Speech of the Chief Justice Mrs Justice Susan Denham at the Presentation of the Annual Report of the Courts Service
Minister, members of the Judiciary, CEO, colleagues and guests,
As years go, 2011, was a busy and at times challenging one for the Courts Service. As with other front line services, people needed and continued to seek access to the courts - to justice and a remedy. The lack of buoyancy in the world economy and the vastly reduced resources for all public services has not reduced this right of access to the courts.
In a time where every aspect of public service has been asked to do more and spend less - our reorganising of court sittings and reallocating staff have ensured that court sittings continue to be scheduled throughout the country with no short notice cancellations.
At the same time there have been changes in the areas where the Courts Service is busy and where we need to focus resources. These remain under constant review.
Changes are highlighted in this annual report for 2011, across the entirety of the Courts System - as are our responses and plans to deal with them.
In the criminal courts, there were increases in rape cases, theft, fraud and robbery cases and simultaneous decreases in murder, drugs and road traffic cases.
In the civil courts, there were increases across all jurisdictions, in applications relating to the recovery of debt though - notably - there were decreases in applications for possession in the High Court and applications for committal regarding debt in the District Court. These decreases might well reflect changes in the law.
Absorbing a lions share
In dealing with such change we are also dealing with what might well be said to be a lion’s share of austerity and the paring back of budgets; For example the non pay elements of our budget has decreased by 28% since 2008.
This is compared to 19.5% for the next closest agency in the Justice family and compared to the 2.6% average for all Justice Agencies.
It could be argued that the Courts are dealing with a disproportionate cut in non pay funding relative to other Justice Agencies.
At the same time as these severe cuts there has been a cumulative increase of 29% of court matters since 2005.
Staff cuts of over 11% have seen the number of cases per staff member increase from 580 to 797 - a 37% increase in productivity in the handling of case numbers.
We have also seen an increase in court fees raised by 148% in less than ten years. The downturn in economic activity will see levels of fees challenged, if not reduced in the coming year.
When we come to assess funding needs for future years it should be noted that the combination of previous cuts and the inherent savings achieved by the Courts Service sees reduction in non capital spending of 38% since 2008.
The fact that we have managed to keep core business operating effectively is testimony to the effectiveness of the budgetary process in keeping costs to a minimum and the impact of a wide range of efficiency and cost saving measures introduced. Of course it has been come at a cost as well, particularly in areas such as Courthouse Maintenance, where work has had to be deferred.
The Courts Service is drawing up a contingency plan aimed at achieving the savings that could be required in 2013 and 2014. It is not expected that further savings of any magnitude can be achieved without impacting on court sittings.
How we have changed is a testament to the dedication of the staff of the Service to the provision of world class public service.
As Chief Justice and the chair of the Board of the Courts Service I am very proud to point out pointed out that the Courts Service and Judiciary are very pro active in accommodating changes to cope with our str aitened times.
Judicial and administrative responses
The Supreme Court introduced a number of list management initiatives to address the delay in the hearing of cases and the delivery of judgments. These included the categorisation of appeals where common issues of law arose, and the sitting of the Court in two divisions.
The President of the High Court scheduled additional sittings of the High Court, with the voluntary assistance of High Court Judges, during September 2011. This resulted in the disposal of over 300 additional common law matters. That and the allocation of an extra judge from the following month on helped reduce the waiting time for motions for judgment from 20 weeks to nine weeks.
The High Court also assumed the hearing of Notices of Motion seeking an order for discovery, previously dealt with by the Master of the High Court. This measure reduced the waiting time in the Master’s Court from 26 weeks to eight weeks.
The President of the Circuit Court assigned extra judges to deal with criminal cases in 13 provincial venues - thus reducing waiting times in those areas, and bringing justice in a timely manner.
The President of the District Court scheduled additional sittings in Dublin in August and September to further reduce waiting times. She also facilitated the extension of the catchment area of the Drug Treatment Court - allowing for more people to avail of its resources to restore them as citizens and to restore them to he community.
The Service has aided the development of the role of the County Registrar, which is designed to take advantage of their legal qualifications and experience. This will enable them perform a wider range of quasi judicial functions to enhance their roles and free up judicial time for trial work. Thus additional adjudicative functions were transferred to county registrars during the year, which also saw the appointment of five county registrars as vice chairs of the Employment Appeals Tribunal.
Court venues across the country continued to be reviewed to ensure that in so far as is possible they meet the standard that court users are entitled to expect and to allow for the best use of time and resources. Twenty venues were amalgamated in 2011 - freeing up judicial and staff time to hear extra cases, allocate specific family law and children’s hearings, and reduce waiting times.
The fact that we are managing to provide a vital public service remains a testament to the "can do" approach, which is a well recognised trait of the Courts Service. This has seen us meet the current challenges and manage the courts so that there is a continued access to law.
Operational change at heart of Courts Service response
Responses to change and less resources not only saw court based responses, but also fundamental changes at the heart of the operation of the Courts Service - in how we organise internally and interact with other agencies and court users. Our CEO Brendan Ryan, concentrated on this aspect of change management in his introduction to this Annual Report.
Referring to the Courts Service Action Plan under the (Croke Park) Public Service Agreement, he pointed to the commitment of the Service to the provision of front line, core court services, and the optimisation of the resources available to us to support the judiciary and court sittings.
From the annual report it is clear that the staff of the Courts Service - as public servants of the state - are a great example of what can be done with a joint effort. Their efforts allow us the space to create new innovative ways of providing more with less. That we do so in such a competent manner is testament to a great group and partnership effort with staff, board, judiciary and the legal professions working to make it happen. To them all I am most grateful for their efforts.
These efforts at reform and savings have seen many successes, such as;
The increased use of technology in the courtroomin 2011 has already produced, and will continue to generate savings not only for the Courts Service but for other agencies and court users including the Irish Prison Service, An Garda Síochána and witnesses.
Digital Audio Recording (DAR) is now the standard method of recording criminal cases and producing transcripts, and it has effectively replaced stenography in the production of court transcripts. By the end of 2011 DAR facilities were available in 184 courtrooms in Dublin and around the country, with work progressing to install facilities in the remaining 70 non-networked District Courts.
Technology is also helping us continue to interact with the public through social media and our successful website, which saw two million visits last year.
In the same way electronic technology has reduced back-office tasks greatly and freed up staff to fill posts in frontline services. A prime example here is that 65% of family law maintenance receipts and 92% of family law maintenance payments were paid electronically in 2011. Over 26% of fines were paid last year using the online payment method.
Nowhere can the use of such technologies be more appreciated than in our Criminal Courts of Justice. The realisation of value and savings by the use of these facilities is further endorsed by our not having to renew the lease on the Richmond Courthouse in Dublin. This and our not leasing two other premises in the capital and our soon to end another lease, sees us achieve real savings for the state as the CCJ proves its worth in terms of accommodation and its ability to accommodate modern approaches to court administration.
The Service continued to participate and be represented on a number of working groups and bodies concerned with the wider reform of aspects of the administration of justice including company law, efficiency of justice, human rights and fundamental freedoms, and medical negligence - as well as making suggestions and proposing amendments to draft legislation.
Over the past few months, I have attended the roll out of combined circuit and district court offices in several counties - a project which started as a pilot in 2011 - and which continues throughout this year. This cuts out duplication of activities, allows more flexibility in opening times and service provision, allows staff access to the wisdom and experience of a wider group of colleagues, and also allows us meet our obligations in relation to family friendly work and attendance policy.
Minister, from witnessing these changes across the country, and from the fact and figures of activity contained in this report, I can assure you the Courts Service is more than doing its part in restructuring the Public Service, in implementing all that has been asked of it and more. In doing so the Service, and its mighty staff, have led the way in absorbing reductions and in moving forward with initiatives at efficiency. I hope in your perusal of this report you are as impressed as I am by such efforts and energy.
I thank you, your Secretary General, and your department for your ongoing support and efforts on our behalf. I present to you the Annual Report of the Courts Service 2011.