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Courts gearing up to expand sittings with new plans to deal with the 'growing backlog of cases'

Chief Justice Frank Clarke said detailed planning is set to progress cases of all types to be heard from late August and through September.

File photo. Four Courts in Dublin.
File photo. Four Courts in Dublin.
Image: Shutterstock/Krzysztof Skalny

MANY OF IRELAND’S courts will sit throughout the traditional summer vacation, as detailed planning is afoot to allow cases of all types to be heard from late August and September onwards. 

Additional premises and/or the greater use of remote court hearings will be considered to help each court progress through its caseload, Supreme Court chief justice Frank Clarke said today. 

Chief Justice Clarke said the measures introduced to allow court sittings to return will necessitate a change to work practices but this is “the price which everyone has to pay for us being able to significantly increase our throughput but to do so in a safe fashion”. 

He added that a “major effort ” is being made to ensure that the types of cases which have not been heard in recent months can return in the near future. 

  • Our colleagues at Noteworthy are proposing to investigate if Covid-19 will force the judicial system into the digital age. See how you can support this project here>

In late March, similarly to other sectors, the Courts Service introduced “unprecedented” measures to cope with the public health guidelines brought in due to Covid-19. This involved increasing the number of video sittings and a move to only hearing “urgent cases” in some circumstances.

Clarke said it was necessary for reasons of public safety to “significantly reduce court sittings” back in March.

He said today: “As the restrictions adopted by government have come to be loosened it has proved possible to increase the number of sittings across all of our courts.  However, the level of business still remains significantly below that which can be conducted in normal times.  

It was necessary for the judiciary and the Courts Service to ensure that any increase in sittings met the government’s return to work protocols although, in reality, the courts were not returning to work for they had never closed.  

The specific detail of how the return to more frequent sittings will work will be different for each court. A statement from each court president will be issued in the near future, along with comments on operation matters from the CEO of the Courts Service and a separate document setting out the position in respect of criminal jury trials.

The need to limit the number of people in courtrooms and court buildings will mean there’s a need for limits on the number of courtrooms that can be used simultaneously, and a limit on the number of cases that can be listed at the same time. 

The District Court is on course to return to a full schedule dealing with urgent matters from 1 September. 

There have been no new criminal jury trials since the first half of March. Such trials will return to the Central Criminal Court later this month and in Circuit Courts across the country from the end of August. 

“However, it is clear that in certain parts of the country existing social distancing requirements mean that the current resources available will not allow for an adequate number of criminal jury trials to take place,” Chief Justice Clarke said.

The Courts Service is actively seeking additional premises in an attempt to solve this problem.  The judiciary and the Courts Service are very mindful of the fact that there is already a growing backlog of cases which were not capable of being heard during the more severe restrictions which were in place to date.  We are considering all possible steps to minimise any further growth in that backlog.  

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The Supreme Court will continue to sit remotely but will consider a full physical hearing where “it considers that the interests of justice so require”. 

Cases given leave to appeal this month should receive a date for hearing before the end of November.

The Court of Appeal continues to hear some cases remotely but it is intended it will sit during September. 

Remote hearings will also be utilised heavily in civil witness actions, and all of the new measures from Court Service will be kept under constant review. 

“The ongoing situation will be closely monitored both in the light of the national picture as it appears from time to time and also having regard to our experiences in managing a significant increase in our throughput,” Clarke said.

“It will require a combined effort from the judiciary, Courts Service staff, legal practitioners and the public generally to ensure that we do not suffer any unnecessary setbacks.”

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Sean Murray

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