Court of Appeal backlog - ‘To delay justice is injustice’

“Justice delayed is justice denied” is a legal maxim which states that legal redress that is not delivered on time is the same as no redress. 

It was most notably used in recent times by Martin Luther King to emphasise that justice for African-Americans had been delayed for far too long.

No doubt, members of the Irish Supreme Court are well aware of the maxim and Latin scholars among them might also be familiar with the similar saying “Iustitiam morari iniustitia est” — “to delay justice is injustice”.

Considering the importance of swift justice, it should consider applying either maxim to an appeal that came before it last March in relation to a drink-driving appeal by a Romanian in a case that has gone all the way from the district court to the Supreme Court.

Delays like this were supposed to be a thing of the past, after the creation of the Court of Appeal. It is almost exactly three years since it was established in Ireland, following a long campaign lead by politicians, lawyers and jurists who argued that it was badly needed to address the huge backlog in appeals to the Supreme Court.

It required a referendum to overcome a constitutional barrier and provide for the setting up of a general appeals court between the High Court and the Supreme Court.

Its most eloquent proponent was former Supreme Court judge Catherine McGuinness who argued that a new court of appeal was “very important” for a fast and fully considered determination of important legal cases.

The Bar Council also called for a yes vote in the Court of Appeal referendum, describing the proposal as “an essential step” to address serious delays in the Supreme Court.

The then chief justice Susan Denham described a four-year backlog at the Supreme Court as an “unsustainable situation” with untold costs for society and the economy — but stopped short of advocating any particular vote.

It had almost universal approval among politicians.

The then minister for justice Alan Shatter said the need arose mainly from a “significant” backlog of cases at the Supreme Court while, in an unusual move, senior figures from Fine Gael, Labour, Fianna Fáil and Sinn Féin issued a joint statement urging voters to approve the proposal to create the new court.

The Court of Appeal came into operation on October 28, 2014 and on that very day the Supreme Court transferred 258 cases to it.

So far, so good — or maybe not. As our report today reveals, district judges are growing weary of adjourning drink driving cases time and again pending a determination on the issue by the Supreme Court. Some are now beginning to strike out cases on the grounds that it is unjust to subject
defendants to such inordinate delay.

They are doing so most likely with great reluctance because it means that the time and expense that has gone into more than 1,000 prosecutions could now be for nothing.

Let us hope this is not a case of “plumbum oscillans”, or “swinging the lead” in the vernacular.


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