowed a view after conviction on what the sentence should be. Some years ago we introduced a measure, which I favoured and supported, whereby the DPP could appeal against the leniency of sentences. It is ludicrous that the DPP can make such an appeal, yet his counsel in the court is not allowed a view as to what the sentence should be after conviction at the primary hearing. This situation should not be allowed to continue.

We need to face up to the issues that arise here, but the Government has not done so. It has not faced the issues raised by consecutive and concurrent sentencing nor has it faced the issues with regard to an area about which I feel strongly, namely, the situation where somebody who receives a sentence of eight years from Judge Carney in the Central Criminal Court is brought to Mountjoy or wherever and his sentence is reduced automatically to six years. This surely is not acceptable.

I do not believe in automatic remission of sentences, although this is not to say there should not be remission of sentences. I am not trying to play the hard man, but the remission should be earned. A change should be introduced to ensure prisoners earn their remission. Let them be given an incentive to earn remission. We must incentivise good behaviour and those who in the past rejected efforts made to rehabilitate them because there was nothing to be gained from participating in rehabilitation programmes. These are some of the changes I want to see applied before we appoint extra judges.

If we appoint new judges, we must give them the necessary supports. Is the Government, in the short time left to it, prepared to ensure the effectiveness of the Courts Service? If the Courts Service has more judges as is necessary, there needs obviously to be an increase in the support staff in each of the courts affected by this Bill. That means a new court registrar for each of the 14 new judges who the Bill proposes to introduce and a proportionate increase in staff in the different court offices so judges are not frustrated by administrative delays and back office pile ups.

Often I have worried about matters such as the delay in the issue of reserve judgments. I acknowledge the Minister took some steps in that regard, but I understood that much of the problem was to do, first, with a lack of judges so that judges needed to be continually on the bench and did not have the time off to write up their judgments as happens in other courts and, second, a lack of even simple secretarial facilities and administrative back-up. As we are discussing judges, that is an issue that should be dealt with.

Photo of Michael McDowellMichael McDowell (Dublin South East, Progressive Democrats)
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I have sanctioned 18 extra support staff.

Photo of Jim O'KeeffeJim O'Keeffe (Cork South West, Fine Gael)
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I am pleased that step has been taken because it makes effective the step we are taking in this Bill, which I support. For once I support the Minister.

As we are speaking of judges, I want to raise another issue. It is imperative that judges keep abreast not just of developments in the law, but also of trends in practice and social norms. I am a great believer in judicial independence which is a fundamental pillar of our democratic system, but I also believe that judicial independence requires a well-trained and well-prepared Judiciary. We cannot really expect judges to be consistent and effective in sentencing if they do not receive the appropriate education or training in the matter.

Few professionals operate in practice without ongoing professional development. For example, members of the Bar, in theory, are expected to submit themselves to a specified number of hours of education periodically. I am aware that members of my side of the profession, solicitors, are expected to do likewise. Looking at the circumstances of judges, however, on the Wednesday of one week one could be pleading a case before the court and on the Wednesday of the following week the same person could be hearing another case. We operate on the basis of no formal training being available to judges and I wonder is that appropriate. In other countries under the continental code, being a judge is a profession in its own right. As they begin their career as judges and train to be judges, that issue does not arise. However, we operate a different system where we rely solely on appointing those who are practitioners, either as barristers or solicitors, and it is up to them to equip themselves with what is needed to provide a vital public service.

At the very least, in order to implement international best practice, judges should be able to undergo a specified amount of training every year. I accept the Judicial Studies Institute runs worthwhile and valuable seminars and lectures, but I understand the format of this training is far from focused and its ad hoc nature may mean it effectively fails to address important issues of every day concern to members of the Judiciary.

Judicial training could include a variety of subjects designed not only to improve knowledge but, importantly, also to change attitudes. I do not underestimate either the intelligence or knowledge of judges, but from time to time one would raise questions about their attitude.

In many countries judicial education exercises attitudinal change to improve judicial integrity or to eliminate hidden bias on gender or ethnic issues. Managing this type of training is critical. Overall control and direction of judicial training could be in the Judiciary's hands or training could be provided by separate entities such as law schools or judicial training institutes managed by the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform.

Let us be clear. Judges do not operate alone. They are the front men and women for a substantial administration that is our criminal justice system. It is an imperfect system. It works well in the majority of cases. In recent years we have become aware of flaws in that system and as crime increases these flaws become more obvious. The Irish criminal justice system suffers from issues of accountability and transparency. However, Article 34.1 of the Constitution requires that justice be administered in public subject to certain restrictions with regard to family law, rape and other cases. Although the hearing of the case and the sentencing of convicted persons takes place in public people are still left with the lingering feeling that they do not see all that goes on. We need to work harder to counter that feeling and we need to show citizens that justice is not only administered in public, but transparently for everyone to see.

I support the increase in the number of judges. I support, in particular, the idea of increasing the number of criminal judges. The Bill does not go far enough. I would like to see the number increase further and even if they are not immediately appointed, it would save us in the next Government the trouble of having to introduce a further Bill when we want to appoint judges, which we probably will do at an early stage. The Minister might consider that before we complete the debate on this Bill.

In his concluding remarks, I also want the Minister to deal with the issue of fundamental concern to me, that is, the issue of freedom of speech and the arrest of a journalist. That needs to be fully clarified. I understand the journalist concerned is still under arrest. I further understand that the Evening Herald editor, Stephen Rae, stated on the "Six One News" this evening that last week he was interviewed by gardaí who stated they were there on foot of a complaint from the Minister. If that is so, the Minister should explain the situation now.

Photo of Kathleen LynchKathleen Lynch (Cork North Central, Labour)
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There is very little in the Bill. It is about increasing numbers in an area where clearly there is a need for increased personnel.

The Minister's speech was wide-ranging. I suppose he felt the Bill was short and he had to go into all sorts of other areas. He told us halfway through his speech that he would not go into the entire package on criminal activities, between drugs and guns, which he would introduce, but he did not need to because the Minister of State, Deputy Fahey, gave us that last week when speaking about a European directive, although it had nothing to do with it. We need to take that into consideration when Opposition Members are asked to stick strictly to the script. I just wish that sometimes the Chair — not the Acting Chairman, Deputy Woods, lest he think that I refer to him — would ask the Government to do the same.

One or two points need to be made. The arrest of a journalist today is a worrying and disturbing action on behalf of the State. Whoever's word or complaint the gardaí arrived on behalf of, it is very worrying for a journalist to be arrested. The arrest of a journalist following a report as a result of leaks, which clearly could have come only from the Attorney General's office, the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform or the Garda, is a matter which needs a full explanation. That is very worrying.

All I can think about is that the only person jailed in respect of the beef tribunal was the journalist who did the State some service. This shows where our priorities lie. The matter requires a full and frank discussion and explanation and the journalist in question needs to be released.

Family law did not become a major issue until women acquired financial independence. It was very limited initially and is still limited. Financial independence came in the form of a package which included deserted wife's benefit. Frank Cluskey introduced the measure. Regardless of whether financial independence was regarded as good or bad, it gave women the courage and ability to live separately from their husbands.

Since the beginning of financial independence for women, report after report has stated family law needs to be separated from the rest of the legal service in terms of practice and the physical environment. Deputy Jim O'Keeffe spoke about judges with experience in one area having to work in others. It is astonishing that a judge may have to decide on cases involving criminal activity in the morning and on delicate and sensitive cases concerning child custody, residency and access rights, as well as maintenance payments in the afternoon. One does not need full knowledge of the entire legal system to work in the family law service. Rather, one must be sufficiently sensitive and have sufficient advocacy skills to be a good judge in this area. We should start to ensure this is the case.

I occasionally attend court cases to support those involved. While I find that judges do a very good job in general, we should put in place a fitness to practice committee for the Judiciary, just as we have done for the medical profession. It would not be called on very often. A very recent high profile case concerning a particular judge could probably have been dealt with far more effectively in such a committee, given the many delays that occurred during the hearings. Fitness to practice measures would be of great benefit to the legal system and we should consider them very seriously.

The main problem with the legal system does not concern judges' lists because judges deal with a spectacular amount of work, far more than most of us give them credit for. The logjam actually arises in the preparation of the book of evidence for serious cases. How many times have we heard that a book of evidence was not ready? Clearly, we need extra judges but we should realise the logjams occur when cases are not ready to go to trial. We should consider this issue seriously.

I am greatly concerned about access to the legal system. It is no accident that the majority of those on limited means have their cases heard in the lower courts, while the majority of those with excessive means have theirs heard in the higher courts. There is an old saying that one will get as much law as one can pay for. Some can pay a lot. We must come to terms with the question of access for those who feel aggrieved and those who believe they have been dealt with unjustly by the system. No one wants to go to court and it is the last place anyone wants to be, but when one has no recourse other than through the courts, access should be made as easy as possible.

The Minister rightly began his contribution with a gushing apology. It is disgraceful for any Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform to criticise judges, although we may all feel like doing so. The separation of powers is sacrosanct and is as much to protect us, as legislators, as it is to protect members of the Judiciary.

The first quality a judge should have, apart from the ability to do his or her job, is compassion. Court cases have always focused on how the defendant behaved and how the evidence was presented. We should not be rushing to impose a ten year sentence for one crime and ten for another. This attitude gave us the Birmingham Six and Dean Lyons cases. Absolutism in the administration of the law can lead to very bad decisions and this needs to be taken on board. Most judges, with a few rare exceptions, do an exceptional job, as do solicitors who offer to defend people whom no other will defend. Sean O'Leary said there was no longer a defence for those we did not find acceptable in society. We should take this to heart.

The system, for all its flaws, is as good as we have got and in that regard, I keep reminding people that when we make laws, we do not do so only for the guy who will go out tonight to do heroin deals but also for ourselves. The law will apply to us and we need to keep this in mind. We are not opposing the Bill. More judges may be required but the bottleneck is at the point of preparation of cases.

There are other matters we should examine, including the separation of family law from other aspects of law. It does not need to involve the high-tech, expensive administration of law one sees in the higher courts. If, however, people want to go to the High Court and have enough money to do so, God bless them. The family law system should comprise a separate element of the legal system.

We should consider seriously the establishment of a fitness to practice committee. It would not have to sit permanently and could just be a roll-over committee before which individuals could be called. It is essential that it be established. We all know why this is the case and do not have to outline the details.

The Minister is correct that we have absolutely magnificent courthouses in which the law is applied. However, some do not afford physical access to many individuals with disabilities. Sometimes physical access is as important as material access and this should be considered.

Photo of Catherine MurphyCatherine Murphy (Kildare North, Independent)
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I wish to share my time with Deputy McHugh.

Photo of Michael WoodsMichael Woods (Dublin North East, Fianna Fail)
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Is that agreed? Agreed.

Photo of Catherine MurphyCatherine Murphy (Kildare North, Independent)
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I do not suppose anybody wants to end up in court if he or she does not have to but very often it is a necessity. Clearly, a court should function well and punctually. Family law cases are the poor relations of the legal system. Significant distress is created for families when they have to put their lives on hold for up to three years before getting closure on failed relationships. I hope this Bill, which I support, will reduce the length of time people have to wait before having their cases heard. Mediation is a preferable approach to family law, although it does not work for everyone.

The conditions in which some of our courts operate are unacceptable. I could rehearse some examples of this problem in my constituency. Investment is needed urgently because we cannot expect people to work in unsatisfactory environments.

Positive developments have been made recently in terms of victim impact statements, which have improved the legal experience for some people. Victims in criminal cases have been made to feel more important to the system and some younger judges have accepted these developments in a proactive manner, with good results.

If there are insufficient judges, there will not be enough time for best practice or retraining. Pressurised case loads are in nobody's interest. This Bill is simple in that it sets out the number of additional judges to be put in place. I note they will be provided support facilities, which is equally important. I hope the Bill will make a difference in terms of reducing the timeframe for cases because the unacceptable delays in family law cases put additional pressure on families which are already facing difficulties.

Paddy McHugh (Galway East, Independent)
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I am glad to have the opportunity to speak on the Courts and Courts Officers (Amendment) Bill 2007. It is a relatively innocent Bill which provides for an increase in the number of High Court judges from 31 to 35, Circuit Court judges from 33 to 37 and District Court judges from 54 to 60.

However, given the furore that has surrounded the Judiciary in recent months, the Bill could be about much more than this. Last Christmas, the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform missed the event of the year when he was snubbed by bigwigs who refused to sup wine with him at the table of plenty because he had made utterances disliked by judges. As the intelligentsia do when they are challenged, the judges went into a huff and sulked in the corner until St. Stephen's Day. By then, the wine was consumed and the Minister had to go without. My comments are intended to refer to some but not all judges. If for no other reason than the snub delivered to the Minister last Christmas, I expected him to bring legislation which would deliver messages to the Judiciary that reflected the views of ordinary, down-to-earth and law abiding citizens. Unfortunately, he did not do so.

I suggest the additional judges provided for in this legislation are appointed not only for their expertise in the law but also because they come from ordinary backgrounds. It seems that some judges regard themselves as almost infallible but as far as I know, the only person on earth who has any credibility in making such a claim is the Pope and even he had to issue an apology recently.

This legislation could have required judges to undergo training in the dispensation of justice. I do not feel competent to refer to any particular case but I listen regularly to the criticisms of the performance of judges made by people involved in crime prevention. I am also aware that some lawyers attempt to organise their cases in ways that avoid judges who, for example, may be regarded as being harsh on particular issues. That should not happen. Justice should be dispensed in a uniform, fair and transparent manner but the only way to achieve that aim is to provide standardised training to judges. I am sure some judges would be mortified at the notion of undergoing a course of instruction upon their appointment but the common good should come before the feelings of the Judiciary. Regardless if the method used, we need to achieve uniformity in the actions of judges. As a start, judges should be appointed to deal with specific aspects of the law according to the areas in which they worked before their appointment to the bench. In some of our courts, judges have to deal with diverse issues, even though they cannot be expected to be expert in every area of the law.

I wish to address the need for improvements to existing courthouses and the construction of new ones. I raise this issue not only for the good of judges but also for all the people who work in courthouses, as well as the general public. The Courts Service is dragging its feet on the provision of a new courthouse for Tuam in my constituency of Galway East. Some time ago, the old courthouse had to be closed on health and safety grounds. A temporary facility which was constructed to hold the court remains in place but no progress has been made on permanent accommodation. A property adjoining the courthouse is for sale and, while the Courts Service has apparently deemed it suitable, it has shown no urgency in acquiring it or any other property for use as a courthouse. I hold no brief for the vendor of the property and do not care where the courthouse is located, provided it is within the town boundary. It would make eminent sense to locate it beside the Garda station but, unbelievably, the Courts Service refused an offer of such a site from Galway County Council. That alone should prompt questions about who, if anybody, is making decisions on Tuam courthouse. Action is needed now to develop a proper and permanent courthouse in the hub town of Tuam. I ask the Minister to intervene with the Courts Service on this matter, given that it accords with the designation in the national spatial strategy of Tuam as a hub town.

Debate adjourned.