SERIOUS delays in Ireland's appeal courts system may be damaging to Irish society and the economy, the country's top judge has warned.
The Chief Justice, Mrs Justice Susan Denham, said without reform cases are taking up to four and a half years to solve and are impacting on Ireland's international obligations. But she insisted any changes planned for the courts must not impinge on the independence of the judiciary.
"The independence of the judiciary is at the core of a democratic state," she said.
The Chief Justice said if any person takes a case against the Government, a minister, State agency, or a powerful institution or a person, a judge will hear the case, determine the facts and apply the law without fear or favour.
"This independence of the judiciary is the right of the people in a democratic state," she added.
The veteran judge was giving a keynote address at a seminar on the establishment of a Court of Appeal in The President's Hall at the Law Society of Ireland.
She said that over the last few decades there has been a huge rise in litigations before the High Court and Supreme Court, which were not designed to cope with the volume and complexity of cases in the 21st century.
In 1968 there were seven High Courts and one Supreme Court, which have soared to 36 High Courts and up to two Supreme Courts, which heard every civil appeal as well as constitutional matters.
The Chief Justice, who backs the establishment of a specialised Court of Appeal, warned speedy resolution of disputes is important in a successful economy.
Mrs Justice Denham said an effective and strong rule of law propels prosperity, boosts foreign investment and lowers unemployment and is an important consideration for business people and investors when deciding to do business in a country.
But she described the level of business and appeals before the courts as overwhelming.
"A failure to address the problems posed by Ireland's appeal court system may be damaging to Irish society and the economy," she said.
"Without reforming the system there will be further delays.
"The current situation in the Supreme Court and the Court of Criminal Appeal is unsustainable, it is untenable, it cannot be defended - an appeal certified as ready now is in danger of not being given a date until mid 2017, effectively a four-and-a-half-year waiting time."
The Supreme Court has 543 cases certified and ready to be heard, with 71 of those on a priority list which still take nine months to resolve.
Justice Minister Alan Shatter described the Chief Justice's recent decision to stop taking new priority cases as instructive.
"Not alone do we have a significant backlog of cases waiting to be heard in the Supreme Court, but we also have a backlog of priority cases - effectively a backlog on top of a backlog," said Mr Shatter.
"This unsatisfactory state of affairs is undoing the progress being made in other areas of the judicial system."
The minister told delegates the Government was still committed to creating a permanent Civil Court of Appeal, as well as amending the constitution to make family courts more efficient and less costly.
Mr Shatter said while the specialised Commercial Court is a great credit, the increase in the volume and complexity of litigation arising from the economic crash and the number of appeals to the Supreme Court just added to the logjam.
"The efficient processing of work in the Commercial Court, while praiseworthy in its own right, is of doubtful value to either the appellant or defendant who may then have to wait several years for the final determination of their proceedings," he said.
The minister warned any new appeal court cannot be a staging post on the road to the Supreme Court, adding that any cases heard there must be the exception otherwise it will be wholly inadequate.
"There is a cost to society in not having an efficient court system," Mr Shatter added.
"Leaving aside the obvious costs faced by the parties directly concerned, there is a cost to our reputation as a developed modern democracy if people can't have their cases litigated without undue delay.
"We all know that this is an issue for foreign multinationals when they are deciding where to invest.
"Countries that have properly functioning efficient and effective legal systems are at a clear advantage over those that don't."