Almost three quarter of a million new civil and criminal cases are brought before the Irish courts every year. This statistic, mentioned by outgoing Chief Justice Susan Denham at the launch in late July of the Courts Service’s annual report for 20161, underscores how deeply embedded the courts are in every aspect of Irish society, economy and governance. That report provides fascinating insights on how the courts work, with a unique story sitting behind every new case.
The running costs of the Irish courts fell by 52% between 2008 and 2017. Some of these savings are a good news story, as they arise from use of ICT systems across many court activities (including courtroom digital audio recording and videolink conferencing; data sharing with certain court users; centralised financial transactions and accounting technology for court transactions worth €1.8 billion, and rollout of online filing in certain cases).
However, more of these savings reflect the austerity cutbacks imposed to exit recession. It is a considerable tribute to the judiciary and Courts Service that the inevitable service reductions which followed from ravaged funding were offset by doing considerably more with considerably less. This led to far less public disquiet than for service reductions in other essential areas. It is clear from the report that efficient resource deployment in the courts has reached expert levels. But it is also clear from the report’s statistical analysis that court resources are strained and investment is needed.
An obvious example is people. To handle those 750,000 cases a year at 120 locations across the country, the Courts Service has fewer than 1,000 staff. In 2016 Ireland had just 165 professional judges. Ireland ranked 77th of 94 countries in 2015 for judges per capita, behind Togo and the Dominican Republic2 . The Council of Europe average is 21 professional judges per 100,000 population3 . Ireland’s 3.1 per 100,000 ranks far behind European neighbours Norway (11); Portugal (19) and Slovenia (45). Lack of judges means that cases take longer to be heard, causing avoidable stress and cost to parties. It is more difficult for judges to read documents in advance and hearing time in very busy courts is constrained.
Having enough judges is a prerequisite of access to justice. The statistics make a strong case for more judges in all first instance courts. There is also an overwhelming case for more judges in the Court of Appeal to create an extra permanent panel for civil appeals. The Court of Appeal operates weekly case management lists for civil and criminal appeals to deal with pending cases as efficiently as possible. The court completed 780 appeals in 2016 (6% more than 2015), but it received 924 new appeals. Also, it had 769 legacy appeals4 pending at the end of 2016. While this number fell 15% from 2015, it is clear that the court does not have enough judges to meet its civil caseload on an ongoing basis. This creates a risk of waiting times for appeal hearings growing to unacceptable levels.
Regardless of what further efficiencies, if any, can be driven by technology and optimal resource deployment, time before a judge remains both one of the scarcest and one of the most essential ingredients in the justice system. The maximum number of judges who may be appointed to each court is set by legislation. It is time for legislators to consider adding judges where court statistics clearly prove they are needed.