On 4 March, on the historic occasion of the Supreme Court sitting at NUI Galway, the Chief Justice launched the Court’s inaugural annual report which describes its work and in particular the work done by the Court in 2018. The report seeks to give the public a greater understanding of the Court’s functions, both inside and outside the courtroom, and its role in upholding the constitution and the law.
Highlights of the Annual Report 2018
The report focuses on a number of key areas including: the work and role of the Court since the establishment of its new jurisdiction in 2014; numbers and statistics for 2018 which indicate an increase in appeals and a decrease in waiting times; and new developments in procedures including the recently updated Rules and Practice Direction and the recently launched eFiling pilot scheme.
Evolving work of the Supreme Court
The passing of the 33rd amendment of the Constitution and the establishment of the Court of Appeal in October 2014 has transformed the jurisdiction of the Supreme Court, refining its role to the hearing of cases that have been determined to be of general public importance or where the interests of justice require it. The Court is engaged in an evolving process of explaining the principles relating to the new jurisdiction as was demonstrated in BS v DPP which confirmed that the Court “is no longer a court for the correction of error but rather a court which has the principle constitutional task of determining issues of general importance”.
A practice has also developed, in the case of new jurisdiction appeals, for the Chief Justice to nominate a case management judge from the Supreme Court bench, and the new Rules and Practice Direction have expressly provided for this practice. According to the report the efficiency of the appeal process is aided by the case management process as it allows a case management judge to clarify what is expected of the parties prior to hearing and to apprise colleagues of how the hearing will be conducted.
The report provides summaries of the Court’s major judgments in 2018 and it is envisaged that future annual reports will continue this, providing a useful reference tool.
Statistics for 2018
2018 was a busy year for the Court which determined 157 of 193 applications for leave to appeal, disposed of 128 appeals, and delivered 91 reserved judgments. 50 of the published determinations involved leapfrog appeals (appeals bypassing the Court of Appeal), 12 of which were granted. In order to assist the Court of Appeal, the Court also disposed of 42 cases that were returned, having previously been sent to the Court of Appeal for determination.
New appeals to the court rose by 10 per cent in 2018, on top of an 18 per cent increase in 2017, indicating a steady increase in the number of appeals in recent years.
The report heralds a dramatic drop in waiting times for appeals from between five and seven years in 2014 to an average of one year for the Supreme Court and two years for the Court of Appeal in 2018. The report also confirms that the Court has now disposed of nearly the entire backlog of legacy cases, save for a small number which cannot be dealt with yet due to certain procedural issues.
New procedural developments
The revised Rules and Practice Direction which came into force in January 2019 was the culmination of the work of the Supreme Court Procedures Review Committee in 2018. The new rules (a revised Order 58) stipulates the documents required to be filed by the parties in applications for leave and corresponding respondent notices. In addition, new measures have been introduced to make the conduct of case management and oral hearings more efficient. The new practice direction complements the revised rules and provides practical details for parties in ensuring compliance with the new rules.
Another innovative development highlighted by the Chief Justice in his foreword is the recently launched eFiling system for filing applications for leave to appeal. The scheme, which will eventually become mandatory, is expected to make the work of the Court more effective and efficient.
The report provides a vivid picture of the work of the Supreme Court and its evolving role in the courts’ structure in this jurisdiction. The dramatic reduction in waiting times confirms the success of the new jurisdiction and this is to be welcomed as promoting and ensuring access to justice. It is expected that the recently commenced revised Rules and Practice Direction, as well as the recently launched eFiling system will further streamline the appeals system and improve efficiency.
The Chief Justice in his foreword noted that a looming Brexit will present unique challenges as well as opportunities for the courts in 2019. Pointing to the Supreme Court’s membership of ten European and international networks, he observed that the Court would be able to meet any such challenges head on. In circumstances where we are seeking to promote Ireland as a leading centre globally for international legal services post-Brexit, a well-functioning appeal system is imperative and the stellar progress of the Supreme Court in the last year will greatly assist this end.