The "Report of the Review of the Administration of Civil Justice" (Report) was published in late 2020. It was the culmination of the work of a review group chaired by the former President of the High Court, Mr Justice Peter Kelly (Group), tasked with reviewing and reforming the administration of civil justice in Ireland. The Report made over 90 recommendations (Recommendations) for reform, including to court procedures and practices.
The "Implementation Plan on Civil Justice Efficiencies and Reform Measures" (Plan), published in May 2022, sets out how these ambitious reforms will be achieved. Implementation of the reforms will be on a phased basis with ongoing progress reports to be submitted to the government each year. Many Recommendations align with the reforms proposed under the Courts Service Modernisation Programme 2020-2030, to achieve better outcomes for court users.
The Recommendations will be implemented across seven key areas, reflecting the major themes from the Report. The Plan purports to execute the following significant actions:
- reform a range of practices and procedures to improve and modernise the civil courts to ensure timelier hearings and reduce delays;
- reform the system of discovery to reduce the cost of litigation, improve procedures and reduce delays;
- introduce primary legislation for the granting of applications for judicial review to enhance the timeliness, efficiency, and cost-effectiveness of the process and to amend the Rules of Court;
- legislate for a comprehensive Multi-party Action (MPA) procedure in Ireland;
- consider and advance measures to reduce litigation costs;
- achieve more effective outcomes for court users, with particular emphasis on vulnerable court users; and
- create a secure digital environment to facilitate e-litigation and to modernise the digital facilities of the Courts.
The Plan includes a provisional timeline for delivery of the reforms, which commenced in the second half of 2021 and runs up to the second half of 2024. These reforms will require a combination of legislation, amendments of the Rules of Court, operational improvements and simplified court forms and procedures to be implemented.
Notwithstanding the proposals for reform of Judicial Review under the Plan, changes to the judicial review of planning decisions have recently been made under the Planning and Development, Maritime and Valuation (Amendment) Act 2022 (2022 Act). These provisions under the 2022 Act, when commenced, will amend the Planning and Development Act 2000 such that:
- the High Court will be required to consider whether an adequate appeal or other administrative remedy is available to an applicant, and that the applicant has exhausted all those alternative avenues, before granting leave;
- if the High Court quashes a decision on a judicial review, it can, on the request of the planning applicant, remit the matter back to the planning authority, the local authority of An Bord Pleanala, for reconsideration.
Legal cost reform
The Report failed to reach a consensus about legal cost reform. The Group was divided on whether to introduce a scale of legal costs or non-binding guidelines. The Department of Justice has commissioned economic research on the options around legal cost controls. This will inform the government's proposals around the reform of legal costs. The Bar Council and Law Society recently commissioned an independent report on the subject, which recommended a non-binding guidelines system in preference to a mandatory scale of legal costs.
The Plan is commendable in its ambitions to improve access to civil justice, reduce court delays, and reform court processes. Implementing reform to the discovery process is particularly welcome. It is proposed that parties should plead their claim with greater particularity, and create a default arrangement where parties produce their documents within a specified time following delivery of their initial pleadings.