Shake-up at Irish courts

Proposals for a radical shake-up of the Irish courts system have been accepted by Eire's Justice Minister Nora Owen. The proposals are aimed at improving efficiency and reducing trial waiting lists that can stretch up to five years.

The plan has been produced by a working party which has been sitting for several months and is headed by Irish Supreme Court judge Justice Susan Denham. Its main recommendation is the establishment of an independent state agency, the Courts Service, which will take over day-to-day running of the system. The courts are currently run by a number of government departments.

The Courts Service would have a 16-member board made up equally of judges and non-judges, a chief executive officer on a salary of around £75,000 a year, and its own staff. It would have its own budget, including control over revenue such as stamp duty, but would continue to be funded from central government.

The 800 staff currently working in the Irish courts, and employed by eight different authorities, would be transferred to the new agency. In its report to Owen, the working party says that a lack of co-ordination and control is a major factor in the Irish courts' crisis.

It warns that even the appointment of the 12 extra judges planned by Owen, bringing the total strength of the Irish judiciary to over 100, will not be sufficient to remedy current delays and inefficiency. Much more radical reform is needed, the report says.

To underline the scale of the crisis, it gives statistics on the backlog of cases: a five-year waiting list for murder trials, a three-year delay in personal injury cases, an 18-month wait for the hearing of judicial separation applications. These statistics “paint a sorry picture”, says the working party, but the real delays are probably worse than official figures suggest.

The report estimates that it will cost £45 million to bring Irish courthouses up to standard. “The courts process,” it adds, “is currently being conducted by overburdened and poorly organised staff in buildings which are sometimes in a ruinous state of disrepair.”

Owen promised action on the report within weeks. She said that the Irish courts system, virtually unchanged in 70 years, was overdue “a root and branch” overhaul.

Irish Bar Council chair James Nugent, welcoming the report, said he would like to see the chief executive of the proposed service appointed before the start of the next legal term.