THE courts do not operate in a vacuum; their work is a reflection of a society, a state or an economy. Each year, changes in society impact on the courts in many ways – on how they are managed. In 2012, there were several matters worth noting for policymakers and administrators. At the same time, the courts became leaner, more cost-effective and efficient.
Although company-related debt matters, which lead to winding-up petitions before the courts, and Commercial Court cases are both down by 13pc, it is noticeable that there is a 50pc increase in orders to restrict company directors and a three-and-a-half-fold increase (350pc) in the number of company directors disqualified.
Ethics in the boardroom and in the governance of enterprises, rather than a constant eye on the needs of the shareholders, are the way forward to building trust in our economic sector: to build trust in Ireland as a place to do business.
Knowing what is the right thing to do in a situation and then doing it comes from exercising self-awareness, personal integrity and often no small amount of courage.
Personal codes of honour that embody respect and transparency are not 19th-Century, antiquated values. They are displayed by people in all walks of life today in Ireland.
The business community has a critical role to play in the restoration of the economy, in leading us out of this fiscal crisis.
Boards of directors hold a privileged position of trust, and are relied upon, primarily by the company and shareholders, but also employees, customers, suppliers and the public at large. We rely on boards of directors to do the right thing.
A trail of devastation winds its way into our courts daily. Ireland's judiciary hears at first hand the consequences of the boom and bust each day in court. The financial crisis has uncovered malpractices, and it is important now that we put a greater emphasis on business ethics.
Ethics, like justice, should withstand external influences.
In other changes, when one looks at the District Court summary matters, it shows almost 60pc were road traffic related. Perhaps consideration should be given to alternatives to the automatic inclusion of those who do not pay fines in the court system?
Indeed, the Courts Service has many times offered the Road Safety Authority and the Department of Transport ideas for keeping people out of the courts system, including adding unpaid and uncontested fines to road tax bills.
There was a general 14pc reduction in more minor criminal matters on 2011. Specifically, there was a 10pc drop in more minor drug offences, a 22pc drop in public-order and less serious assaults, and a one-third drop in drink-driving orders (41pc decrease over two years). There was also a 30pc reduction in juvenile crime.
We might well stop and wonder why there was such a drop in these high-visibility and high-nuisance criminal activities. Is this related to the effects of greater emigration or a lessened population of young people? Are intervention and awareness programmes working? Are the sanctions of the courts taking effect?
Whatever the answers to the above, they show that our courts mirror an ever-changing society, and how flexible and creative the Courts Service and the judiciary are. We need to be responsive, so as to streamline services between areas: as unexpected, and often unexplained, increases and decreases emerge year by year and across decades.
My colleagues in the Courts Service staff and among the judiciary have not been wanting in their efforts and responses to all the changes and caseloads presented to them by a changing Ireland.
The net effect of changes in organisation, efficient use of resources, lower rates of new cases in some areas, and the efforts of staff and judiciary, means a shortening of waiting times. Some court lists are now experiencing the shortest waiting times in a decade. Cases are being dealt with in more than 22,000 sittings of the courts annually.
Our annual report illustrates that the Courts Service has met the challenges of these difficult fiscal times and delivered exemplary public service in 2012 – for many millions of euro less per annum than when we were established in 1999.
Mrs Justice Denham is Chief Justice of Ireland