A chronic backlog in Supreme Court appeals could expose the Exchequer to multi-million damages claims in the European courts, it was warned last night.
The wait for a Supreme Court appeal has dramatically increased from just four months in 2002 to more than two years, according to figures obtained by the Irish Independent.
The six-fold increase in waiting times is leading to losses for companies and individuals, which could lead to lawsuits on the grounds of excessive delay.
Lawyers also fear that parties embroiled in disputes are abusing the Supreme Court appeal process to force early compensation settlements and frustrate or delay the outcome of cases.
Hundreds of litigants in Ireland, including corporations; divorcing couples, asylum seekers and accident victims, have been forced into a legal limbo as they must wait up to two-and-a-half years to have their cases heard by the Supreme Court.
The extraordinary increase in judicial review cases (challenges to the acts of State bodies), family law disputes and general commercial activity in the courts has led to an unwieldy workload for the Supreme Court, which critics say is operating on an "accelerating treadmill".
Under Article 6 of the European Convention of Human Rights, people coming before the courts have the right to a public hearing within a reasonable time, and excessive delays now comprise the vast majority of violations ruled on by the Strasbourg-based court.
The delays, which underscore the urgent need for a new permanent Court of Appeal to fast-track disputes, could leave the State liable for damages.
"If the State is competing for business on the world stage, it is imperative that that it is perceived to be a jurisdiction that has speedy resolutions in the judicial process," said Des Ryan a barrister and law lecturer at Trinity College, Dublin.
"Unreasonable delays in the system could render Ireland liable for damages under international law. The European Court of Justice has stressed the significance and importance of ensuring that disputes are not subject to excessive delays and, in that context, there is potential for a claim to be made by an individual who can prove that they have suffered as a result of inordinate delays."
Waiting times for the Supreme Court peaked in 1995, when litigants faced delays of up to five years. This was reduced to four months in 2002, following the establishment of the Courts Service, which supports the judiciary.
The Supreme Court, which is meant to hear only cases of Constitutional significance or matters of public importance, is hearing less than half the cases referred to it each year.
Figures obtained by the Irish Independent reveal that of 484 cases appealed to the Supreme Court in 2006 (2007 figures are not yet available), only 202 were actually heard, leaving 282 litigants on a waiting list.
The chronic backlog has led to renewed calls for a permanent Court of Appeal and a ban on an automatic right of appeal to the Supreme Court. But the creation of a new appeal court could require a constitutional referendum.
"The current situation is unsustainable and could lead to a denial of justice," said Ken Murphy, Director General of the Law Society and member of a committee examining the establishment of a new court of appeal.
"The need for change is self-evident and a separate court of civil appeal is likely to produce a deeper quality of justice and be the final piece of the jigsaw in terms of reform of the courts."