Chief Justice Susan Denham said the courts did not work in a vacuum but that their work reflected what was going on in society, the State, and the economy. She said the impact of recent events was now evident in the courts.
“The trail of devastation winds its way into our courts daily. Ireland’s judiciary hear at first hand the consequences of the boom and the bust every day in our courts,” she said.
“The financial crisis has uncovered malpractices, and it is important now that we put a greater emphasis on business ethics. Ethics, like justice, should withstand external influences.”
Ms Justice Denham said the business community had a critical role to play in the restoration of the economy but it was necessary to build trust in Ireland as a place to do business.
“Boards of directors hold a privileged position of trust and are replied upon, primarily by the company and shareholders, but also employees, customers, suppliers, and the public at large. We rely on boards of directors to do the right thing.”
Court action against company directors is still rare, but the Courts Service annual report shows the small number of orders to restrict their activities grew 50% last year, while the number of company directors disqualified increased 350%.
There was an 82% rise in the number of people jailed for non-payment of debt, a 14% increase in ejectment proceedings, typically taken by landlords against tenants who fail to pay their rent, and a 7% rise in orders issued to wind up companies.
Disputes over decisions of the Employment Appeals Tribunal also made their way to the courts in greater numbers, with a 40% rise in appeals and applications for enforcement of orders where employers failed to comply with the tribunal.
Applications for new pub licences increased by 25%, but the number of late-night exemptions — typically required for private parties, festivals, and other special events — was down 11% last year and down 50% on 2005.
Other notable reductions which may have their root in the economic troubles included a 14% drop in “nuisance crimes”, such as minor drug offences and public order offences that are typically associated with late-night socialising.
There was also an unprecedented 33% drop in drink-driving cases and a 30% reduction in juvenile crime.
Ms Denham said these may be a result of public awareness programmes or the deterrent influence of the courts but she also asked: “Is this related to the effects of greater emigration and a lessened population?
“Whatever the answers to the above, they show that our courts mirror an ever-changing society.”
* The courts collectively dealt with a total of 390,801 criminal matters of varying severity last year, involving 159,071 separate defendants.
The vast majority of cases, almost 373,000, were handled in the district court, while 10,597 were dealt with in the circuit court, 867 in the Central Criminal Court and 173 in the Court of Criminal Appeal.
In the Central Criminal Court, murder cases were down 20% to 31, with 30 jury trials held and one defendant found unfit to plead, but rape and sexual assault cases experienced a small rise, from 80 to 83, which makes for a 32% increase in a three-year period.
Trials were held in respect of 33 of the rape and sexual assault cases while guilty pleas were entered in 35 others and charges were dropped in the remaining 12.
Of those that went to trial, 21 resulted in the defendant being acquitted.
In the circuit court, theft and robbery was the largest category of offence, accounting for 3,526 cases or one in three of all criminal cases handled, followed by drug offences (1,925) and assaults (1,163).
In the district court, motoring offences were the most common offence, accounting for 60% of all cases.
Dangerous driving was down 8% and drink-driving was down 32%.
Some 48,284 public order and assault offences were dealt with and 15,858 drug offences.
The number of criminal matters involving juvenile defendants decreased by 29% to 5,769 but 48% of those were struck out or taken into consideration with other offences.
* There were 180,287 civil cases issued in the courts last year, a 3% reduction on the 2011 figure.
The district court handled most of them (119,231), followed by the circuit court (34,993), and the High Court (26,063).
Personal injury and medical negligence accounted for 16,864 cases and a total of €112m was paid out in awards, ranging from just €258 to €11.5m.
The majority of civil cases in the circuit court were about alleged breach of contract — a total of 21,499 cases, accounting for 61% of all cases brought there.
In the district court, the number of applications under the small claims procedure were down 20% to 3,067 which may reflect the decrease in consumer spending.
On family law issues, judicial separations were down 6% last year to 1,280 but divorces were up 4% to 3,482. There were 28 applications for marriages to be annulled and 593 applications for exemption from the requirements under the Civil Registration Act to give three months notice of intention to marry or to allow people under 18 to marry.
There was a 25% increase in the number of cases brought under the Hague Convention on child abduction, from 30 to 37, and a 3% increase to 2,344 in the number of wardship cases handled by the High Court.
Of the 375 people made wards of the court last year, the main reasons were age and mental infirmity (122), intellectual disability (106), psychiatric illness (92), and acquired brain injury (48).
* Applications to district courts under domestic violence legislation rose 19% from 10,652 in 2011 to 12,655 last year, including a 34% increase in applications for safety orders and a 23% rise in applications for protection orders.
There were 1,159 cases of alleged breach of such orders, a breach being a criminal offence, but 530 were struck out or withdrawn before they got to full hearing, usually because the complainant did not wish to give evidence or withdrew their complaint.
Of the 614 cases that proceeded, 119 resulted in individuals being jailed and 115 resulted in a suspended prison sentence, while 11 resulted in community service orders being issued.
The remainder were dismissed (79) or were dealt with by way of the Probation Act (97), a fine (71), a peace bond (21), or a contribution to the court poor box.
A further 86 were “taken into consideration”, usually with other charges; 15 were struck out because the summons was not served on the accused person; and no order was made in 14 cases, usually because of irreconcilably conflicting evidence or a significant change in the circumstances of the people involved.
Some of the increase in numbers last year is believed to be due to a change in the law in 2011 which relaxed the requirement that couples be living together before either party sought an order, allowing separated couples and couples who never lived together but possibly co-parent to use the legislation.