The Chief Justice has warned cases could be put back to 2021 if there is not an “immediate” increase in the number of judges on the Court of Appeal bench.
Frank Clarke, speaking ahead of the beginning of the new courts term next week, said that the promised additional six judges for the Court of Appeal are badly needed in order to prevent a backlog of cases from re-emerging.
“The immediate need for an increase in judicial numbers in the Court of Appeal has long been identified and accepted,” Judge Clarke said. While he said that the “speed” with which the Oireachtas had approved legislation in order to increase the number of justices on the bench from 10 to 16 was “very much welcomed”, he argued that if a return to backlogs was to be prevented then those judges need to be appointed urgently.
“ As soon as that legislation was passed, the President of the Court of Appeal acted immediately to make arrangements to bring forward the likely hearing date of those cases which, under the existing regime, could not be accommodated until well into 2021,” he said, adding that many of those formerly backlogged cases have now been given provisional dates over the next four months.
If judges are not appointed by next Tuesday, Judge Clarke said it is his “understanding” that the President of the Court of Appeal, Justice George Birmingham, would “have to make arrangements on Tuesday next to remove from the early list those cases which had been promised a speedy hearing”.
Judge Clarke said that even appointing the six new judges to the Court of Appeal would itself cause “knock-on problems” for the High Court, since a “significant” number of those new justices will likely be promoted from that civil court.
“I had hoped that much of these measures could have been completed while the courts were in recess so that any disruption would be minimised. However, that is no longer now possible,” Judge Clarke said.
He added that the situation would have to be “managed” by allowing those promoted judges to work in both courts until their successors can be appointed, or by simply leaving the High Court short of numbers.
“Either eventuality is going to lead to legitimate disappointment on the part of litigants who expected their cases to be heard,” he said. “But the current problems were avoidable, if timely appointments had been made. I would ask that there now be no further delay and that the appointments to the Court of Appeal are made at the earliest possible time.”
Judge Clarke also spoke of the creation of a prospective Judicial Council, which he said would require a “resourced and well planned phasing in period”.
He said that the new council, which is designed to “promote excellence and high standards of conduct by judges”, together with the planned “radical” overhaul of the Courts Service’s IT portals, offer a “generational chance to modernise how the public and practitioners interact with the courts”.