Chief Justice Susan Denham said cases are taking more than four years to resolve and are impacting on Ireland’s international obligations. However, she insisted that any changes planned for the courts must not impinge on the independence of the judiciary.
“The independence of the judiciary is at the core of a democratic state,” she said.
Ms Justice Denham said if any person takes a case against the Government, a minister, a State agency, a powerful institution, or a person, a judge will hear the case, determine the facts, and apply the law without fear or favour.
“This independence of the judiciary is the right of the people in a democratic state,” she added.
She was speaking in a keynote address at a seminar on the establishment of a court of appeal in the President’s Hall at the Law Society of Ireland.
Ms Justice Denham said over the last few decades there has been a huge rise in litigations before the High Court and Supreme Court, which were not designed to cope with the volume and complexity of cases in the 21st century.
In 1968, there were seven High Courts and one Supreme Court. This has risen to 36 High Courts and up to two Supreme Courts, which heard every civil appeal as well as constitutional matters.
The chief justice, who backs the establishment of a specialised court of appeal, warned speedy resolution of disputes is important in a successful economy.
Ms Justice Denham said an effective and strong rule of law propels prosperity, boosts foreign investment, lowers unemployment, and is an important consideration for businesses.
“A failure to address the problems posed by Ireland’s appeal court system may be damaging to Irish society and the economy,” she said.
“Without reforming the system, there will be further delays.
“The current situation in the Supreme Court and the Court of Criminal Appeal is unsustainable, it is untenable ... An appeal certified as ready now is in danger of not being given a date until mid-2017, effectively a four-and-a-half-year waiting time.”
The Supreme Court has 543 cases certified and ready to be heard, with 71 of those on a priority list which still takes nine months to resolve.
Justice Minister Alan Shatter described the chief justice’s recent decision to stop taking new priority cases as instructive.
“Not alone do we have a significant backlog of cases waiting to be heard in the Supreme Court, but we also have a backlog of priority cases — effectively a backlog on top of a backlog,” Mr Shatter said.
“This unsatisfactory state of affairs is undoing the progress being made in other areas of the judicial system.”
He said the Government was still committed to creating a permanent civil court of appeal, as well as amending the Constitution to make family courts more efficient and less costly.