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Address by the Minister for Justice and Equality Frances Fitzgerald, T.D. Publication of the Courts Service Annual Report 2013

Chief Justice, members of the Judiciary, members of the Board, distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen; I am pleased to be here today to accept the Courts Service Annual Report for 2013.

I would like to take this opportunity to compliment the Chief Justice and Chairperson of the Courts Service Board, Judge Denham, and her fellow board members as well as the Chief Executive, Brendan Ryan, and his staff on the service which the courts have continued to provide in challenging circumstances.

The Government is conscious of the value of providing for an excellent court system and has continued to provide substantial resources to the Service with a budget of €104.6million for 2014. I am happy that a sum of €2 million in capital funding has been given to the Courts Service Vote to cover court accommodation and facilities for judges and staff for the new Court of Appeal. As you are aware, the legislation to underpin the establishment of the new Court of Appeal was passed last week by the Oireachtas. The legislation is another step in paving the way for radical and far-reaching changes in our courts system. I am pleased to confirm that the President signed the Court of Appeal Act on 20 July 2014. This is the biggest reform in the organisation of our courts system since the foundation of the State. The establishment of the new Court will be an important step in enhancing access to justice for all our citizens.

It is, of course, worth mentioning that this proposal originated in the report of the Working Group on a Court of Appeal which was chaired by the Chief Justice, Judge Denham who must be commended for her interest in working towards the introduction of necessary improvements and reforms that are essential for a modern and efficient court system.

My Department will, of course, continue to cooperate with the Courts Service to ensure that the necessary arrangements of an implementing nature will be in place to ensure that the Court of Appeal will be operational in October.

You may recall that during 2013 the Government approved the appointment of two additional judges to the Supreme Court and it is worth mentioning that the rate of disposal of cases before the Supreme Court increased by 23% in 2013. The Court of Criminal Appeal also significantly increased its case disposal rate. However, having the legislative framework in place to provide for the establishment of the Court of Appeal and the introduction of the new appellate court structures will allow for continuing improvement in the coming years so that the current unacceptable delays before our Supreme Court can be resolved.

I have mentioned the Government’s commitment to providing for an excellent courts system, however, no area is exempt from the financial constraints of the past few years. While funding of the Courts Service has been reduced in common with every area within the Justice sector, I am glad it has been possible for the Courts Service to continue to provide a high standard of service and continue its modernisation programmes. One important initiative includes the completion of the Combined Court Office projects earlier this year which has resulted in major efficiencies for the Courts Service in the delivery of services.

I recognise that as part of its modernisation programme that the Board has had to take unpalatable decisions to rationalise a number of smaller, non viable venues around the country and these decisions have allowed the Courts Service to continue to provide frontline services with reduced staffing. It is important, however, that all rationalisation decisions receive full and detailed consideration, including consideration of the implications for the wider justice sector and for the citizens who avail of the courts. I know the Courts Service has published proposals for a reorganisation of Dublin District Courts which are attracting considerable interest. I welcome the consultative approach which is being adopted by the Courts Service in dealing with its proposals.

The Courts Service Annual Report 2013 demonstrates clearly that, despite resource constraints, each of the court jurisdictions has been able to support increased court sittings including during the vacation months of August and September. The Supreme Court dealt with ten appeals and four motions during vacation and the Court of Criminal Appeal held nine additional sittings and allocated hearing dates in over 50 cases during September and October. I also note that waiting times in the High Court were reduced with 20 additional weeks of sittings involving 32 judges and with 1,000 orders being made. Also efficiencies were achieved in the Circuit Court with sittings increasing to 888 weeks of sitting which demonstrates a 30% increase since 2011. In 2013 there were over 80 weeks of additional Circuit Court sittings which has resulted in significant reductions in waiting times across several circuits which is to be welcomed. In the District Court, there were also over 500 extra sitting days and 700 out of hours court sittings during 2013. These extra sittings were provided to deal with criminal, family law and civil law business and in my view were a very tangible measure of improving access to justice for citizens.

The Courts Service is also to be congratulated on embracing technology and introducing efficiencies such as the improved use of video conferencing. This has allowed for expert testimony to be provided to the courts from around the world and has also resulted in savings for the Prison Service from the average of 50 court appearances per week by using video links from prisons. Other efficiency measures were introduced such as pre-trial procedures in criminal trials in the Circuit Court. These are examples of the kind of measures that can have benefits across the wider justice sector as well as for citizens.

The introduction of these measures is an indication of the dedication and flexibility with which the judiciary and Courts Service staff are meeting the current challenges. I wish to pay tribute to the Judiciary as a whole and to the staff of the Courts Service for the enthusiastic manner in which they have and continue to embrace change and reform.

While 2013 and this year to date has allowed for the delivery of many improvements, there is still more to do. The Government, within its responsibility, is putting in place the necessary legislative and Constitutional framework to facilitate ongoing reform and the Judiciary within its area of responsibility is delivering results in the management and scheduling of cases. I know that my officials are grateful for the expert assistance of many people throughout the Courts Service and we will continue to cooperate to allow us to continue to achieve the necessary reforms.

Again, Chief Justice, I thank you for the Report and I wish you and the Service continued success.