In recent years, the Supreme Court has had a heavy backlog of appeals from the High Court. The system of appeals from the High Court resulted in delays of up to four years before Supreme Court appeals would be heard. Even priority cases were delayed by as much as 12 months. For this reason, the Court of Appeal was established on 28 October 2014 pursuant to the Court of Appeal Act 2014. The Rules of the Superior Courts (“RSC”) have also been amended to provide for the Court of Appeal. The Court of Appeal will sit in the former Public Records Office in the Four Courts complex, which has been adapted for the purpose.
The Court of Appeal is responsible for hearing all appeals from the High Court, both civil and criminal. As well as taking over the appellate jurisdiction of the Supreme Court, it takes over the jurisdiction of the Court of Criminal Appeal, which is being abolished. The Supreme Court can still hear appeals, directly from both the High Court and the Court of Appeal, but only where the Supreme Court is satisfied that the appeal involves an issue of general public importance or that it is in the interests of justice that the appeal be heard before the Supreme Court.
If an applicant wishes to appeal a decision directly from the High Court to the Supreme Court, the Supreme Court must be satisfied that exceptional circumstances justify the direct appeal. While the Supreme Court has jurisdiction to override its previous decisions, the Court of Appeal will not be able to revisit the decisions of the Supreme Court prior to its enactment. This may restrict the decision making of the Court of Appeal, even though it otherwise assumes the Supreme Court’s appellate function.
The Court of Appeal will have a dedicated panel of up to ten judges. Justice Seán Ryan has been appointed as the President of the Court of Appeal. Six other judges have also been appointed (Justice Peter Kelly, Justice Michael Peart, Justice Mary Irvine, Justice Mary Finlay Geoghegan, Justice George Birmingham and Justice Gerard Hogan). Three places remain for additional judges to be appointed.
The Court of Appeal will ordinarily sit in divisions of three judges. The President, or any judge nominated by the President may hear an appeal sitting alone if it is in the interests of justice and it is necessary for the determination of the appeal in a just, expeditious manner, likely to reduce costs. The Court of Appeal may also draw upon judges of the High Court and Supreme Court to assist in hearing appeals, where due to volume of cases, illness or any other reason, the Court of Appeal has an insufficient number of judges to deal with the caseload before it.
Cases that have been partly heard in the High Court by judges who are due to form part of the Court of Appeal, shall be continued by those judges and judgments will be delivered. Cases that are currently before the Supreme Court, but whose hearing has not yet commenced, can be transferred by the direction of the Chief Justice to the Court of Appeal, if they have not been previously heard before the Court of Criminal Appeal. The first of these directions was issued on 29 October 2014, with 250 cases being transferred. Cases can also be transferred from the Supreme Court to the Court of Appeal on the application of any of the parties to an appeal, though the procedure for this application has not yet been set out in law.
The RSC give a greater insight into how the Court of Appeal will operate. There will be two types of appeals, namely (i) expedited appeals and (ii) ordinary appeals. An expedited appeal is only available in cases relating to certain matters, such as an appeal to the making or refusal of an interlocutory order or an appeal against the refusal of ex parte order, and has much shorter timeframes for the progression of the appeal. The RSC also provide that a directions hearing will form a central part of appeals to the Court of Appeal, encouraging parties to progress their cases. This will mean the Court of Appeal will operate in a similar manner to the Commercial Court.
The introduction of the Court of Appeal should significantly reduce the waiting times for appeals from the High Court. The Court of Appeal began hearing civil cases on 12 November 2014, largely dealing with cases transferred from the Supreme Court. It is due to begin hearing new appeals from December 2014.