Our courts and justice system face many challenges arising from increasing levels of demand, the increasing complexity of the work and the consequences of underinvestment over the years. I agree wholeheartedly with the Minister that an independent, impartial and efficient Judiciary and courts are critical to our democracy. In many ways, we are very lucky in this country to have an independent, efficient and impartial Judiciary.
The simple reality is that we do not have enough judges to deal with the demands of our courts. This is leading to long delays in hearings and trials. The recently retired President of the High Court, Ms Justice Mary Irvine, called out the lack of judges and said this was hampering the administration of justice. While still President of the High Court, she asked for 17 extra judges saying this was what was needed for the High Court to run effectively. Unfortunately, at the time she only got five. This call was repeated by the current President of the High Court, Mr. Justice Barniville. This issue is impacting every level of the system, not just the High Court. We must remember that the District Court is perhaps the most important level in the system. It is the level where most people and the average citizen will experience the legal system the most. It is by far the most in demand. The solicitor, Mr. Gareth Noble, has been busy tweeting about the unmanageable length of District Court lists and the denial of justice applicants face due to delays. He is working in the very sensitive areas of family law, domestic violence and care orders. This affects not just the rights of the individual applicant but often also the rights of children and families. Mr. Noble’s view was backed up my Ms Helen Coughlan, chair of the Law Society of Ireland’s family and child law committee, who warned of further problems if nothing changes. I am very glad, therefore, that we are beginning to change things.
Criminal barristers have expressed to me concerns about the length of time it takes for a trial to commence, a victim to get justice or an innocent person to clear his or her name. Many international comparisons have been cited today showing that we are well below average in terms of the number of judges we have. One reason we need more judges is the growing complexity of individual cases. We are looking at an increase in the number of specialist court lists. The Minister mentioned some these, for example, an environmental court and a planning court, as well as a family court that has been promised. All of these need judges and their staff to make them worthwhile and to function properly.
It is not only judges that are needed. A judge cannot sit without a registrar. A registrar is essential and while it is positive that we are increasing the limits on the number of judges and seeking to appoint more of them, we need to ensure that registrars, judicial assistants and the people in the Courts Service, who are just as essential to the administration of justice as judges are, are also properly resourced and their numbers increased to meet the increasing number of judges and increasing demands.
While an independent, impartial and efficient Judiciary and courts are critical to our democracy, the courts need to be accessible. The words of the Chief Justice, Mr. Donal O’Donnell, come to mind when he said it is “not enough to provide courtrooms and judges”. We must, he continued, look at the “many barriers that limit the capacity of ordinary citizens … to bring disputes to court and obtain a speedy and fair resolution of those disputes.” The fact that we are not providing enough judges is exacerbated by the fact that legal aid is struggling. If we want to make justice accessible, we need to address this issue. Criminal legal aid has seen funding cuts over the years which have not been restored. A report of the Department of Justice stated that per capita spend on legal aid in Northern Ireland is €73.53. In Scotland, it is €23.28 and in England and Wales, it is €38.14. Here, it is only €18.40. Mr. Justice Henchy described a legal aid certificate as the shield provided to the citizen against unjust attack on his or her constitutional due. With such low levels of investment in criminal aid, it would be fair to say that we are not adequately providing for the protection of citizens’ rights.
Increasing the number of judges is more than welcome. I have not heard anyone complain about it so far. However, we need to look at accessibility to justice in the round. As I said, legal aid is an essential part of that. It is not just about the funding but also the areas that legal aid covers.
We need to look at the availability of legal aid in terms of quasi-judicial decision-making bodies. I often find myself quoting in this Chamber the Zalewski case in which the Chief Justice warned that the standard of justice in quasi-judicial decision-making bodies “cannot be lower or less demanding than the justice administered in [our] courts.” We have seen legislation reforming how the Workplace Relations Commission works to ensure it meets the same standard as our courts. This will affect every single quasi-judicial decision-making body, however. It is clear that when we marry that with Mr. Justice Henchy’s comment that the door for legal aid is going to be kicked open by the right applicant and right petitioner to the courts, it is only a matter of time before someone comes looking for his or her constitutional due in the form of meaningful civil legal aid. The Government should act now to reform and better fund legal aid in an orderly way before we are bounced into rushed legislation as a result of a court decision or have policy decisions made not by Cabinet but by the facts of the right case. I am more than happy to help with that. I have a Bill on legal aid which is due to start next week. I look forward to the Minister of State supporting that Bill and helping it get through the Houses to address this need.
We need to ensure that justice is successful. Providing extra judges is very important. As has been said previously, however, we need to provide courtrooms. There are large numbers of essentially unused courtrooms in this country. Typically, only approximately 25% or our courtroom capacity is used. Extra judges will help that but judges cannot operate alone. They need additional extra registrars and judicial assistants and the administrative back-up of the Courts Service.
I will finish by echoing the Chief Justice again. It is not just about judges and courtrooms if we want to make justice accessible. I commend this Bill to the House given that it will make justice accessible but I believe much more still needs to be done.