The District Court is to begin dealing with disputes over unpaid maintenance and breaches of child access orders which have arisen since Covid-19 restrictions came into force.
The move is part of a series of measures announced by judges and the Courts Service today in what is being seen as the first step in partially reopening the courts.
As part of this, screens will be provided for judges, staff and witnesses, along with floor markings and two metre distancing signage.
Chief Justice Frank Clarke said such measures may well have to continue until the second half of next year.
Court business has, largely speaking, been pared back to urgent matters and ongoing trials in recent weeks, with huge swathes of cases being adjourned due to fears about the potential transmission of the virus in court buildings.
But with work underway to improve remote hearings and to allow more physical hearings while complying with Government guidance, the presidents of the District and High Courts have decided to expand the categories of cases which can be heard from May 18.
While domestic violence cases were deemed a priority after the lockdown, maintenance and child access were not and, as such, it has not been possible to secure hearings on these matters.
The Legal Aid Board and legal advice charities have reported an upsurge in calls relating to both issues in recent weeks, suggesting a significant pent up demand for hearings.
In a statement, the President of the District Court, Judge Colin Daly, extended urgent matters to include maintenance and child access.
Also deemed urgent from May 18 are prosecutions for alleged breaches of domestic violence orders during the lockdown and the hearing of cases where there are garda witnesses only.
The judge has also included attendance for the service of books of evidence and sending forward for trial on indictment, sentencing where a guilty plea is indicated, and resuming and concluding part-heard cases in the “urgent” category.
However, all District Court civil matters will continue to be considered non-urgent for the time being and will be adjourned generally.
The High Court is also set to expand the types of cases it will deal with from May 18.
The court has been dealing with habeas corpus, wardship, injunctions and their enforcement, and urgent applications for judicial review.
But the president of the court, Mr Justice Peter Kelly, has now also authorised the hearing of corporate and personal insolvency matters, judicial review applications, non-contentious probate cases, all family law applications, commercial list cases, chancery list cases, non-jury list cases and Criminal Asset Bureau cases.
Mr Justice Kelly said three courts will be available for remote hearings daily and seven other courts in the Four Courts complex will be available for physical hearings.
Priority will be given to cases which were listed for hearing and had to be adjourned because of the emergency.
However, the judge said that for the time being it will not be possible to hear cases which involve oral testimony.
Meanwhile, Chief Justice Frank Clarke said work was continuing to among the judiciary and the staff of the Courts Service to increase the number of cases which can be heard.
“This will involve both improvements designed to enhance remote hearings in cases for which such hearings are suitable but also physical and organisational changes designed to permit a greater volume of cases to be conducted in physical courtrooms while complying strictly with all government guidance,” he said.
Mr Justice Clarke said “outstanding efforts” had been made by the Courts Service and the judiciary to ensure the continuance of access to justice in urgent cases and to develop new ways of conducting business so the greatest number of cases possible could be progressed.
The Chief Justice went on to say that measures being put in place in the courts may well be in play until the second half of 2021.
“Important as they are, [the measures] will not allow a throughput of cases on the scale which operated prior to restrictions being put in place,” he said.
“It remains unrealistic to anticipate that all courtrooms in all courthouses will be able to operate at or near the level which existed prior to the crisis".
Speaking about remote hearings, he said the experience to date was that cases have taken longer than in a courtroom setting and that there has been a reduction in some of the often robust debate between counsel and the court.
He said he hoped a new procedure, which involves a “statement of case” being made in advance of hearings, would minimise the extent to which hearings become longer.
He said the change in the manner of exchange between the court and counsel was “less than optimal” but, in the court’s judgment from its experience so far, was “nonetheless satisfactory”.
“Provided that remains the case it is, therefore, hoped that it will be possible to keep the Supreme Court up to date in its hearing for as long as restrictions last,” he said.