The Irish legal system needs an intermediate appeal court in order to ease the burden on the Supreme Court and to transform the efficiency and effectiveness of the courts, according to an influential working group.
The Supreme Court is now overloaded and “unsustainable”.
A working group, chaired by Supreme Court judge Mrs Justice Susan Denham, found that 229 cases were heard by the Irish Supreme Court in 2007 compared to 82 in Britain, 74 in America, 66 in Australia and 27 in New Zealand. The group also found that in 2008 the length of time to get a case to the Supreme Court was 30 months.
This is due to the Irish legal system’s automatic right to appeal from the High Court to the Supreme Court and the fact that, unlike other countries with similar legal systems, Ireland has no intermediate court of appeal.
“Delays create confusion and costs and are bad for business,” the group says. It adds that waiting times of 30 months can cause uncertainty for business and government and “leaves others unsure about the law and unable to organise their affairs.”
It warns that the current system poses serious consequences to the economy, infrastructure, international obligations and Irish society.
The group of judges, legal and government representatives, who wrote the report, have called for a referendum on a new intermediate court that would act as a final court of appeal for all civil cases, unless they involve cases of major public or constitutional importance.
Justice Minister Dermot Ahern is currently “examining” the recommendations “with a view to identifying an implementation approach which could minimise additional costs.”
Major changes in Ireland’s population, economic activity and demographic diversity have had “important implications” for the Irish legal system and have resulted in “significant expansion” in litigation, the group states.
The number of written decisions of the High Court has more than doubled from 2000 to 2005 and in 2007 there was a 26 per cent increase on 2006 in cases commenced in the High Court.
This increased caseload is down to the fact that the number of High Courts from which decisions could be appealed to the Supreme Court rose from seven in 1968 to 36 in 2008.
There have been a number of efficiency initiatives over the years such as: introducing case management in the superior courts, greater use of technology by the High and Supreme Courts, and encouraging resolution of issues outside the courts.
The group points to the success of the Commercial Court which has been very effective in ensuring the speedy resolution of commercial cases at the trial stage because the Commercial Court judge is proactive in case management.
In the Commercial Court, control over the progress of a case rests with the court rather than the parties. The Commercial Court judge has the power to fix time limits, make directions on pleadings and rule on evidential issues to reduce the length of the trial. The judge can also adjourn proceedings to give the parties time to consider alternative dispute resolution, which could potentially lead to the settlement of a case without a full trial.
The working group concludes that “the establishment of a Court of Appeal is a necessary infrastructural reform which would have a transformative effect on the efficiency and effectiveness of the Irish court system.”
The Justice Minister said that it is essential that people can access justice as speedily as possible and claimed that the delays at Supreme Court level “are of concern.”
His officials, in consultation with other departments are currently conducting an examination to devise “a cost effective solution.”
He said that in order to bring about a referendum on the issue, the report must be examined to “ensure that multiple avenues of appeal, which would have a negative impact on costs and delays, do not develop.”