Wednesday, 11 July 2012
The matter I raise is straightforward and simple. I have been contacted by a number of legal figures and their clients in County Donegal who were recently informed that the High Court, which goes on circuit for civil court appeals, is not due to sit in the county. The list for the year shows the High Court sat in circuit in Sligo in May and will sit this month and again in November in Castlebar. The lists include Circuit Court appeals from County Donegal. A member of the legal profession has informed me that this is the first year the High Court has not sat in County Donegal to hear civil court appeals. In one case in Carndonagh, the appellant would have to make a round trip of 300 miles to have an appeal heard in Castlebar. It would be as convenient for the individual in question to travel to Dublin.
People from County Donegal should not be required to travel to Castlebar to have cases heard. There are 14 cases from County Donegal scheduled to be heard in Castlebar. The cost of hearing these cases in Castlebar, including travel costs incurred by witnesses and staff, is significantly greater than the cost of bringing one judge to Letterkenny courthouse, where the relevant files are maintained. The legal profession fears that Circuit Court appeals will no longer be heard in County Donegal. Letterkenny has a perfectly good courthouse, which is in use, and plans are afoot to construct a new courthouse in the town. The requirement to travel to Castlebar will create costs and inconvenience appellants. As the cases in question are civil cases, the clients do not receive free legal aid. People who live at the northern end of County Donegal will have to travel to Castlebar the night before their cases are heard and may have to stay a second night. This will create significant costs.
From the list of locations for Circuit Court appeal hearings, it appears citizens in other counties will not be inconvenienced to the same degree as people in County Donegal. I ask the Minister or Courts Service to ensure this is a temporary measure. Civil court appeals must be heard at locations close to appellants. The 1924 Courts of Justice Act was introduced to replace the old British system. A judge in one case ruled that justice should be administered locally and people should no longer be required to travel to Dublin. Travelling to Castlebar is no more convenient to a person living in Buncrana than travelling to Dublin. The intention of the Courts of Justice Act was to administer justice locally for the convenience of citizens rather than judges.
I am taking this debate on behalf of the Minister for Justice and Equality, who thanks Senator Harte for raising the matter. As the Senator will appreciate, under the provisions of the Courts Service Act 1998, management of the courts is the responsibility of the service and the Minister does not have a role in the matter. In addition, the allocation of court business, scheduling of court cases and management of court lists are matters for the Judiciary and, in particular, the Presidents of the courts. As the Senator will also be aware, judges are, subject to the Constitution and the law, independent in the exercise of their judicial functions.
I am sure the Senator will also appreciate that the Courts Service, in common with all other public sector organisations, is obliged to ensure resources are deployed to best effect to ensure continuity of service with reduced budgets and resources. Greater flexibility in the deployment of available resources will be critical in maintaining the delivery of front-line court services and all court facilities are subject to ongoing review with no court venue or office being excluded from this process. This is particularly important in the current economic circumstances.
A review has been carried out of provincial High Court circuits. I am informed that the High Court sits each year in a number of venues outside Dublin to hear appeals from the Circuit Court. This is provided for under the Courts of Justice Act 1936. Up to and including 2011, 126 sitting days in various venues were allocated for this purpose. However, demand for such sittings was not uniform across all venues. In addition, it was found that many parties preferred to avail of the option to have appeals from the Circuit Court heard in Dublin rather than await the sittings of the High Court on circuit. As I indicated, it is a matter for the President of each court jurisdiction to allocate the business of the court. Bearing in mind the demand for hearings, during 2011 the President of the High Court, who has responsibility for the allocation of business to High Court judges, sought to rationalise High Court sittings in all venues outside Dublin with a view to creating efficiencies and adopting a more flexible approach to court sittings generally. This rationalisation was facilitated by amendments to the 1936 Act which were contained in the Civil Law (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 2011. These amendments gave the President of the High Court increased flexibility in respect of the allocation of judges and sitting dates for appeals from the Circuit Court to the High Court. Essentially, the changes introduced by the President of the High Court for all counties provide that sittings of the High Court for appeals from the Circuit Court are held in regional centres as determined by the President, having regard to the effective and efficient discharge of the business of the High Court.
Appeal sittings are now scheduled for dates immediately following sittings of the High Court at first instance for personal injury cases in provincial venues. The changes made have resulted in maximisation of the use of judicial resources and an increase in the availability of judges for sittings of the High Court at first instance in Dublin, where there is a significantly greater volume of business, to maintain reduced waiting times. These measures have already generated savings in the cost of travel and subsistence for judges and ushers. I am informed that following the introduction of this regionalised approach, appeals from Donegal are now heard in Sligo and Castlebar. The aim is to balance the need for improved efficiencies with a minimisation of disruption to parties and witnesses. On behalf of the Minister for Justice and Equality, I thank the Senator for raising the matter. I appreciate his interest in ensuring the efficient and effective administration of justice. Unfortunately, this is not what the Senator wished to hear but he will understand the reasons this change had to be made.
I ask that the President of the High Court, who decides where court sittings take place, look at County Donegal in a different light. While efficiencies may have been secured in respect of a couple of officials, the new system is not more efficient for clients of the court. The current position is akin to appeals initiated in County Cork being heard in Galway. People in County Cork would make a fuss if that were the case. The changes inconvenience court users and have resulted in only minimal efficiencies. While sittings in Sligo may be acceptable, having the court sit in Castlebar is out of the question.