Tuesday, 4 December 2007
I thank the Cathaoirleach for the opportunity to raise this matter. I refer to the need for the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform to appoint a second permanent District Court judge and the allocation of a second permanent judge to County Donegal to reduce the existing waiting times and backlog in the northern Circuit and District Court services.
The Donegal Bar Association has consistently raised this issue for many years and in recent months in particular. The president of the association has outlined clearly the existence of a large backlog in the Circuit Court and District Court services in County Donegal. Both the president and the Donegal Bar Association have called clearly for the additional resources that are required to deal with the backlog.
A recent meeting held in Letterkenny courthouse in November was attended by all the principal users of the court. The meeting was attended by the county registrar, the District Court clerks of Letterkenny and Donegal town, as well as other court users.
According to information I have received from the Donegal Bar Association, the situation has not improved during 2007. It is clear to the association that its proposal of a second permanent District Court judge and the allocation of a second permanent judge to the northern circuit would go a long way towards addressing the present backlog. In its view, visiting judges for special sittings cannot deal adequately with cases that last more than one day. For example, I refer to cases involving family law, child care or land disputes, all of which constitute highly sensitive legal situations. It is important they would be dealt with in a prompt and timely manner.
In 2007, the scheduled sittings provided for a total of 63 days in the Donegal district. I understand from information given to me by the Donegal Bar Association that the allocation for 2008 has been reduced to 56 days.
I call for the early implementation of the recommendations to appoint a second District Court judge, as well as the allocation of a second permanent judge in County Donegal. This would relieve greatly the current stress that is on the system, would facilitate those families waiting for their sensitive cases to be heard and would reduce the backlog.
On the last day on which he presided in Letterkenny District Court, John O'Donnell, who was a District Court judge in Donegal, made one recommendation. Having noted that the Donegal District Court was much too large for a single judge to preside over, he called for the Courts Service to carry out an immediate audit of the existing services in County Donegal. As a worst case scenario, if the judges cannot be put in place immediately, I call on the Minister to carry out such an audit. The intervention of the Minister is required to provide those citizens of County Donegal who bring forward cases with the facility to have them heard in a prompt and timely manner.
On behalf of the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform, I thank Senator Ó Domhnaill for raising this issue. The Minister assures the Senator and the House that he appreciates the importance of adequately resourcing the courts system in County Donegal and elsewhere. The question of additional judicial resources in the northern circuit or in the Donegal district is, however, a matter for consideration by the presidents of the Circuit Court and District Court, respectively. The Minister will be guided by the presidents of the courts as to the need for additional permanently assigned judges.
The presidents of both the District Court and the Circuit Court have at their disposal unassigned judges who can be used to assist the permanently assigned judges where pressure of work demands. As the Senator will be aware, 14 additional judges were appointed within recent months. Of these, five were appointed to the Circuit Court while six were appointed to the District Court. These additional judicial resources will have a significant and positive impact on court delays in County Donegal and elsewhere.
In the Circuit Court, other than in Dublin and Cork, one judge is assigned permanently to each circuit. The northern circuit covers the counties of Cavan, Monaghan, Leitrim and Donegal. If additional sittings are required in any of these locations, the relevant county registrar contacts the President of the Circuit Court who has responsibility for assignment of judges. The president has given priority in the current year to clearing backlogs in criminal work in circuits throughout the country. Criminal work must be prioritised as defendants, especially those who are in custody, may be found not guilty. In particular, efforts have been made to clear outstanding long trials, which cannot be accommodated in the normal court lists. In the current term, an additional ten weeks of sittings have been allocated by the President of the Circuit Court to the northern circuit. County Donegal was given six additional weeks, while Carrick-on-Shannon and Monaghan each have had two additional weeks of sittings.
In the District Court, many additional court sittings have been organised by the President of the District Court and waiting times have been substantially reduced. Last year, the President of the District Court made arrangements for 112 additional sittings in Donegal, which greatly reduced the backlog that then existed. The situation in Donegal, as in all circuits and districts, is kept under constant review and the presidents of the relevant courts allocate additional resources as necessary.
The Minister has been informed that waiting times in Donegal District Court are generally less than six months for cases other than family law cases. As regards the latter, delays are approximately six months. As the Senator will appreciate, individual cases sometimes will have longer waiting periods for reasons not within the control of the Courts Service, such as adjournment applications from parties to the case.