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Sunday 16 June 2019

Chief Justice lashes out at 'dreadful conditions' in family law courts

Mr Justice Frank Clarke Photo: Colin O’Riordan
Mr Justice Frank Clarke Photo: Colin O’Riordan
Shane Phelan

Shane Phelan

Family law courts in Dublin are being operated in “dreadful conditions”, the Chief Justice has said.

Mr Justice Frank Clarke also warned that the Four Courts, where the Supreme Court, Court of Appeal, High Court and some Circuit Court sittings occur is "beyond breaking point" due to capacity issues.

He made the comments in a significant and wide-ranging speech at the Burren Law School on Sunday.

The remarks will bring pressure on the Government to sort out an impasse over funding for a proposed new complex to house the Dublin Children’s Court and the Supreme Court.

The proposed complex at Hammond Lane, close to the Four Courts, would cost €140m under plans put forward by the Courts Service. However, it has stalled as the Department of Justice has only pledged funding of €80m.

Responding to the Chief Justice’s remarks, Justice Minister Charlie Flanagan showed no sign he was willing to increase the funding on offer.

In a statement, his spokesperson said the minister was "extremely anxious" to progress with Hammond Lane and "hopes to see a proposal that falls within the €80m allocation as soon as possible".

The Chief Justice said "the principal reason" Hammond Lane was "of particular importance stems from the dreadful conditions in which family law litigation is conducted at present in Dublin".

He said the Dolphin House complex, which is currently being used, "provides wholly unsuitable facilities for what are inevitably difficult and delicate cases".

The Chief Justice said many of the other premises currently used for family law in Dublin were not much better.

He said the Hammond Lane project was ready to go to planning but there was "undoubtedly a problem with funding".

Mr Justice Clarke also said the Four Courts was "beyond breaking point".

He said there would be little point in appointing more judges and better back-up if there is nowhere to put them or no courtrooms for them to sit in.

"Part of the whole point of relocating the Supreme Court to a purpose built, although relatively small, part of the new development was that it would free up space in the Four Courts without which many desirable improvements in the civil justice system in Dublin cannot take place," he said.

Mr Justice Clarke said he understood the difficulties the Government has in meeting funding requirements across a range of departments.

"I appreciate that there is no bottomless pit of money available," he said.

"However, Hammond Lane is, as they say, shovel-ready subject to planning and planning is ready to go once funding is in place.

"It is not the kind of building which can be constructed in phases and it would be a complete waste of a valuable state resource, in the shape of a large site adjacent to the Four Courts in state ownership, for it not to be developed to the maximum extent permissible under planning parameters.

"I can only hope that a solution to the funding problem will be found and found quickly."

Mr Justice Clarke warned that the longer the impasse continued, the more costly the project is likely to be.

"Construction inflation continues at a rate far higher than ordinary inflation. The longer this takes, the larger the funding problem is likely to get," he said.

Mr Justice Clarke also used the speech to call for root and branch changes to how the judiciary is supported and educated, an increase in the number of judges, and an overhaul of IT systems in the courts.

He made the case for "a greatly enhanced judicial skills programme".

Mr Justice Clarke said he had commissioned a report from Dr Ronán Kennedy of the Law Department of NUI Galway on judicial education.

While this will ultimately fall under the remit of a proposed Judicial Council, legislation allowing for the setting up of the council has yet to be passed.

The Chief Justice said he hoped to persuade the Government to provide funds so a start could be made to implemented the report’s findings on an ad hoc basis.

Arguing for judicial training and education, he said: "The reality is that the days when a judge can simply be expected to be a barrister or solicitor one day and a fully functioning judge the next are long gone.

"The laws are now too complex and too varied for anyone to have a remotely real chance of being familiar with all relevant areas."

Calling for more judges, he said Ireland has the lowest number of judges per capita in Europe, while it is in third last place within the EU in terms of public spending on the court system.

Mr Justice Clarke also said the Courts Service would soon be presenting a comprehensive plan and strategy to Government in relation to IT infrastructure.

"Putting a dysfunctional paper system on line is likely to lead only to a dysfunctional on-line system," he said.

"It is not just a question, therefore, of devising appropriate on-line systems, but also of ensuring that our own systems are best adapted to the IT age so that we get the most out of the technology which is available."

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