Seanad debates

Tuesday, 28 July 2020

Civil Law and Criminal Law (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill 2020: Second Stage


Question proposed: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."

10:30 am

Photo of Helen McEnteeHelen McEntee (Meath East, Fine Gael)
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I am very happy to present this Bill to Seanad Éireann and to discuss it with the Members of the House. As Members will be aware, it is the Government's intention to progress the Bill through all Stages in the House today and I look forward to the exchange of views that will flow from the debate.

This important legislation constitutes the Government's response to the new challenges posed to our courts and legal systems from the current pandemic. However, the Bill goes beyond the pandemic and will make many of our legal processes more efficient and effective into the future. I have no hesitation in saying that this Bill is urgently needed and, overall, it represents a substantial modernisation and reform of our courts and legal systems.

The Bill covers a wide range of issues relating to both our civil and criminal legal systems, such as the reform of the law concerning coroners in the context of the current pandemic, the introduction of a statutory basis for our courts to conduct remote hearings in civil proceedings; the admissibility of business records as evidence in civil proceedings; the lodgement of documents with the courts by electronic means, or e-filing; the lodgement of what are called "statements of truth" with the courts by electronic means as an alternative to the swearing of affidavits; provision for the wider use of video links between persons in custody and the courts; enhancing and widening the existing provisions on giving evidence through video link; providing for appeals in criminal proceedings to take place via remote hearing; removing the existing requirement to transport prisoners between prisons to execute a warrant; providing for the remote meetings of State bodies, unincorporated bodies and bodies designated by Ministers of Government; the execution of documents in counterpart; and making it easier for the Courts Service to alter the operating hours and sitting locations of the District Court.

I will now outline the provisions of the Bill. As many Members will know, the provisions of Part 1 are standard in nature and are common to nearly all legislation.

Part 2 contains urgent amendments to the Coroners Act 1962. The main provisions, at sections 7 and 8, provide new powers for the Minister to authorise temporary additional capacity in the coroner system as necessary to meet the risks and challenges arising from the Covid-19 pandemic. Section 6 is a standard definition section to reference the principal Act, which is the Coroners Act 1962.

Section 7 inserts a new section 11B in the principal Act entitled Assignment and appointment of temporary coroner in exceptional circumstances. The section applies where a coroner makes a written request to the Minister, justifying the need for a temporary additional coroner in that coroner district. The justification must satisfy the Minister first, that exceptional circumstances arise due to the number or nature of deaths resulting from a pandemic, catastrophic event, or other mass fatality occurrence, and second, that the requested extra capacity is necessary, to increase the number and progress of coroner inquiries into deaths in the coroner's district.If so satisfied, the Minister may assign or appoint a temporary additional coroner to that district for a period not exceeding six months. This may be renewed, each time for a period not exceeding six months, on a fresh request from the coroner of the district, but only if the Minister is satisfied with the up-to-date justification provided.

If the coroner district is outside Dublin, the Minister will consult the responsible local authority before deciding on the request. The Minister is responsible for the Dublin coroner district. A temporary coroner under this section will have all the powers and duties of a coroner for the district concerned during the period of appointment or assignment, other than the power to appoint a deputy. He or she will effectively be acting as an additional coroner. Where a temporary coroner is assigned or appointed, the Minister shall designate the requesting coroner as the senior coroner for the district, and that senior coroner will order the work of the district to ensure coherence.

Section 8 inserts a new section 13B in the principal Act entitled "Arrangements for coroners' districts other than coroner's district of Dublin". This section provides that, in the exceptional circumstances already described, where the coroner of a district so requests in writing, the Minister may authorise the deputy coroner of that district to act concurrently for the coroner, during a period not exceeding six months, which may be renewed. The deputy must have consented to so act. The same justification is required for this request, and for any renewal, as under section 7 of this Bill and the same arrangements in respect of powers, duties and costs apply. The proposed section applies only to coroner districts outside Dublin. The reason is that in the Dublin coroner district, the deputy coroner is already authorised to act concurrently with the coroner under a Dublin-specific temporary provision at section 13A of the principal Act, which is valid until 2022, having been introduced by my predecessor, Deputy Flanagan.

Section 9 proposes to amend section 14 of the principal Act, which sets out the qualifications required for appointment as coroner or deputy coroner. The effect of the amendment is to add an appointment as temporary coroner under the proposed new section 11B to the situations which require those qualifications.

I now move to the issue of the reform of the law concerning civil proceedings. Section 10 of the Bill, in Part 3, chapter 1, simply provides for a definition of the term "civil proceedings" in this part of the Bill. More substantively, Part 3, chapter 2, provides for the remote hearing of civil proceedings. As Members can all appreciate, current social distancing rules are causing disruption to, and difficulties for, court hearings and this is leading to delays in the administration of justice. In the current climate, this is particularly challenging for the Courts Service in maintaining the efficient and continued operation of our courts. I am sure the Members in the House will agree that we must do everything we can to assist our courts and to protect the well-being of those engaging with them.

Section 11 makes provision for remote hearings in civil proceedings. This provision enables a court to direct that any category or type of civil proceedings be conducted remotely. A court may make such a direction either of its own motion or on the application of any of the parties. Participants will take part in a remote hearing by electronic means and from a location other than the courts itself, whether inside the State or outside the State. A court shall revoke a direction to participate in a remote hearing where, for whatever reason, it would be unfair to any of the parties to do so, or it would otherwise be contrary to the interests of justice to do so. It shall also be an offence to make a recording of a hearing without the permission of the court. In addition, a judge may participate in a remote hearing notwithstanding the fact that he or she is not physically within his or her district or circuit. In summation on this chapter, the conducting of remote hearings will be an important tool to facilitate the efficient dispatch of court business, will increase court efficiency and will provide a mechanism to overcome the current difficulties.

I now move on to Part 3, chapter 3 of the Bill, which concerns the admissibility of business records in civil proceedings. The reforms in this chapter are based on the recommendations of the Law Reform Commission in its 2016 report "Consolidation and Reform of Aspects of the Law of Evidence" and reflect similar provisions in the Criminal Evidence Act 1992. The commission's report considers that business records are possibly the most common form of hearsay evidence presented in litigation and their legal status is of particular importance. In the great majority of cases, and in the previous absence of a statutory basis, many litigants in civil proceedings agree to admit documentary hearsay evidence in order to expedite proceedings or to spare themselves an adverse costs order if the objection proves unfounded. However, in a minority of cases, certain litigants, most notably those who would be incapable of satisfying a costs order in any event, may insist on proof of each and every document. These cases have posed increasing difficulties for our courts in recent years and highlight the need for statutory intervention. In its report, the commission recommends that records compiled in the course of business, because they are generally reliable, should be admissible in civil proceedings as an inclusionary exception to the hearsay rule, subject to the safeguards set out in the Bill.This chapter provides that in civil proceedings, any record in the form of a document compiled in the course of business shall be presumed to be admissible evidence of the truth of the fact or facts asserted in that document. This does not mean that the record cannot be challenged in court by any party to the proceedings.

The remaining sections set out provisions concerning oral evidence in respect of those documents, the rules around providing copies of documents where the original is not available, the procedure and timeframe for supplying documents to the court and the power of the court to determine whether it is in the interest of justice to admit documents as evidence, among other issues. Before moving on, I would like to thank the Law Reform Commission for laying the groundwork for this chapter and particularly for the assistance it provides to my Department and many others through its invaluable work.

Chapter 4 provides for two important measures concerning the use of electronic means in civil proceedings. The first concerns the remote lodgement or "e-filing" of documents with the courts and the second concerns the provision of statements of truth as an alternative to the swearing of affidavits and the ability to lodge those with the courts by electronic means.

Section 20 of the Bill introduces the use of electronic means in civil proceedings. This will be available as an alternative to the lodgement or filing of documents or applications in paper form. Rules of court may specify the conditions under which documents can be submitted by electronic means. The current crisis highlights the benefits and necessity of providing these services. This is a long-term solution which will be of particular assistance while the current restrictions continue but will provide the Courts Service with the legislative basis needed to progress court procedural and process reform.

Section 21 provides for the introduction of a statement of truth. This may be in electronic form and can be used as an alternative as a means of submitting evidence or verifying documents to the swearing of an affidavit or statutory declaration. A statement of truth shall comply with any other requirements prescribed by rules of court. Section 21 also makes it an offence for a person to make a false statement or cause a false statement to be made. Apart from addressing the difficulties arising from the personal contact required for the preparation and witnessing of documents at present, the introduction of the statement of truth is critical to court process reform and will yield significant benefit to the Courts Service and users of court services. These changes are critical to court process reform. The introduction of these measures is essential in the context of the current pandemic but also has the potential to yield significant benefits to the Courts Service.

I will now discuss Part 4 of the Bill, which contains substantive reforms to our criminal procedure law, particularly in relation to the widened use of video link technology in criminal proceedings. This Part also includes important reforms to improve efficiency in executing warrants. These provisions are urgently needed to assist courts with the conduct of their business in these extraordinary times.

This Bill provides for the wider use of video links between persons in custody and the courts. These were formerly permitted in limited circumstances under sections 33 and 34 of the Prisons Act 2007. On the recommendation of the Attorney General, the Bill also extends provisions to cover persons not in custody so that any accused person can attend by video link, for certain applications, where the court so directs. The Bill allows the court to direct that video link will be the default for certain categories of application. Where an individual application is not covered by such a direction, the court can still direct that the application will be conducted over video link on a case-by-case basis.

In relation to the giving of evidence by witnesses over video link, the Bill, for the types of hearings covered, allows any person to give evidence via video link with the permission of the court. Currently this is permissible in limited circumstances only under the Criminal Evidence Act 1992. There is provision to allow appeal hearings in the Court of Appeal and the Supreme Court to be conducted remotely where the court is satisfied that it is fair to all parties and not contrary to the interests of justice. This includes a provision that it shall be an offence to interfere with the remote means for conducting such a hearing, mirroring similar provisions in respect of civil proceedings.

Regarding committal warrants, the Bill rectifies a long-standing problem in relation to the execution of warrants for a person who is already in prison. The Bill provides that any warrant committing the same person to prison may be executed at the prison where the person is already detained, even if that warrant names another prison on its face. This removes the need to transport prisoners between prisons and back again merely to have warrants executed. It also reduces the need for staff and personnel to do that.

Finally, there is a general provision in the Bill to allow courts flexibility to make arrangements for the just and expeditious conduct of hearings in criminal proceedings. This has been included on the advice of the Attorney General and is intended to address practical solutions such as the need to accommodate social distancing requirements, for example by spreading those present at the hearing out over more than one room.Part 5 of the Bill introduces provisions and reforms the law on several issues. The provisions in this Part are intended to ensure compliance with social distancing and the health and safety of citizens. The provisions facilitate the continued operation via remote means of State bodies, unincorporated bodies and designated bodies. In continuing the Government's policy to make our legal system more efficient and accessible beyond the current pandemic, this Part also provides for the execution of legal documents such as contracts and deeds in counterpart, and includes a provision to assist the Courts Service in making the operation of the District Court more efficient and flexible.

I will now outline the main provisions of this Part to the House. Section 29 provides for the remote meetings of State bodies. Any business of that body conducted remotely, for example decisions taken or votes made, shall be as good and effectual as if the business or the body was conducted in person. A relevant Minister may designate a State body for the purpose of holding meetings or parts of meetings remotely, subject to certain criteria.

Section 30 provides for the remote meetings of unincorporated bodied, for example, clubs, community associations and charitable organisations, during an interim period. As in the previous section, any business of that body shall not be affected by the fact that the meeting was held remotely. For the information of the House, the interim period to which I refer shall be the three months following the commencement of section 30 or any other period as requested by the Government in the interest of public health.

Section 31 provides that bodies designated by relevant Ministers may hold hearings remotely, subject to certain criteria. A person required to attend a hearing in person shall be required to do by remote means and the designated body shall have the power to make any arrangements to conduct hearings by remote means. Designated bodies will also have the power to determine, following representations from the subjects of the hearing, whether the holding of a hearing remotely would be unfair to that person or contrary to the interests of justice. For both sections 30 and 31, where a body is the responsibility of more than one Minister, all Ministers must be consulted before a designation order is made.

Before moving on, I would ask the House to note that I intend to bring a small technical amendment to section 31 on Committee Stage.

Section 32 is aimed at bringing about efficiencies in our legal systems and provides for the execution of documents such as contracts or deeds in counterpart, subject to the requirements set out in the section.

Section 33 assists the Courts Service in the operation of the District Court. Under paragraph 26(1)(f) of the Courts of Justice Act 1953, the Courts Service must prepare and issue a statutory instrument each time it needs to vary District Court opening hours or locations. The experience of the Courts Service is that the making of orders under paragraph (f) can be quite complex and time-consuming and does not supply the flexibility necessary to address its requirements in situations such as, but limited to, the current pandemic. Section 33 inserts a new section to the 1953 Act providing that each time the Courts Service needs to vary the hours of operation, sitting location, etc., of the District Court it shall publish a notice outlining the need for change on its website. Before issuing such a notice, the Courts Service must consult with and receive the consent of the President of the District Court. This approach is less complex and more efficient than the current provision of the 1953 Act. The amendment is essential in assisting the Courts Service in ensuring the efficient operation and continuation of the business of the District Court.

This Bill contains important steps in the process of modernising our courts and our civil and criminal law systems in the light of the current pandemic and beyond. The measures I have outlined to the House today will ensure the continuity of the essential services our courts provide in manner that is efficient and safe for our citizens. I commend the Bill the House and I look forward to engagement with colleagues on its contents.

Photo of Barry WardBarry Ward (Fine Gael)
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Fáilte ar ais, a Aire. This is the first piece of legislation that has come before this Seanad from the Department of Justice and Equality. It is a very welcome legislation. As the Minister said in her Second Stage speech, there are some really progressive aspects to this Bill that will help the Courts Service and the justice system to function in a much easier and more efficient way.

It is important to recognise the importance and urgency of some of the provisions of the Bill outlined by the Minister. I note the Minister intends to introduce more legislation in this vein in the coming months. I look forward to further opportunities to debate it. As with every piece of legislation that has come before the 26th Seanad, this will pass all Stages in a short period of time. Everybody recognises that this is generally an undesirable state of affairs, but it is permissible in the circumstances that make the measures in all of that legislation urgent.The impact of the Covid crisis has brought home to people how systems are sometimes not designed to respond to a pandemic or an emergency. The Courts Service and the justice system are no exception in this regard. It is important to recognise that we have a very good, functional justice system. We score well on just about every international matrix. The system has its flaws, without doubt. There are issues regarding access to civil justice, such as civil legal aid for some individuals, and there are issues with delays in the process and these have been exacerbated by the Covid crisis. As a general rule, however, we have a functional justice system. Judges are fair and amenable to the rule of law, the courts are amenable to review and appeal and, in general, the persons who come before the courts are well represented and get a fair and just hearing from the judges they come before. Sometimes we are slow to recognise what we do well and quick to criticise - and that appropriate - but we should take a moment to recognise that the system here works very well in administering justice for people, citizens and non-citizens alike. This is an important aspect of what the legislation does, namely, facilitating that system. However, as the Minister indicated, there are aspects that need to be improved.

One issue that the Covid crisis has brought home is how antiquated the system is in some respects. This Bill goes to the heart of some of those matters. I refer to the notion of electronic filing of documents. Until recently, there was a requirement for a physical document to be signed by a particular person - and that a particular oath had to be sworn - and brought physically to an office in the Four Courts. That is now a thing of the past. It is appropriate that this legislation should deal with those issues and allow the legal services, both the courts and practitioners, to enter the 21st century. I am not aware of any jurisdiction in the developed world where the same strictures as those which currently obtain in Ireland apply. It is welcome that the matter is being addressed in the legislation and that it will be easier for people to do the things to which I refer online in an efficient way that benefits everybody.

I will go through the measures in the Bill. On the reform of the legislation relating to coroners, the coroner system in is probably quite antiquated. This country relies on legislation primarily dating from the 1960s. It has been updated a little but is still very rigid. There is definitely room for provisions that can improve it and there is probably room for a consolidated coroners Bill in the future. What the Bill before the House does in the area makes a great deal of sense and is a recognition of the fact that, from time to time, an emergency situation will arise and that the system, as currently designed, is not equipped to deal with it. The measures which allow a Minister to appoint persons to fulfil the duties of those coroners, still fulfilling all the criteria that would be required to appoint that person in the first place, are welcome. Good safeguards are included in those sections which provide for the manner in which the Minister can do that. They provide safeguards in that context which are very important and which mean that we will not allow a given Minister to simply bypass important systems that are there already. This is done well, the provision is measured and it is an important fallback measure for a Minister if and, perhaps, when something similar to Covid happens in future. It is right and proper that this should be there.

Also front and centre in the Bill are the provisions relating to remote hearings. These will allow witnesses to give evidence remotely and judges to be absent from the relevant districts when hearings are taking place. Credit is due to the Judiciary in that it has dealt with many of the challenges brought about by the Covid crisis. The Court of Appeal, as its president has pointed out, is particularly well-equipped to deal with those matters online. There is very rarelyviva voce evidence in the Court of Appeal, so there is an opportunity for lawyers to appear online and judges be present remotely. The Court of Appeal has embraced that very successfully. I am not sure when it last sat corporeally. Having three judges creates a particular difficulty in the context of an infectious pandemic. The court has addressed that well by having remote hearings. We hope to return to a situation in September whereby the criminal courts will have sittings with live witnesses and juries present.There are particular challenges that face the Courts Service in terms of the administration of those processes, including jury pools, witnesses and so on. Many of these provisions will assist the Courts Service in dealing with those issues and will remove the doubt that might otherwise have existed as to the legitimacy or otherwise of conducting hearings in particular ways. That is very welcome.

In terms of addressing the modernisation of our justice system, it is entirely appropriate that we move towards saying that it is acceptable to use technology to streamline the process and make it more efficient. Equally, by extension, it is appropriate to facilitate people who are involved in that process, in some cases by not requiring their attendance. I am aware of a trial scheduled in September where one of the witnesses is over 70 and has been advised to self-isolate. It would be impossible for him to come to court in those circumstances but it will be possible for him to give video link evidence. That is progressive, appropriate and welcome.

Another important modernisation concerns the statements of truth. The somewhat antiquated method of swearing affidavits and the requirement for a religious or other affirmation depending on the person's belief code date from a different time. As long as the person swearing that affidavit understands that he or she is making a serious declaration of truth that is not to be trifled with or taken other than very seriously, the new system achieves exactly the same thing as the old system. I therefore welcome the provisions in respect of statements of truth.

The measures in respect of facilitating appeals are also welcome. A particular hole is plugged by section 27 of the Bill, which deals with committal warrants. There has been a lag in that antiquated system for a long time. That can now be undone and put on a statutory footing to give clarity to everybody involved. It will also reduce the risk of further actions unnecessarily arising where somebody is in custody already. This is a progressive and simple measure in section 27 that will save hassle for individuals and will save the State money in terms of proceedings that might take place as a result of errors.

All the measures contained here are reasonable, progressive and good and they all achieve a particular and identifiable good. The business records point required clarification which has been achieved in the Bill. I welcome that. The Minister makes an important point in her Second Stage speech about the fact that business records are an exception to the hearsay rule. It is dangerous to chip away at evidential rules that are there to protect everybody but it is important to recognise that this does not mean business records are automatically admissible and cannot be challenged. The Bill retains the right of a person in court to challenge a business record if it is the appropriate thing to do. The usual provisions still apply. Sometimes it is dangerous that we think of these provisions that are protections for all of us as loopholes. Every loophole is in fact a protection for the person whom we perceive as guilty but who may be innocent but accused. That is a very important provision and a safeguard that we thankfully have in our legislation.

I welcome the Bill. It is progressive. I particularly welcome that in the next few months we will have an opportunity to do more in this area because there is a great deal of work we can do to streamline and improve the process.

Photo of Robbie GallagherRobbie Gallagher (Fianna Fail)
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I am sharing time with Senator Clifford-Lee. Ba mhaith liom fáilte a chur roimh an Aire go dtí an Teach seo inniu. Déanaim comhghairdeas léi agus lena clann ag an am iontach speisialta seo dóibh. I wish to extend a warm welcome to the Minister this afternoon. It is my first opportunity to address her in her new role. I wish her well. She will be working alongside the Minister of State, Deputy McConalogue. I have no doubt they will get on like a house on fire. I am aware both of them have had meetings with a number of organisations, some of which I requested on the organisations' behalf. I thank the Minister sincerely for that and wish her well.

I fully support the Bill. Covid-19 has set many challenges for different aspects of our society.The legal and judicial system is not immune to that either. It is an opportunity, in many ways, to see how we can do business differently and in a way, even two months ago, we could not imagine. I welcome that change and this legislation is a genuine effort to try to enter that space and bring technology to the legal and judicial system in a way that will make it work more efficiently. It will be evident when considering the need to transfer prisoners to court or other prisons, the process of giving evidence in civil proceedings and the work of the coroner's court. I would like to think this will be the first step in the judicial and legal system entering this technology space. It is a challenge that Covid-19 has thrown to us and I hope this is just the beginning, in many ways, of how we can do business differently. For those reasons I very much welcome the Bill.

For the citizens caught - if I can use that term - in the legal system seeking justice, whatever system we introduce must be fully operational so the rights of those citizens at all times can be respected. The embrace of technology, in whatever form it comes, should in no way lessen an individual's right to get a fair trial or justice in a speedy and efficient manner. For that reason the Fianna Fáil Party and I are glad to support this legislation.

My colleague outlined in great detail the different aspects of the Bill and there is no need for me to dwell on them now other than to say I hope this legislation passes speedily. I know some of my colleagues may have a number of amendments and I hope there will be an opportunity to address the legitimate concerns they may have so we can all embrace this legislation. We are in a strange place now but it is reassuring how society is pulling together and doing things differently. The legal profession and the Judiciary are no different in that regard. I look forward to the Bill passing through the House successfully.

Photo of Lorraine Clifford-LeeLorraine Clifford-Lee (Fianna Fail)
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I welcome the Minister to the House to deal with this very important legislation. As my colleagues, Senators Gallagher and Ward, outlined, it is long overdue. I worked in the legal system for a number of years and faced many of the frustrations that the Bill seeks to address. It is very welcome, although it is a pity it has taken something like a global pandemic to bring about these changes. It is good and progressive that we are doing this now.

The legal system needs to prepare itself for the second wave of the virus that all the experts tell us is coming. We need to get our systems in place and be able to continue to function with some degree of normality and allow the judicial system in particular to work. Justice delayed is justice denied and we want to ensure everybody can access justice in as speedy a manner as possible.

I particularly welcome the statement of truth changes. I know the Law Society of Ireland has warmly welcomed this measure and it is something the society, of which I am a member, has constantly lobbied for. It is a progressive act for this to be done now. I know, for example, a number of people who needed to get affidavits sworn during the lockdown but they could not access a solicitor to do it. The solicitors were putting themselves in danger by swearing affidavits. It is a very welcome move.

I hope this Bill can move through the House today with consensus. There are some amendments and I hope we can work our way through them. Changes such as those already before the House require political cohesion on the matter so I welcome the Minister's input, along with that of other parties in the House, in seeing if we can come to some sort of compromise and have the Bill passed. I look forward to working with the Minister in implementing further changes that the legal system may need.

Photo of Niall Ó DonnghaileNiall Ó Donnghaile (Sinn Fein)
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Cuirim fáilte roimh an Aire. Tá mé buíoch go bhfuil deis agam labhairt sa Teach agus an reachtaíocht thábhachtach seo á plé againn. The Minister is very welcome to the Seanad I welcome the opportunity to discuss this important legislation. As others have done, Sinn Féin will support the legislation, although we have an amendment that I will speak to in this contribution so I do not necessarily have to repeat those remarks later.

I agree with speakers who have expressed sentiment around the need to try to effectively clear the backlog as we deal with a Covid-19 health emergency. Consequently, we understood we would not go through the normal process of pre-legislative scrutiny with this Bill in order that we could try to promptly deal with concerns around enabling our courts and those working within our criminal justice system.

There are more fundamental issues of reform contained in the Bill. That is not to say we oppose them, and we do not necessarily oppose them. Nevertheless, they come from outside the health emergency scenario. In the same way we seek to greater enable the criminal justice system in doing its job, the purpose of the amendment, which effectively sets a sunset clause, is to enable us as legislators to do our job better. It would give us the opportunity to review these important changes and examine them again. I hope, God spare us, that it would not be in the same context of an acute emergency like the Covid-19 crisis.

I urge colleagues to reflect on this. As people have correctly argued, important aspects of this Bill must be examined and we support and endorse them. There is consensus around the Chamber and between groups in that regard. However, there are other matters to consider and we must be very alert. It is a somewhat separate point but Senator Ward touched on something I raised last week. It is how we do our business. We conceded that there should not be pre-legislative scrutiny around this, we are taking all Stages of the Bill together and there are aspects of the Bill that do not necessarily pertain to the Covid-19 crisis. The mammoth emergency health legislation will correctly come back for review in November and it would do no harm for us to take the same considered approach to this legislation and look at it once again.

As I said, we will support the Bill and we understand further reforms will be introduced by the Minister later in the year. That is important, necessary and welcome. Nevertheless, legislation is being rushed through the Houses in volume, which should give us all cause for concern. We understand the reasons but that is not to say we should not be alert and enable ourselves to examine such legislation again. I understand some of the Bills are urgent. I take that point and we have sought to work in a collaborative and co-operative way with other groups as much as we can in trying to assist the Government where the emergency legislation is relevant and needed.

I acknowledge and agree the point on the need for more coroners, and that would be welcome, especially if the additional resources will mean inquests, including the Stardust fire victims inquiry, will not be further delayed by extra strain on coroners due to this pandemic. The families of the victims of the Stardust fire, along with many other families awaiting inquests relating to loved ones, should not have to wait so long to have matters dealt with. Two years of a backlog leads to much stress for any family of a lost loved one to endure. I mention in particular those families of victims of the Stardust fire who have campaigned for justice for many years and who await a date for a fresh inquest. I pay special tribute to the late Ms Christine Keegan, affectionately known as Chrissie, who passed away just recently.She spent almost 40 years, along with her daughter Antoinette, campaigning tirelessly for a fresh inquest into the disaster that took the lives of two of her daughters, Martina and Mary, and so many others. I hope that these measures will help and that we will see further reforms soon to resolve such resourcing issues in this area in order that families will not have to suffer the stress of long backlogs any further. That is the real human impact and need that is out there and it is why we need to move on the issue.

While many of the provisions in the Bill will allow for practical solutions during Covid-19 and should be welcomed as they will assist the legal profession to operate in unprecedented and difficult circumstances, I note that of the changes in Part 4, which deals with criminal procedure, sections 23 and 24 are sought to be permanent reforms. This will allow for the use of video link at pre and post-trial hearings, such as when seeking bail, free legal aid or sentencing hearings. While I accept this will not be used during the trial itself, there is some evidence to suggest that even at those stages of the process an accused person might be at a disadvantage to have certain matters decided over video link. I recognise that allowing for these traditional measures during the pandemic would prevent the transferring of prisoners, which might cause more harm than good for everyone involved, and keeping the prisons Covid free is an absolute must. Nevertheless, these reforms are not just to prevent the spread of Covid-19. They are reforms for the future, which raises the need for more care and attention as we move ahead.

We can all relate to what goes on in our own Zoom meetings. How many of those have we taken part in lately where engagement is just not the same as in a face-to-face meeting? Nuances can, of course, be missed and there are legitimate concerns as to why we need to reconsider that. That is not to say there are not benefits to using video link, as is the case with other provisions in the Bill for civil cases, and even more so in the short term during this pandemic, but we have not had enough time to scrutinise the devil in the detail of the Bill to be sure in our own minds that we are doing the right thing and protecting human rights. The reforms in this area are absolutely well intended. We certainly want to enable the courts to deal with the backlog and for everyone to stay safe at the same time, but the issue is the absence of proper legislative scrutiny for such serious and fundamental reforms of our justice system. The Bill should have contained only the temporary measures necessary at this time.

If everything in the Bill were a temporary measure to deal with constraints during Covid-19, there would be no issue. I do not see why the reforms promised later in the year cannot incorporate the reforms in the Bill to avoid the unnecessary development of hastily passing some of the reforms. We have to have a more considered, thought-out and nuanced approach to the passing of emergency legislation.

I wish the Minister well. I do not want to be a hindrance to the important aspects of the Bill but there is legitimacy in our amendment. I ask her and colleagues in the House to reflect on the need for that review.

Photo of Rónán MullenRónán Mullen (Independent)
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I congratulate the Minister on her appointment and wish her well in the time ahead. Go n-éirí go geal léi.

The Bill is generally welcome, although others may well already have commented that here we are, yet again, taking all Stages of an important Bill in just a few short hours in a single day. While this is certainly excusable and necessary for Bills relating to emergency health or financial measures in response to Covid-19, or one-line Bills such as the Minister and Secretaries (Amendment) Bill, which was debated here last week, it seems more difficult to justify in the case of a Bill such as this.

The question that always has to be asked in such a context is whether the measures in the Bill are sufficiently urgently needed at this point for such haste to be justified. The courts have made significant adjustments to their operations within the current legislative framework. The Chief Justice, Mr. Justice Clarke, recently stated the courts have made five years' worth of progress in the past five months. The tendency to rush legislation always needs to be watched. The review of the administration of civil justice group, chaired by Mr. Justice Kelly, is due to report in the next ten weeks or so on reforms to civil procedure generally, most of which dates back to the Supreme Court of Judicature Act (Ireland) 1877. Would it have made sense to fold these amendments into a larger set of adjustments to the system, perhaps based on that report?It is proposed that temporary coroners can be appointed to a district in an emergency. I certainly have no reason to oppose that measure. However, the explanatory memorandum to the Bill states that this is needed: "where exceptional circumstances arise due to the number or nature of deaths resulting from a pandemic, catastrophic event, or other occurrence leading to mass fatalities." I hope the Government does not foresee that as necessary in the short term, against the threat from Covid, which, I hope, is slowly receding. Notwithstanding the fact that we have to be vigilant, I wondered whether that formulation was somewhat alarmist. A comprehensive review of the coroner service was carried out in 1999 and the changes in the Bill were not called for in that report, as far as I am aware. The Seanad approved the Coroners (Amendment) Act 2019 last summer and the then Minister for Justice and Equality, Deputy Flanagan, told the House that it represented "a far-reaching and important modernisation of our coronial law." That Act contains 40 sections and none of the provisions in the Bill before us was included at that time. I wonder why that is.

I turn to the use of electronic means for filing documents and the question of the enactment of the possibility of a statement of truth to be made when filing documents. I spoke about this in the House last week. I wish to give some context to my remarks and to many people's understanding of what was going on. The Bill was approved by the Cabinet last Tuesday. Fairly quickly, there was a response from the Law Society welcoming the fact that people were now to be released from the embarrassing position of either having to swear a religious oath or denying religion and making an affirmation instead, in the context of filing documents such as affidavits. As often happens in this country, we were relying on newspaper reports - even those of newspapers of record - for our first understanding or analysis of what the Government was proposing. It left me wondering whether there had been some kind of a leaking or sharing of the information by the Government with the Law Society at that point, prior to it being made available to the Oireachtas.

I may be wrong in what I am saying but it seems that the whole narrative of such matters can get very easily shaped if some people have access to relevant information before others. I hope the Minister will help me understand more clearly what precisely are the implications for the current system of swearing an oath or making an affirmation in the context of filing documents such as affidavits. Am I correct in thinking that the Government is seeking, via the legislation, to enable the rules of court committee to make whatever arrangements it considers appropriate in this area, and that it will then be possible for those responsible for making rules of court to have also on the table the possibility of making a statement of truth instead of the option of swearing an oath or affirmation? Is it to be left under this legislation to the rules of court committee to decide whether all these options are to remain on the table for people or whether the system of oaths and affirmations might be abolished in favour of the statement of truth? Is it the case that these provisions merely encompass cases where the electronic sending of documents is concerned, or will they potentially reach wider than that?I am not going to table amendments to the Bill, although I might want to do so depending on what the answer is. My concern is that, against a background of the early public welcoming for this legislation given in terms of decrying the existing system as embarrassing as opposed to focusing on the efficient operation of court business, which we all support, there is a failure to understand that the current system of making oaths or affirmations forms part of the way that the solemnity of the State is buttressed when people come to set out factual information for the consideration of a court, which is an issue of tremendous seriousness. All that needs be done to prevent false averments is to provide a penalty for making them. Obviously, there is a sense that something else is needed so that people have a clear idea of the seriousness of what they are doing. Hence the requirement of a statement of truth. However, it seems to be a false idea and a failure to recognise a genuine pluralism to go against a system that buttresses the solemnity of what is being done.

I have more questions than answers at this point. I look forward to hearing the Minister's reply and, I hope, contributing further on Committee Stage.

Photo of Marie SherlockMarie Sherlock (Labour)
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I congratulate the Minister on her new role. I am conscious that she appeared in the House for another Bill, but this is my first time speaking on a justice Bill and I want to wish her well.

The Labour Party is happy to support the Bill, which contains several measures that have been long sought after by the legal profession. One of those measures is the introduction of electronic filing and the issuing of documents from court offices. This positive change will save solicitors and others significant costs and time. However, what are the Minister's plans for introducing e-conveyancing? That measure would greatly reduce the amount of time and money spent by those working in the law, but it is not obviously contained in the Bill.

The Bill provides for remote hearings. Many of us who have been teleworking and continue to work from home hope that this will remain a feature of the post-pandemic world of work and the justice system in particular. However, we have a query pertaining to section 11(6)(b)(ii). Is it practicable to assert that a witness giving evidence by remote line, potentially from outside the State, is subject to the same obligations and liability as a witness present in court? Could such a witness be found guilty of contempt in the face of court and be committed to prison? This is an important point on which we need clarity, as it would have significant implications were an inaccuracy contained in the Bill.

Under Part 2, we welcome the measures to appoint temporary coroners when mass deaths necessitate a high number of inquests. None of us wants to think about an incident taking place that would require such a measure, for example, an act of terror or an outbreak of illness, but it is critical that a backlog of inquests not develop. A backlog forces bereaved families to wait for answers about their loved ones' deaths and reduces access to funeral grants, life assurance and other vital financial supports. This is a difficult subject to think about, but we must be prepared for it during the time of coronavirus and into the future.

Another change contained in the Bill is to be enthusiastically welcomed, that being, the new statement of truth under section 21. We understand that it will replace affidavits and statutory declarations and will not include the religious oath. Since the Labour Party has long stood for the principle of secularism, this is a welcome measure. We live in a pluralist society and it is important that this reality be reflected throughout every branch of the State. My final point, which has already been raised by Seanadóir Ó Donnghaile, Senator Mullen and others, is on pre-legislative scrutiny. I accept that this is not necessarily practicable for emergency legislation, but this Bill and others that are due to be taken by the House over the coming days include reform measures that are not intended to deal specifically with the pandemic. In particular, Chapter 3 of the Bill contains the general amendment to the law of civil evidence to allow for the admissibility of business records in a simplified way. This is a permanent amendment to the law and not something that relates to Covid-19.

Overall, the Bill contains a number of positive changes to streamline many of the more cumbersome processes of legal proceedings. I join other Senators in calling for a more comprehensive reform, which I hope will be forthcoming sooner rather than later. The virus has shown to be predictable only its unpredictability. Bearing that in mind, these immediate changes are warranted and we are happy to support them.

Photo of Jerry ButtimerJerry Buttimer (Fine Gael)
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Next is Senator Martin. Is he sharing time with Senator Pauline O'Reilly?

Photo of Vincent P MartinVincent P Martin (Green Party)
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I understand that she is en route.

Photo of Jerry ButtimerJerry Buttimer (Fine Gael)
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Is that agreed? Agreed.

Photo of Vincent P MartinVincent P Martin (Green Party)
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I will begin by congratulating the new Minister for Justice and Equality and wishing her well on the road ahead. She is hitting the road running by coming to the House today as we progress this important legislation, which will improve the efficiency of the administration of justice. I acknowledge the work of the Courts Service in recent years in making the workings of the legal system more accessible to the public and the day-to-day administration of justice more efficient. As Senator Ward stated, the Chief Justice, Mr. Justice Frank Clarke, is a reforming voice who is bringing us - some would say dragging us kicking - into a more modern age of the administration of justice where people feel a part of it.

A number of Senators have addressed various aspects of the Bill, including the welcome reforms relating to coroners. I will touch briefly on sections 13 to 15, inclusive. Section 13 is on business records as documentary evidence presumed to be admissible. The key word is "presumed". There is no automatic admissibility. Like other Senators, I would be concerned if there was ever an erosion of our country's strict rules of evidence, which are cherished and upheld day in and day out in the courts. I welcome this section because there is a presumption, which people are entitled to refute and rebut if properly armed with the legal ammunition.

The Minister kindly mentioned the Law Reform Commission, LRC. I suspect section 14 has its genesis in the 2016 report. The LRC is the unsung hero in the administration of justice and should be better resourced and more valued than it is currently. Often, its reports lie on shelves for decades before we get around to them. The LRC is usually way ahead of the curve. What it suggested in the report it published in 2016 is becoming a reality during the pandemic. We do not like to see an erosion of the evidential rules, including on the admissibility of business records, but it brings us into a more modern time when an approach like this is important and where such records are compiled in the ordinary course of business. There are balances and checks and these can be found in section 16. Apart from Covid, the higher courts will be able to exercise their inherent jurisdiction.It is very important that misinformation does not go out from this House today. In, say, debt matters, the nature of these contracts often means that a summary procedure is instituted, which does not mean R11s; it does not go to plenary. However, there is no prohibition on a plenary hearing in this modern step the Minister is taking. If, for instance, a debtor says he or she never got the money and disputes the admissibility of the business records, the court will take that into consideration and, apart from its own inherent jurisdiction in the higher courts, will consider if the information is reliable, if there is reasonable inference that the information is authentic and whether it is likely to be possible to controvert the information. Consideration is given to all the circumstances which may be taken into consideration or drawn from the accuracy of the information or otherwise.

I know the intent of the legislation in many respects but when it comes to personal debt we should always remember that we have the personal insolvency regime on a statutory framework in this country which is one of the most modern in the world. It is a fair system and it should be embarked upon by anyone in debt difficulty.

I understand that the amendments will in a sense save unnecessary court costs. They will become less unwieldy but it is not a fait accompli. There is still a plenary hearing entitlement if one can convince the court of its appropriateness.

Photo of Pauline O'ReillyPauline O'Reilly (Green Party)
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I want to explain the reason we will support this Bill. Pre-legislative scrutiny is essential, and I am sure many of my colleagues have spoken about that today. However, this Bill contains, first, necessary measures with expiry dates attached, which is essential when we are talking about Covid-19 and, second, low-hanging fruit measures in terms of the type of legislation needed for our courts. I have spoken to the Department with regard to that and I am satisfied that they are low-hanging and that they are contained in the 2016 law reform report in particular. The measures around hearsay are included.

When we are talking about coroners we have two issues at hand. First, there are a number of inquests coming up, particularly the second Stardust tragedy inquest and, second, we do not know where we are going to go in terms of Covid-19 and we must prepare for that. As it stands, however, we already have a backlog when it comes to coroners and we can only allow one per district. That must change.

The prison system has done an extraordinary job in keeping Covid-19 at bay. If we are to continue that down the line, we must ensure that those who are accused can attend court remotely but also ensure that they will not bring Covid-19 back into the prison system. That is why this Bill is very important on the criminal aspects. In addition, we know that there is a backlog of civil law cases. This Bill will ensure that that backlog is addressed.

When it comes to the miscellaneous section, it is there for a particular period for Covid but if this works we need to look at how we can allow State bodies to ensure that we can have remote voting and remote meetings. I am thinking in particular of councils and women councillors who are unable currently to take maternity leave. When they step out they can no longer participate in the votes that they would and should have been entitled to be part of. I ask the Minister to take that into consideration to see how we can facilitate local government in that regard.

Photo of Catherine ArdaghCatherine Ardagh (Fianna Fail)
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I would also like to take this opportunity to congratulate the Minister on her appointment. She has clearly hit the ground running with this far-reaching legislation. I will be delighted to work with her over the next few years.Many of us in this House who pass through the halls of King's Inns look with bemusement at the Latin motto, "Nolumus mutari", which means "We do not wish to change." As my colleague, Senator Martin, said, the Chief Justice, Mr. Justice Frank Clarke, literally brought the Bar kicking and screaming into the 21st century. The Supreme Court sat remotely for the first time on 20 April. I would like to thank Mr. Justice Frank Clarke, and the Courts Service, for being so proactive and ensuring there was no lockdown within the courts during the Covid-19 lockdown period. There was a slowdown but the justice system continued. Great thanks are due to the Chief Justice and the staff in the Courts Service, all of whom should be hugely commended. During that first remote hearing, the Chief Justice commented that while other jurisdictions have started or announced the commencement of remote hearings, in many cases they were coming from a significantly higher technology base. Ultimately, what he was saying was that there is a major shortfall within the Courts Service in terms of ICT. From my reading of it, this legislation, and bringing the Courts Service up to speed and into the 21st century, will require a major amount of investment. From the Minister's point of view, I hope that proper funding will accompany this legislation. It is vital that not only do we have the legislation but also that we have the proper funding for ICT facilities within the courts in order to ensure that they run smoothly.

As previous speakers pointed out, the legislation does not preclude plenary hearings. In some instances, remote hearings are not ideal, for example, where there is digital disadvantage. Across the midlands and in other parts of the country, there is a major lack of broadband services. That would give people a disadvantage in terms of accessing remote hearings. While many lay litigants may be familiar with technology, they can be unfamiliar with the way the courts work. I know, as a practitioner, that when lay litigants are in court, judges are very patient and pragmatic when it comes to ensuring such individuals have the access to justice they would have if they had legal representation. Vulnerable people also may not be suitable for that. I would like to see what is going to be done in that regard. It might require additional legislation or an extra set of rules to figure out how to deal with those instances.

There are also issues regarding the family law courts. I am aware that there is legislation which deals with having fines for people who record in camerahearings but it will be much harder to police than that. There is a huge backlog in the family law courts. I am sure it has been brought to the Minister's attention that Dolphin House court is a disgrace. It is probably the most dangerous place one could be in the context of Covid-19 because people are literally on top of each other. It is unfortunate that, within the timeframe of the pandemic, there has been a major increase in the level of domestic violence. That is another day's work but something has to be done in terms of Dolphin House and the backlog in family law proceedings.

I welcome the provisions in the Bill relating to the appointment of coroners. It is very unfair for families to be obliged to wait a long time for inquests. Not only in Covid times but also in general, the appointment of coroners should be prioritised.

I would like to ask the Minister about the extension of technology to e-conveyancing, as mentioned by my colleague, Senator Sherlock. Many practitioners and auctioneers are already doing that. Auctioneers and solicitors are setting up their own e-conveyancing arrangements but it is very difficult to get buy-in from the banks. The State needs to be involved in any e-conveyancing set-ups.Will remote hearings be extended to extra-judicial hearings such as those of the WRC or the refugee appeals tribunals, which would benefit from similar guidelines?

Photo of Joe O'ReillyJoe O'Reilly (Fine Gael)
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I congratulate the Minister on her appointment. This is my first chance to do so in a public forum. We are particularly proud of her in the region I come from, as we are near neighbours. I also endorse the remarks of Senator Martin, as echoed by Senator Ardagh, on the Chief Justice. He is a very reforming Chief Justice and it merits recognition here. Senator Martin is my near neighbour in Carrickmacross, and I also congratulate him on his appointment. We know each other a few years now.

There are good aspects to this legislation, including necessary modernising aspects. It is important that it includes the potential to appoint extra coroners and the use of the deputy coroner, as is the case in Dublin, and will be extended across the country. Delayed inquests are particularly painful and difficult families. Families find themselves in a shocking position after untimely bereavements and we should not add to their pain with delay. That is important. There is also the context of additional deaths from Covid. It is a very good legislative change that those appointments are possible and that there can be practical, common sense use of existing personnel. I welcome that dimension.

I welcome remote hearings. It is common sense in the electronic age that there would be that modernisation. Without straying, although much is allowed during Second Stage, everything we have discussed since Covid emphasises the need for implementation of the broadband plan of which I was a great champion in the last Seanad and remain so. We need to implement the broadband plan immediately to facilitate these modernisations, so that civil hearings and so on can be held remotely if necessary or simply witness statements received.

Slightly extraneous to today's debate, I ask the Minister to review the on-the-spot fine system. The more people we can keep out of our courts the better, and we can do so with their use. It is what hurts most and hurts immediately, and should be done, rather than clogging up a court system with petty things. As a general principle, the use of community service and training and extra education should be to the fore in our justice system. Where rehabilitation can be introduced, particularly in cases of addiction, it should be supported. As a new Minister, I ask that she review these areas and stretch the level of on-the-spot fines, community training, and the rehabilitation of those in addition, out to their limit.

It is great that business records can now be introduced electronically. I agree with the principle of the statement of truth. It is much less cumbersome than a traditional affidavit. It will be up to the Courts Service to impress on people the seriousness of what it is doing. Traditional methods were cumbersome and delaying, and it required adjustment, especially when we have the modern technology.

The use of video links is good. It warrants use without prisoners being transferred around, not only in the Covid context but in a practical sense. I am also happy that clubs, societies and various community associations can meet and take votes without necessarily transgressing proper legislative principles.The point made by our Labour Party colleague earlier on e-conveyancing is worth serious consideration. One of the great problems for ordinary consumers here is the cost and speed of conveyancing. I appeal to the new Minister, who will be reforming and is already proactive, to look seriously at that option.

Those are the main points. It is good that we are embracing the IT age with the legislation.

Photo of Mary Seery KearneyMary Seery Kearney (Fine Gael)
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I welcome the Minister. I congratulate her on the changes which the Bill brings in. They are creatures of necessity. While they are temporary, I look forward to them modernising how we conduct the business of justice in the State. Many of the measures are welcome and long overdue.

I particularly welcome the video link and warrant arrangements. They will lend themselves to a more efficient and effective means of conducting matters of justice and may also lead to a diversity of inclusion and to a greater scope of individuals being able to have access to and participate in the courts system.

Albeit a small feature, I welcome the provision for remote meetings of clubs and the filing of documents. I echo Senator Ardagh's question about whether we intend to extend remote hearings to bodies including the Workplace Relations Commission. It appears on reading the Bill that this is the intention. Prior to Covid-19, we had been at a stage where we were seeing the inside of a hearing room reasonably quickly and the system was taking a shorter period of time than ever. Naturally, Covid-19 has caused a delay which is a matter of concern. I hope this Bill will alleviate that and we can work back towards where we were.

The modernisation of the oath and the use of a statement of truth also allows for equality and really represents that our society includes persons of all faiths and none. It is reasonable that we respect that. I echo everything that has been said on facilitating e-conveyancing.

Finally, as the Minister for Justice and Equality is present I raise the fatal shooting yesterday. There has been a call to consider bringing in something along the lines of a police campaign like Operation Cherry Orchard. The ordinary decent people deserve to be safe on their streets and they deserve to be safe as their children play on their greens. I would appreciate a strong statement of support from the Minister to the wonderful and proud people and families in Ballyfermot. I ask the Minister to use her office to empower them and support them in their lives.

Photo of Victor BoyhanVictor Boyhan (Independent)
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This has been a very positive debate. I welcome the Minister to the House and wish her well in what will be a difficult and challenging task. I have no doubt that the people who made the choices knew of her ability and record. I wish her well in what will be difficult times ahead. Having looked at the Bill and listened to the contributions to the debate, I welcome the legislation before the House. While it is a minor step, it is progressive and it marks the beginning of the modernisation of the justice system. There are issues, and we must always be careful when we change systems, but the administration of justice is important and there must always be equal access to it. I welcome the first and initial steps towards the modernisation of the application of the justice system under the Minister. I also welcome the appointments of temporary coroners in certain and exceptional circumstances set out in the Bill.I know the importance of the video links. As somebody who has served on various prison authorities, I know the practical difficulties that can arise, particularly with Covid-19. There was mention of Covid-19 and prisons and I take this opportunity to acknowledge the work done in this respect. It did not just happen overnight and there was a long lead-in to dealing with infectious diseases and health concerns. Our prison staff, throughout the system, put processes in place long before Covid-19 had been heard of. It is an amazing example of how the Prison Service came together, dealt with the matter and prepared for eventualities like Covid-19. I acknowledge that work.

Of course, there have been difficulties and the Minister is aware of them. For example, people get temporary release on special grounds, and such cases present challenges to the Minister and the prison system. These are exceptional times and circumstances and the processes are being used correctly. I do not detect that this pandemic is being used against prisoners. There is a public health matter at the heart of this. I know this because people have contacted me because the Minister has ultimately had to refuse cases of possible temporary release, even for a day, in special family circumstances. The Covid-19 virus affects the logic of this. I acknowledge the difficulty it has placed on the Minister and the governors of the various prisons. We must also consider the complexities of justice and all that goes with it.

This is the beginning of a modernisation process and I generally support it. I will wrap up on that point as I will speak to section 1 on a later Stage. I do not know if the Minister has considered the amendments or if we will hear from her later. I am interested in her considered response to the amendments before the House.

Photo of Mark DalyMark Daly (Fianna Fail)
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Before asking the Minister to reply, I apologise again. I believe we held her up the previous time she was in the Seanad, when we met in the Convention Centre. Members were so eloquent in their contributions, the debate went on for over an hour.

Photo of Rónán MullenRónán Mullen (Independent)
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There were celebrations on that occasion.

Photo of Mark DalyMark Daly (Fianna Fail)
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I thank the Minister for coming in this time and I have asked Members to stick to their time. Whereas everybody wants progress with this legislation, not everybody wants change. On this occasion we have seen great progress.

Photo of Helen McEnteeHelen McEntee (Meath East, Fine Gael)
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I will not hold it against the Cathaoirleach.

I sincerely thank all Senators for their support of this legislation, which is genuinely appreciated. This is the first Bill I have brought through the Houses and I am under no illusion it will always be the case that the legislation will pass as quickly, but I appreciate Senators' support in that regard. I take on board the points that have been made that it is not ideal how quickly this is being passed and that we have bypassed earlier stages. I have asked for that and we are debating the Bill now so it can be enacted before the Dáil and Seanad break later this week. It is being done so the Bill can be enacted as quickly as possible.

Many, if not all, the measures identified in the legislation were highlighted following extensive engagement with the legal profession, the Judiciary, the Attorney General and many others. This was to ensure we can allow them to go about their business in an orderly fashion and that where delays or blockages exist, they can be released. These measures are intended, in both the short and longer term, to help the modernisation of our courts system, and this is something all Senators would agree on and support.

I refer to Senator Ó Donnghaile's amendment and the focus on the sunset clause. There will be many opportunities in the coming weeks and months to address these matters. There will be legislation dealing with miscellaneous provisions in civil and criminal law, as well as the criminal procedure Bill. There will be other opportunities where we will be able to discuss and address many more issues that will undoubtedly need to be raised.

Many, if not all, of these measures are required very quickly because of issues arising resulting from the Covid-19 pandemic. They will also be used in the longer term. For example, I have spoken before about the provisions concerning the remote hearing of civil proceedings. These had already been developed following detailed discussions with the Courts Service, so they have not appeared in recent weeks or even since the onset of Covid-19. The e-filing and statement of truth provisions were highlighted as part of the external Courts Service organisational capability review that was carried out in the context of the Civil Service renewal plan completed in 2018.This is a long-standing request.

The admissibility of business records element is based on the Law Reform Commission recommendations from 2016, as many have mentioned. Video links have been recommended for some time and this part is also welcome, not just for the support such a process could provide during the Covid-19 pandemic but in general. The measures in the section dealing with greater flexibility in times and dates of the District Court have been thought through and there has been significant engagement in the process from the Judiciary and legal profession. Many of those elements have been sought for some time.

I fully understand where the Senator is coming from in asking for the sunset clause but I am sure this is not the only legislation on which I will engage with him. We will cover many areas across the civil and criminal sectors and will have the opportunity to deal with them later.

I will touch on some other matters that have been raised. Senators mentioned concerns about video links. This legislation does not prevent video links being used during a trial as well as before and after but they will not go ahead either before or after unless a strict range of conditions are met and there are safeguards in that respect in the Bill.

A question was raised on the instances in which measures relating to coroners may be introduced. We do not want to talk about the potential of a second wave of the virus or something else coming down the line. However, we cannot allow it to happen that we would be caught unaware. We have seen how in a second our life can change and we need to be able to adapt. This is simply putting in place a measure should a second wave emerge or something else happen that would require additional coroners and support to be put in place. In the Dublin district, as a result of the backlog and a lack of additional support, there are timelines of up to two years before people can get a coroner's report. We do not want that to be replicated anywhere else. These are extremely welcome measures and I thank Senators for their support in this regard.

A number of Senators mentioned the Stardust fire inquest. I join the condolences to the family of Ms. Christine Keegan, who was instrumental in advocating not just for her two daughters but many other victims of Stardust. This is an absolute priority for us as a Government. After the appointment of Dr. Myra Cullinane, senior coroner for Dublin, who will hold the fresh inquest, the challenge that has arisen since the appointment is not a lack of engagement or the provision of services but, unfortunately, the onset of Covid-19. The space identified for use with this inquest was not suitable under the new health restrictions so we are currently engaging with the Office of Public Works to ensure the process can progress as quickly as possible. I can give Senators assurances in that regard.

I thank Senators for their points on admissibility of evidence. As has been mentioned, this will save costs and give both sides a fair hearing, but it will not prevent a person at any stage from challenging this evidence. A presumption of admissibility does not amount to the presumption that records are correct. It is important to say there are a number of safeguards in the provision of this Bill. Most important and in particular, it is open to the court in its own motion to exclude business records evidence in the evidence of justice. I accept some of the points being raised but this at no stage should prevent anybody from questioning records being brought through this process at any stage.

I very much support the potential use of remote hearings for votes on councils if women are on maternity leave. It is something we should look at progressing. There is an ability for Ministers to designate bodies, such as the Workplace Relations Commission, that could come under this piece. It is not intended for use just with the likes of the GAA, which is also important.

We tried to initiate through the July stimulus a package of €5 million to coincide with the passing of this legislation to allow for changes to deal with the backlog in the Courts Service in the coming months.Substantial funding has been allocated to Hammond Lane, which will replace Dolphin House, as has been mentioned. I will take the other points raised, such as that on e-conveyancing, on board. Hopefully, we will be able to include measures in future legislation to help all of us in the development of this important modernisation of our court system.

Question put and agreed to.

Photo of Mark DalyMark Daly (Fianna Fail)
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When is it proposed to take Committee Stage?

Photo of Mark DalyMark Daly (Fianna Fail)
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Is that agreed? Agreed.