Applications for domestic violence protections rose by 12% last year and was part of the “increased pressures” on family life during the pandemic, according to the Court Service.
Launching its annual report for 2020 on Wednesday lunchtime, the Courts Service said there had been an ongoing surge in such cases, jumping by 65% in the last five years.
The Courts Service report also reveals a 15% increase in new serious crime cases before the higher courts, including a 66% hike in organised crime and terrorism cases.
The number of less serious crimes in the district courts fell, apart from drug offences, which rose.
Personal injury cases were down in terms of numbers and awards, with a “remarkable” drop in personal finance and property possession cases.
Launching the report, Chief Justice Frank Clarke said 2020 was a “truly unprecedented year”, with radical changes in the operation of courts caused by pandemic restrictions.
The report showed there were 13,000 video-links between prisons and courts in 2020, compared to 3,800 links the previous year.
It said this helped keep Covid-19 infections among prisoners, staff and court users out of court venues. The report added that there were no recorded Covid-19 transmissions in the courts last year.
Mr Justice Clarke, who due to retire this October, said while many areas of the courts had avoided any build-up of cases, he said they had developed in certain sections.
He warned that there were “potentially significant numbers of cases out there” yet to hit the courts because of the pandemic.
In total, the courts received 580,000 new cases in 2020, down from 677,000 in 2019. Last year, these broke down into almost 163,000 civil cases (233,000 in 2019) and 416,000 criminal matters (445,000).
Data on criminal cases reveal:
- A 6% drop in the district court (406,480 in 2019 to 382,455 in 2020);
- A 15% rise overall in serious crime cases before the Circuit Criminal Court, the Central Criminal Court and the Special Criminal Court (18,539 to 21,322);
- A 66% rise in organised crime and terrorism cases before the non-jury Special Criminal Court (70 to 116).
The report said while there was an overall reduction in caseload in district courts, that drug cases were up 16% to almost 39,000.
It said this continued a trend over the years, with a 66% jump in district court drug matters in the last four years.
The report said the Circuit Criminal Courts received 18,275 new serious cases last year – an increase of 11% on the 16,487 in 2019.
This is up from 13,974 such cases in 2016 – an increase in serious crime of 31% over four years.
The Central Criminal Curt held trials in relation to 20 murder/attempted murder cases, and 265 trials in relation to rape/attempted rape charges.
On the civil side, new personal injury cases filed were down 19% from 22,000 in 2019 to 17,810 in 2020.
There was an €8m drop in the total amount of awards at High Court level and a €5m reduction (-22%) in the Circuit Civil Court.
Likewise, there was a 23% decrease in Garda compensation claims.
The Courts Service said there was a “remarkable drop” in new personal finance-related cases, which it said could be due to Government or institutional policy and guidance of not pursuing certain actions, or the downturn in legal activity in general.
It said it could also be linked with the marked increase in savings and non-spending.
But it said a rise in such actions was expected after restrictions are lifted.
The report documented a 73% drop in new property possession cases.
Court orders to execute possession orders dropped from the 220 granted in 2019 to 70 last year – a two thirds reduction.
The Courts Service said the effects of lockdown for extended periods did not decrease the availability of the family law courts – which remained open and were part of the “We are Still Here” campaign of the wider justice community.
But it added: “However, there is evidence that there were increased pressures or pressure points on family life throughout the pandemic requirements to stay at home, stay local, with the adjacent home schooling, home working, and home isolation that unemployment caused.”
It said there was a 29% increase in new applications for divorce with a one quarter increase in wives seeking divorce in the Circuit Court.
There was a 12% rise in domestic violence protections sought in 2020, with a 27% increase in childcare orders sought to protect the interest and safety of vulnerable children.
The Courts Service noted that over the past five years there has been a 65% increase in the number of domestic violence applications sought from the courts – increasing from 13,941 to 22,970 in that period.