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Saturday 16 December 2017

Chief Justice: Referendum is invitation to help courts work better

Chief Justice Mrs Susan Denham
Chief Justice Mrs Susan Denham

THE Chief Justice, Susan Denham, has said the upcoming referendum on the setting up of a Court of Appeal is an invitation for citizens to enable the superior courts to work better.

In a speech just a week before the country will vote on the proposed new court, Judge Denham outlined how the current system was creating long delays in cases being heard at the Supreme Court.

The current situation was “indefensible and unsustainable”, she said.

The referendum proposes a new Court of Appeal, which would greatly lessen the caseload of the Supreme Court and allow it to concentrate more on cases of national importance.

Judge Denham said she didn’t want to intervene in how people will vote, given the separation of powers between the judiciary and the legislature.

However, speaking at the opening of court offices in Limerick, she said it was incumbent on her to “set out the context” within which people will make their decision.

“Many cases heard by the Supreme Court at present, while of importance to the individual litigants, do not raise important questions of law and constitutional law, nor do they involve a matter of general public importance”, she said.

“If we have a Court of Appeal it would hear the routine appeal cases, and the Supreme Court could focus exclusively on cases which raise matters of general public importance, or where it is in the interests of justice to be heard by the Supreme Court”.

The Chief Justice said that in 2012 there was a 21pc increase in the number of appeals filed in the Supreme Court, with 605 new cases filed. Already, this year there have been over 400 cases appealed to the Supreme Court.

“Such numbers have caused delays in the Supreme Court, delays of a magnitude which are a real difficulty at present - with cases waiting four and a half years for a hearing,” she said.

Judge Denham quoted from new research which indicates the Supreme Court is now ten times busier than in 1937 when the Constitution was drawn up. The Court of Criminal Appeal is seven times busier.

“Our Supreme Court now up to three times as busy as that in the USA, Canada and UK,” she said.

Judge Denham continued: “Yet the Court is getting through more cases than ever. In 2011, the Court disposed of 190 appeals with orders and written judgments. In 2012 this increased to 258.

“To emphasise just how busy we are, we can contrast this with the nine judge Supreme Court in Washington which gave judgments in 64 cases in 2012, or the twelve judge Supreme Court in London which gave judgments in 77 cases, and the nine judge Supreme Court in Ottawa which gave judgments in 83 cases. Yet the simple number of cases we receive means the backlog continues.

“This is an indefensible and unsustainable situation. Times have changed radically since 1937. Behind all of the statistics there are human stories of people with real legal difficulties waiting to be resolved.”

The Chief Justice, who chaired the Working Group on a Court of Appeal, whose recommendations prompted the referendum, said our Supreme Court was different to many others.

“There is a constitutional right to appeal from the High Court to the Supreme Court in most cases. There is no other Civil Appeal Court.  There is no filtering system. Thus we have both cases of national importance under constitutional law, and cases of importance to individuals but not of national importance,” she said.

“The unique role of the Supreme Court of Ireland under the Constitution is much more than a court of error securing justice for litigants.

“The main function of a Supreme Court is to interpret the Constitution and to explain what it means to the people in its judgments, which vindicate rights, uphold responsibilities and clarifies the law.

“The court’s focus must be broader as it guides and shapes the development of our laws, and guarantees equal justice to all.”

Shane Phelan, Public Affairs Editor

Irish Independent

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