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'The High Court restaurant has been a sanctuary for people left waiting days for a judge, until now'

The restaurant has been a place to take time out and get away from the maelstrom until it closed this week, writes Stuart Gilhooly.

Stuart Gilhooly

THE FOUR COURTS is at once historical, intimidating and magical. If you brought a knife you could slice through the tension like butter.

Most people have never been to court and would have been more than happy to die wondering. If you happen to arrive in the Four Courts as a client, it’s rarely because it was on your bucket list of things to do. Usually it involves a dispute, whether that be over a serious injury negligently caused, a contract dispute, a row over a will or any number of other matters that people feel very aggrieved about and only lawyers can fix.

A litigant will arrive with any number of emotions. Hope, apprehension, sadness and pain are among the many we encounter as we happen upon the wide-eyed client. But the overwhelming majority have one thing in common. Terror. Movies and courtroom dramas have a lot to answer for but the whole historic scene, the uncertainties of litigation and often the stakes at play lead to sleepless nights before the big day.

In fairness to the court system, the judiciary and my friends at the Bar, it has a come long way even since the day I started in the 90s. Gone are the crusty senior counsel who would float by without as much as a greeting and the crotchety judge who would paralyze experienced lawyers with a cutting remark or even an impenetrable stare. They have been replaced by modern, friendly lawyers who are taught from their first year to put the client at ease and try make the process as painless as possible.

The problem is that perception is hard to shift and the reality is that for all the efforts we make to reduce the tension, courtrooms are not pleasant places. Most lawyers I know would rather have root canal than get into a witness-box. Very few of my clients have ever said they enjoyed the experience.

However, as our Taoiseach has recently said about the Ruth Morrissey case currently before the courts, some cases have to run. It is a constitutional imperative that all parties have the right to take their case to court and while it is always better to settle, this is sometimes impossible.

‘Waiting hours, sometimes days’

Another issue we have faced as long as I am practising law is a shortage of judges and courtrooms. The result is that added to the tension and the fear of the actual court itself is the wait. The long hours of wondering. The nervous chatter with the designated family member or friend brought for moral support.

Facilities in the Four Courts are sparse. There is little in the way of seating in what is, let us not forget, a very old building. Often very little happens until a judge comes free. This could be hours, sometimes days. That is where the restaurant, a mainstay of the Four Courts for 40 years, has been a sanctuary. A place to take time out and get away from the maelstrom.

Until now, that is. The Four Courts restaurant closed this week. It traditionally closes for the two month-long vacation but this time, it’s not coming back. As to whose fault it is, that’s anyone guess. You’d see less buck passing at a relay race. The Office of Public Works (OPW) who own the space say it is up to the Court Service who apparently want the area for administration space. The Court Service have said it is the OPW’s property. Aramark the current proprietors have said nothing which seems surprising. The Minister for Justice (rightly) says that it’s not his call but surely he can bring his influence to bear.

The Morrissey and Phelan cases are just a small example of the human tragedies to pass every day through our courts system. Those of us who seek justice for our clients do our best to put them at ease but sometimes we are the last people they want to talk to.

While the Courts Service could undoubtedly do with the extra room, the human cost far outstrips any short-term gain. The decision, whoever is making it, needs to be reversed and soon. Now is the time to show we really have moved into the 21st century, not just legally and technically but emotionally too.

Stuart Gilhooly is a litigation solicitor with H J Ward & Co, Solicitors and the immediate Past President of the Law Society of Ireland.

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Stuart Gilhooly

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