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Supreme Court hearings to be broadcast before the end of the year as part of pilot project

The Chief Justice has said it will not be an “elaborately produced service” but will be “the best technical solution that we can offer”.

SUPREME COURT HEARINGS are set to be broadcast before the end of the year as part of a pilot project.

The decision was announced by the Chief Justice of Ireland, Donal O’Donnell, during a commemorative ceremony to mark the 100-year anniversary of the establishment of the Irish courts. 

The Minister for Justice Helen McEntee, Garda Commissioner Drew Harris, the President of the Court of Justice of the European Union Koen Lenaerts and the President of the European Court of Human Rights Síofra O’Leary were also in attendance at the commemoration. 

Speaking at the event, Chief Justice O’Donnell said there have been “very recent” technological developments in the Supreme Court, including a new website which goes live today. 

“We have also agreed, in principle, to run a pilot project commencing before the end of this year to consistently broadcast hearings in the Supreme Court,” he said.

He clarified that this will not be an “elaborately produced service”, as the resources of the Supreme Court and the Courts Service do not allow for the production of “a full state of the art video service” such as is available in other countries. 

“We are therefore working on the best technical solution that we can offer,” he continued.

“However, if the position is that the Supreme Court hears legal argument on issues of general public importance, my colleagues and I consider that arguments in such cases should be as widely available to the public as possible.”

Chief Justice O’Donnell said he feels there is a clear distinction between this type of hearing and hearings in other courts, particularly trial courts. He does not anticipate “that there would be, or should be” televising or streaming of proceedings in other courts.

“We will engage with interested parties in advance of any proceedings being broadcast and will review the pilot project in light of the experience and feedback gained.”

Four Courts ‘beyond bursting point’

The Chief Justice also spoke about the difficulties of working in the Four Courts building due to the number of people who now work in it, which can lead to “inefficiency”. 

He said that one hundred years ago, the building was in ruins, and upon its restoration in 1932, it housed nine judges of the Supreme Court and High Court, along with a few Circuit and District Court judges and ancillary offices and staff. 

“The building is now required to hold nearly fifty judges, with a vastly increased demand on courtroom space, increased workload and requirement for ancillary support staff who are scattered throughout the building and some adjoining buildings,” he said.

He said the working conditions and supports “fall well below what would be taken for granted in even a medium size law firm”.

This leads to “inefficiency, loss of momentum, and an inability of judges and the team that supports the courts being able to collaborate in a way that the business of the courts requires”.

“This building is now beyond bursting point and I hope it will be possible to identify a
suitable premises to house a modern administrative office and a judicial office system
for the 21st century, while preserving this building for its core historic function of
hearing cases.”

Justice O’Donnell pointed out that “it is unusual in the modern world that a Supreme Court is not located in a dedicated building”.

There are advantages and pleasures to working in such an historic building, but doing so should not come at a sacrifice to support, facilities or efficiency.

“This building will always be an important symbol for the administration of justice in Ireland. In my view, it should continue to be the place where the cases of most public importance are heard and decided in a calm, respectful, dignified and historic environment.

“But, just as in 1924, we have to make it work in a modern world.”

Changes needed

Chief Justice O’Donnell said the Courts Service must look at what parts of the system are “essential to a functioning legal system” in a modern State, and what parts should be adapted, changed, or improved.

He said at the core of any legal system in modern society is an independent mechanism for the resolution of disputes in public in as efficient a way as possible, using relevant expertise and maintaining respect of the dignity of everyone involved.

“No one looking around the world today should take that for granted or think that it is easy to achieve or, once achieved, can be easily maintained.

An independent court system needs to be reinforced and defended from challenges, whether violent and strident, or subtle and insidious.

He said that the idea that justice could be delivered by simply appointing judges and having them sit with a pencil and paper in ageing courthouses like “relics of a colonial era” dealing with an increasing, complex workload with outdated resources must be “jettisoned”. 

Last year, a report by the Judicial Planning Working Group (JPWG), which was established in 2021, recognised that Ireland has the lowest number of judges per capita in Europe.

Among its 54 recommendations, it called for the appointment of 44 judges before the end of 2024, and that additional judicial positions should be determined by a review in 2025 of the need for more judges up to 2028.

It also recommended a review and restructuring of the way in which the courts do business, a more planned approach to judicial appointments, and appropriate and enhanced resources to support the judiciary.

“I am very happy to acknowledge that the report has been accepted by the Government and the first tranche of judges have been appointed,” Chief Justice O’Donnell said. 

Administration of justice ‘should not be taken for granted’

He said that addressing backlogs created by the Covid-19 pandemic and reducing historic backlogs more generally is “only part of what is required”. 

He said the Court Services should be looking to improve the conditions in which justice is administered in every courtroom in the next century.

“It is not simply a question of the number of cases disposed of – it is a question of how they are disposed of.

“That involves giving judges the time, space and resources to carry out their function in the best way possible, which in turn allows justice to be administered in an efficient way that is respectful of the dignity of the parties involved.”

He said he hopes that the experience of the Judicial Planning Working Group can represent a step change in the approach to relationships between the courts and the other branches of government.

“The independence of the judiciary does not mean the isolation of the judiciary and should not mean the neglect, even if benign, of the court system.

The administration of justice performs a vital role in a modern state based on the rule of law – a model which is under increasing threat and which we should not take for granted.

He said we all have a shared interest in the delivery of an efficient court system, which requires transparent and robust structures for engagement which respect and reinforce the separation of powers.

Courts have ‘reshaped Irish society’

Justice Minister Helen McEntee told the event that the court system has “significantly reshaped Irish society, our democracy, and our place in the world” over the last century.

NO REPRO FEE Court Centenary-6 Justice Minister Helen McEntee speaking at an event to mark Ireland's Courts centenary in the Four Courts. Photocall Ireland Photocall Ireland

She mentioned a number of notable cases, including the X case “that ultimately brought us to the thirty-sixth amendment of the Constitution in 2018”.

“There is no doubt that cases like these and many others, have served to strengthen and uphold the public’s strong trust in Ireland’s independent judiciary,” she said.

McEntee also said that she was “deeply conscious”of the essential service provided by the courts to the people of Ireland.

“Every day over the last century, our courts at every level and the people who work in them have profoundly shaped the lives of all our people.”

Court of Justice of the European Union President Koen Lenaerts told those gathered at the event that he was honoured to be present to “celebrate a key moment in Irish legal history”.

He also pointed to the fact that 2024 also marks just over 50 years of Irish EU membership.

“For half of a century, Irish courts, in cooperation with the Court of Justice, have played a vital role in guaranteeing that in the interpretation and application of the EU Treaties in Ireland, the law is observed,” Lenaerts said.

To date, Irish courts have made over 150 references, many of which have contributed tremendously to the development of EU law.

“Not only have Irish courts taken the initiative in referring questions that have fundamentally shaped how the Court interprets EU law, they have laid down the ‘foundation stone’ for new lines of case law, they have asked the Court to reconsider its existing case law and have not shied away to call upon the courts in times of crisis.”

Lenaerts concluded his remarks by describing the dialogue between Irish courts and the Court of Justice as “a shining example of European integration moving forward through law and in keeping with the rule of law”.

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