Chief Justice, members of the Judiciary, members of the Board, distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen; I am pleased to be here today to accept the Courts Service Annual Report for 2012. I would like to take this opportunity to compliment the Chief Justice and Chairperson of the Courts Service Board, Judge Denham, and her fellow board members as well as the Chief Executive, Brendan Ryan, and his staff on the service which the courts continue to provide in the current difficult circumstances.
The Government is conscious of the value of providing for an excellent court system and has continued to provide substantial resources to the Service with a supplementary estimate of €5 million provided last year on top of the original net budget of €54.1 million. However, no area is exempt from the financial constraints of the past few years and while funding has been cut in common with every area within the Justice sector, I am glad it has been possible to press ahead with some aspects of the capital programme by way of Public Private Partnership. As you may be aware, the Government Infrastructure Stimulus Package announced last year includes the development of seven county town courthouse projects in Waterford, Wexford, Cork, Limerick, Drogheda, Letterkenny and Mullingar.
The Board has had to take unpalatable decisions to close a number of smaller, non viable venues elsewhere in the country but the continuing investment in the county town venues will facilitate the introduction of more efficient work processes and prisoner transports, allowing the Service and the other criminal justice agencies to continue to provide frontline services with the reduced staffing levels that are essential nowadays.
I note that, following record volumes in 2010 and 2011, last year saw a decline in the overall volume of court business. However, the Annual Report demonstrates clearly that, despite resource constraints, many jurisdictions managed to increase sittings and were busier than ever before, most notably the Supreme Court, which saw the number of appeals lodged increase to 605 while 114 judgments were issued, an increase of 56% over 2011.
The Supreme Court volume was clearly unsustainable and, as you are aware, the Government has responded by providing for an increase by two in the number of Supreme Court judges as well as pressing ahead with the Referendum necessary to establish a Court of Appeal which will be put to the People in the autumn. Waiting times have been tackled in the High Court and streamlined processes introduced to facilitate speedier throughput of cases. I note that extra sittings were also facilitated in the provincial circuit courts to deal with criminal, family law and civil law business. There were also over 1500 extra sittings of the District Court. This approach is an indication of the dedication and flexibility with which the judiciary and Courts Service staff are meeting the current challenges. I consider it appropriate to pay tribute to the Judiciary as a whole and the staff of the Courts Service for the enthusiastic and open way in which they have embraced change and reform – the Government is grateful for their commitment.
The report also shows that there is much work remaining to be done. These issues are being addressed both by the Government, within its responsibility, in putting in place the necessary legislative and Constitutional framework to facilitate reforms and by the Judiciary within its area of responsibility in the management and scheduling of cases. This cooperation is ongoing and I am pleased to note that several recommendations brought forward by the Working Group on Efficiencies in the Criminal Justice System, established jointly by the Chief Justice and myself, have already been implemented. It is this spirit of cooperation that will allow us to continue to achieve the necessary reforms. Indeed, the Judiciary and the Courts Service are involved in a number of cross agency collaborative projects, not least the very successful initiative in Dolphin House, where clients are offered an alternative to a courts determined outcome through, in the first instance, offering mediation information to persons who have made contact with the Courts Service with a view to issuing proceedings in relation to access, custody or guardianship matters. A formal mediation process is then offered to parties willing to engage who can also avail of on-site advice from the Legal Aid Board. The net annualised saving from the initiative comes to over €113,000 largely from the overall savings to the courts as a consequence of such cases being re-directed. To date there have been over 500 mediated agreements resulting from the process.
This initiative, which is also available in Cork and Naas, together with the Efficiencies Working Group are successful models of collaborative work in the sector and I am glad to see the Judiciary and the Courts Service at the heart of these projects.
Other developments are planned. I already mentioned the Court of Appeal and the Government will tomorrow publish the necessary Amendment Bill which I intend to progress through the Oireachtas during the coming weeks. This proposal originated in the report of the Working Group on a Court of Appeal chaired by the Chief Justice and the final text of the Amendment has been developed by the Attorney General and my Department in consultation with the Judiciary, to whom I am very grateful.
A very interesting and productive conference was held on Saturday last to discuss the proposed new structures for Family Courts and we will now take forward what has been learned from that process. My intention is that a Referendum to establish a new Family Court will be held in the course of 2014. Another milestone this year in terms of reform is the establishment of the Insolvency Service of Ireland and, clearly, the work of that organisation will also have a significant impact on the courts system.
I know my officials are grateful for the expert assistance of many people throughout the Courts Service in dealing with this complex, but sadly necessary, legislation. The necessary measures are being put in place and the new Specialist Judges of the Circuit Court will be sworn in next week to allow for the efficient operation of the new insolvency options. Again, Chief Justice, I thank you for the Report and I wish you and the Service continued success.