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Courts Service Annual Report 2011

"As years go 2011 was a busy and at times challenging one for the Courts Service. As with other front line public 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" - Mrs. Justice Susan Denham, Chief Justice of Ireland.

Chief Justice Susan Denham said today that "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. As Chief Justice and Chair of the Board of the Courts Service I am very proud to point out that the Courts Service and the judiciary are very pro active in accommodating changes to cope with our straightened times".

"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".

"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 have 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".

In 2011 there were increases in rape cases, and theft/fraud/robbery cases and decreases in murder cases, drugs cases and road traffic cases in the criminal courts. In the civil courts, there were increases across all jurisdictions in applications relating to the recovery of debt though there were decreases in applications for possession in the High Court and applications for committal for non payment of debt, in the District Court. In the family courts there was little change in the numbers applying for judicial separation and divorce - with wives applying for the majority of both. There was a significant reduction in drink driving and other driving offences at District Court level.

Judicial and administrative responses to the resources issue

  • In the Supreme Court a number of list management initiatives were introduced 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 ord er 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 CircuitCourt 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.
  • Additional adjudicative functions were transferred by Statute to county registrars during the year, which also saw the appointment of five county registrars as vice chairs of the Employment Appeals Tribunal.
  • Twenty court 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.

Chief Justice Denham said that "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 continued access to law".

Operational change at heart of Courts Service response

In addition to court based responses, reform was also at the heart of the operation of the Courts Service - in how the Service organises internally and interacts with other agencies and court users.

Brendan Ryan, CEO, said "staff efforts allow us the space to create new innovative ways of providing more with less. We continue to operate in times of great uncertainly and increasing demands. Our success in sustaining the court system in testament to a constructive partnership effort with many people working to make it happen".

Successful efforts at reform and savings

  • The increased use of technology in the courtroom in 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.
  • Our website received over two million visits last year - providing access to an increasing variety of information and facilitating access to a range of online services.
  • Modern technology facilities and improved accommodation are two of the contributing factors to the continued success of the Criminal Court of Justice. The value and savings accruing from this major investment was further endorsed by the Service not having to renew leases on other buildings for court accommodation in Dublin.
  • The Service continued to be proactive in aiding the introduction of new and streamlined ways to improve court processes. Many of the court rules prepared in support of procedural reform initiatives are a product of the monitoring of legislation by the Service.
  • The Service also continued to assess the implications of proposed legislation for court operations by providing input into proposed legislation including schemes of bill, bills, draft statutory instruments and draft legal instruments of the European Union.
  • The Service was represented on a number of external working groups and bodies concerned with the wider reform of aspects of the administration of justice including company law, efficiency of justice, human righ ts and fundamental freedoms, and medical negligence.
  • The Combined Office Project commenced in several counties. It will eliminate duplication of activities, facilitate the maintenance of appropriate front line services, allows more flexibility in opening times, allows staff access to an increased range of expertise and allow the Service meet its obligations in relation to family friendly work and attendance policies.

Statistical highlights 2011

Criminal cases:
  • 39 murder cases in Central Criminal Court - a 7% increase on 2010 and a 26% decease on 2009
  • 80 rape cases in Central Criminal Court - a 27% increase on 2010 and a 63% increase on 2009
  • 414 European Arrest Warrant applications in High Court - a 9% decrease on 2010
  • 32 defendants before the Special Criminal Court - a 52% increase on 2010
  • 50 sentences of 10 years or more  in Circuit Criminal Court - mostly for theft/fraud/robbery cases
  • 481 sentences of between five and ten years  in Circuit Criminal Court - 41% for theft/fraud/robbery cases
  • over 1,800 sentences of between two and five years in Circuit Criminal Court - 44% for theft and robbery offences
  • 59% of summary cases disposed of in District Court relate to road traffic offences
  • Dangerous driving offence orders  in District Court decrease by 7% on 2010 figures and 13% on 2009 figures
  • Drink driving offence orders  in District Court decrease by 12% on 2010 figures and 24% on 2009 figures

Civil cases:
  • 16,060 personal injury actions in the High Court and Circuit Court - a 5% increase on 2010
  • 305 applications to wind up companies in the High Court - a 12% increase on 2010
  • 33 new bankruptcies in High Court - a 13% increase on 2010
  • 634 orders for possession made - 281 in the High Court, a 14% decrease on 2010 and 353 in the Circuit Court, a 15% increase on 2010
  • 7,549 judgment mortgage certificates issued in High Court and Circuit Court - a 16% increase on 2010
  • 21,741 cases for breach of contract and recovery of debt in Circuit Court - a 21% decrease on 2010 - remains the highest category of civil claims at 50%
  • 3,783 judgments for recovery of debt in High Court - a 35%  increase on 2010 and a 70% increase on 2009
  • 4,443 execution (of debt) orders issued in the High Court - a 38% increase on 2010 and a 77% increase on 2009
  • 7,795 judgments registered across all jurisdictions  -  a 42% increase on 2010
  • 1,051 committal orders for non payment of debt in District Court - a decrease of 63% on 2010
  • 1,193 applications for judicial review in High Court - a 24% decrease on 2010 - 59% of applications relate to asylum
  • 1,379 applications for judicial separation - a 3% decrease on 2010 - majority by wives (74% in High Court; 75% in Circuit Court)
  • 3,358 applications for divorce - slight reduction on 2010 - majority by husbands in High Court (54%) and by wives in Circuit Court (54%)
  • 2,287 care orders granted to the Health Service Executive in the District Court - an increase of 119% on 2010