PAC Meeting | November 20, 2014
Brendan Ryan [CEO, Courts Service]; Joyce Duffy [Principal Officer, Courts Policy Division] called and examined.
Deputy John Deasy: I have some brief questions, the first of which has to do with Circuit Court sittings leading to civil Circuit Court sittings. I understand in the past 24 hours nominations have been made for seven vacancies on the Circuit Court.
Mr. Brendan Ryan: Yes.
Deputy John Deasy: If we take my constituency as an example, this month's proposed sitting of the civil Circuit Court was abandoned at the last minute. As far as Waterford generally is concerned, the last civil Circuit Court sitting was in May and the next one will be March. Can Mr. Ryan tell me how many sittings of the civil Circuit Court have been postponed around the country because of the vacancies that have occurred in the past six weeks? I checked with the Garda, and when it comes to criminal Circuit Court sittings, the opinion of one fairly senior garda was that they had not been disrupted, but can Mr. Ryan tell me how many sittings have been disrupted?
Mr. Brendan Ryan: I do not have that information. I know the Waterford position because I got correspondence from one of the legal practitioners in Waterford about it. The Deputy is correct that the eight vacancies in the Circuit Court have had an impact. The president of the court decides on the sittings and who should sit where and the cases.
Deputy John Deasy: I understand that. I am asking about the sittings nationally.
Mr. Brendan Ryan: I will have to get back to the Deputy.
Deputy John Deasy: Mr. Ryan must have some idea. This is what he deals with every day. Were there other sittings-----
Mr. Brendan Ryan: The Deputy can take it that if there are seven vacancies at the moment there could be-----
Deputy John Deasy: There are 40 Circuit Court judges-----
Mr. Brendan Ryan: No. There are 38 Circuit Court judges.
Deputy John Deasy: -----there or thereabouts.
Mr. Brendan Ryan: One of them is on long-term sick leave. We are working off 30 judges at the moment. The president prioritises criminal matters, and after criminal matters it is family law matters.
Deputy John Deasy: I understand all that. I understand the process. Does Mr. Ryan have no idea of the number of sittings that have been postponed because of the vacancies?
Mr. Brendan Ryan: The representations I have got are about Waterford. I have no doubt there have been other cancellations, but I do not have those figures. It depends on the scheduling of cases in any Circuit Court in Ireland. They are scheduled a year in advance. They are scheduled either for criminal court, the civil court or the family court. If most of those scheduled sittings this month were criminal court, the impact on the civil court would be minimal because the judges are still dealing with criminal matters. If the scheduled sittings were for the civil court, as was the case in Waterford, unfortunately, the president has directed that criminal matters have to take priority because, as the Deputy will appreciate, people may be in custody.
Deputy John Deasy: Mr. Ryan cannot answer that question.
Mr. Brendan Ryan: No, unfortunately, but if the Deputy wishes I can come back to him on it.
Deputy John Deasy: No. I believe the issue will be dealt with now that the nominations have been made. I am trying to find out how this occurred procedurally and make the point to the Department that it should not occur again. We are in an unusual situation with the creation of an entirely different court, but at the same time, these things happen on occasion because of retirements, deaths, promotions and elevations of a kind, and always have done. In this particular case, seven vacancies were created as a result of one retirement, one elevation to the Court of Appeal and the elevation to the High Court of five individuals. The Government promoted judges from the High Court to the Court of Appeal and it promoted judges from the Circuit Court to the High Court, but what it did not do was make new appointments to the Circuit Court or the District Court in their places. That occurred in the past 24 hours, but there was a gap.
Mr. Brendan Ryan: There is a gap.
Deputy John Deasy: There is a gap.
Mr. Brendan Ryan: There was a gap, yes. I am not trying to defend the Department of Justice and Equality or the Government, but this was unprecedented. I have worked in the courts since 1981. This was unprecedented.
Deputy John Deasy: That is fine. I know that; I just said that. Even when it comes to civil Circuit Court issues, they are fairly serious.
Mr. Brendan Ryan: Yes.
Deputy John Deasy: When we talk about criminal Circuit Court issues we are talking about very serious crimes.
Mr. Brendan Ryan: Yes.
Deputy John Deasy: When we talk about civil Circuit Court sittings, those are serious issues.
Mr. Brendan Ryan: Yes.
"If seven principals of primary schools were being promoted from the ranks there would not be vacancies for the positions they left because teachers would be in place..."
Deputy John Deasy: If seven principals of primary schools were being promoted from the ranks there would not be vacancies for the positions they left because teachers would be in place. Yet when it comes to this area, it appears to be acceptable. It is a political process. I know it should not be, and it is something this Government probably has fallen down on when it comes to judicial appointments. In our programme for Government we promised that we would look at this, and I believe it is a failing. People such as Mrs. Justice Susan Denham have commented that it is a miracle our Judiciary has maintained its independence so well considering it is so political.
That aside, what we can do at the very least - I understand this is not Mr. Ryan's role - is to have a reasonable transition when something like this occurs to ensure there are no gaps and that sittings are not postponed.
I know Ms Duffy does not set policy, but she deals with it within the Department of Justice and Equality. I can raise this with the Minister, but it is a simple question. The suggestion I am making and that I will make to the Minister - I am raising it with Mr. Ryan now because he is the person dealing with policy in the Department when it comes to the courts - is that when this occurs, the appointments to the Circuit Court and the District Court should happen at the same time. They should happen in tandem or, at the very least, within a specified period. That is a simple suggestion.
Mr. Ryan makes a good case about the Courts Service's efficiency and talked about a 16% reduction in its staff. Some would state it is too efficient, while plenty of communities nationwide would suggest it has stripped down courthouses and so on. The service has done a good job in cutting costs and, at the very least, it is possible to have sittings take place. While one part of the Government system may be working well, another is not and has failed in providing judges to preside over sittings in the Circuit Court.
This is something that could be rectified easily. I do not know whether the witnesses have a comment to make on this. I again acknowledge to Ms Duffy that I am aware departmental officials do not set policy. I do not know whether this issue has been raised in the past, but it appears to be a reasonable suggestion that when something like this occurs - retirements and deaths take place all the time - this could happen in tandem.
Ms Joyce Duffy: I am certainly happy to take back the Deputy's comments to the Minister who probably will make the point that she has moved speedily to appoint judges and assist in the process of appointing them. In the past four to six weeks she has brought a series of memorandums to the Government on appointing ten judges to the Court of Appeal, the subsequent replacements to the High Court and, this week, on appointments to the Circuit Court. As Mr. Ryan stated, this has been unprecedented.
This is the first new court jurisdiction established since 1961. It has been a long time since we went through such a major change to the system. As for the nominations to the Circuit Court announced by the Government yesterday, the process was completed in as speedy a manner as possible. As the Deputy is aware, names are submitted via the Judicial Appointments Advisory Board which conducts its process. The Government then has its part to play in evaluating the names and considering serving judges for the position. However, I appreciate that there has been a consequence, of which the Minister will certainly be made aware.
Deputy John Deasy: I take Ms Duffy's point. The situation was unusual. I received a reply to a parliamentary question on this matter a few days ago and what has happened in the past couple of days is miraculous, considering that the last line of the reply indicated that the Government would be dealing with the matter in the coming weeks.
What role does Mr. Ryan play when something like this occurs? Obviously, the presidents of the different courts have a major role to play in this regard, but as far as rostering is concerned, the issue about court sittings taking place on Monday afternoons or Fridays has come up repeatedly. Is this something in which the Courts Service gets involved in any way, shape or form?
Mr. Brendan Ryan: No, it is entirely a matter for the presidents of the courts. The Deputy will appreciate that we support sittings as they occur.
Deputy John Deasy: It may be an old jurisprudential cliche, but justice delayed is justice denied. Perhaps Ms Duffy might take the suggestion back to the Minister. While I can raise it directly with her, it is reasonable to avoid such delays because, as Mr. Ryan is aware, practitioners could not believe people had not thought about the gaps that there would be as a result of these appointments or elevations.
Ms Joyce Duffy: Absolutely.