THE Chief Justice has issued a warning that the Supreme Court cannot accept any more emergency cases this term because of the "unprecedented" number of appeals and a surge in the number of parties seeking priority hearings.
The rare warning by Mrs Justice Susan Denham, pictured, comes as new figures obtained by the Irish Independent reveal that close to 600 appeals were filed with the Supreme Court last year -- almost double the amount of appeals lodged in 2007.
Delays in the Supreme Court for non-urgent cases are now running at up to four years.
Endemic delays in the courts, in part due to a shortage of judges, have led to chronic backlogs and a series of findings against the Irish Government by the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR).
The Court of Criminal Appeal (CCA) is also struggling to manage its list.
Appeals in the CCA now take up to two years, leading to concerns that some convicted people are being denied an effective right of appeal.
Mrs Justice Denham, who has repeatedly called for the introduction of a Civil Court of Appeal and specialist courts that would alleviate the burden of cases on the Supreme Court, said that there are currently 71 priority appeals before the court.
"Priority will not be accorded to further appeals this term unless it can be clearly demonstrated that it is an exceptional case where there are urgent grounds necessitating a priority hearing," said Mrs Justice Denham, in a notice published on the Courts Service website.
"Such urgent grounds will include appeals directly affecting the custody of an individual, child abduction, urgent family law matters, and appeals with urgent and systemic constitutional implications."
Mrs Justice Denham has, since 2006, argued for a new court of appeal – with a civil and a criminal panel – that would hear appeals other than those raising exceptional or constitutional issues.
This requires a referendum, which the Government has accepted the need for.
Unlike the Supreme Court in the US or the UK, which hear fewer than 100 cases a year, the Irish Supreme Court cannot filter out all but cases of exceptional constitutional and public importance, resulting in a waiting list of up to four years.
Under the European Convention on Human Rights, member states are obliged to ensure that excessive delay does not occur in domestic proceedings.
Ireland is also a signatory to a Council of Europe protocol which states everyone convicted of a criminal offence has the right to have his conviction or sentence reviewed.
Two years ago, Justice Minister Alan Shatter set up an expert group under the chair of Senior Counsel, now High Court judge, Mr Justice Paul McDermott, to consider how court delays might be alleviated.
The management of court business is the exclusive preserve of the judiciary who set up a representative body last year.
Last month the country's High Court judges met in emergency session after Mrs Justice Denham circulated a letter from Mr Shatter inviting the bench to make "adjustments" as part of the extended Croke Park talks.
Many judges fear their salaries and vacations will be targeted to implement cuts of more than €1bn from the public sector pay bill by 2015.