Tuesday 23 July 2019

'Unduly complex' laws threatening major developments in Ireland - Chief Justice

Chief Justice Mr Frank Clarke. Picture: Collins
Chief Justice Mr Frank Clarke. Picture: Collins

Shae Phelan

Ireland’s top judge has warned major developments are being held up due to “unclear and unduly complex” environmental legislation.

The comments by Chief Justice Frank Clarke come just months after Apple’s decision to abandon a proposed €850m data centre in Athenry, Co Galway, a project beset by three years of planning delays.

Speaking at the launch of the Courts Service’s annual report, Mr Justice Clarke said that as long as legislators in Leinster House and Europe produce unclear and complex legislation, there “will undoubtedly be arguments which will go beyond the unstateable or the trivial and which will take a lot of effort to resolve”.

He added: “As long as that remains the case – especially in the area of environmental and planning laws – then projects are going to be held up.”

The Chief Justice said his comments were not based on a complaint that the policy behind any particular piece of legislation was wrong.

“That is not a judge’s business. It is a cry for clearer legislation which will make the resolution of litigation easier and therefore quicker,” he said.

Although Mr Justice Clarke didn’t cite the case specifically, the Apple data centre is the most recent high-profile example of a major project to be derailed by planning delays.

Apple announced plans for the centre in February 2015 to cater for Apple Music, App Store, Messages, Maps and Siri customers in Europe.

The project was going to generate 300 jobs during construction and 100 permanent jobs once completed.

Although planning was granted by Galway County Council in September 2015, a series of appeals by some local residents saw the case wind its way to the Supreme Court, which agreed last May to hear an appeal.

Apple announced the same month it would no longer be proceeding with the project.

By contrast, a similar data centre in Denmark is now up and running, having been announced around the same time as the proposed facility for Athenry.

Mr Justice Clarke said that if there are political demands to speed up the resolution of cases, the solution lay more with the legislative side that with the courts.

He said, “a significant part of the solution” lay in “the production of clear and well worked out legislation both at the European and national level”.

Speaking about the Courts Service annual report, Mr Justice Clarke said that although statistics can never tell the full story of the work of the courts, they can offer a broad stroke vista of levels of activity.

At High Court and Circuit Court level, he said there were increases in defamation and personal injury cases, and slight decreases in divorce and judicial separation applications.

At District Court level there was a slight increase in applications under domestic violence legislation.

“These increases and decreases might well reflect changes in the law, or in the environment in which we conduct commerce or organised society,” he said.

The report reveals awards totalling €206m in personal injury cases last year, up from €168m in 2016.

The highest personal injury award was €15m and the lowest was €500.

The bulk of the awards related to just 50 medical negligence cases, where awards totalled €99m.

Figures elsewhere in the report appear to reflect an increase in economic activity and a slowdown in cases relating to the enforcement of debt.

There was a 23pc increase in new Commercial Court cases, up from 157 in 2016 to 193 last year.

Self-declared bankruptcies decreased by a fifth, down from 559 in 2016 to 454 last year, while there was an increase in people availing of personal insolvency legislation.

Personal insolvency applications jumped 12pc last year, going from 2,114 to 2,385.

Summonses for non-payment of marked debt fell by over a quarter last year and have fallen by 45pc since 2015.

The report shows a 52pc decrease in new possession cases between 2014 and 2017.

Possession orders fell by 19pc in the Circuit Court last year, down to 878 from 1,088.

There were no applications to disqualify company directors, down from 47 such applications in 2016.

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