The Bar of Ireland attended the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Justice on the issue of courts and court houses, along with representatives of the Court Service, the National Disability Authority, the Victims Support and Government Department officials.
Common themes that arose across most contributions included the need for the modernisation programme of the Courts to accord with national and international accessibility and human rights instruments, and that uniformity of experience of litigants and court users is secured, in particular in the context of the use of remote hearings.
For The Bar; Mema Byrne BL and Darren Lehane SC outlined two key themes on behalf of clients and practitioners, namely
- The physical infrastructure of courthouses, and
- The requisite IT upgrades required to facilitate remote hearings and hybrid hearings
Mema Byrne BL observed
A lack of adequate consultation rooms and separate waiting areas in court venues directly impacts on the manner in which proceedings are conducted. The lack of appropriate facilities significantly increases stress and anxiety which can result in volatility and on occasion violence in the course of litigation.
A modern and efficient courts infrastructure will undoubtedly improve the experience of court users and the management of litigation
In response to questioning around client experience and remote participation; Darren Lehane SC told the Committee that while remote hearings have worked for some, other court users require to be present and to see justice being served. In addition, on the issue of court physical environment and accessibility he said
During the pandemic, litigation ground to a halt, and while some court business was not deemed urgent, it was urgent to the litigants involved, so the need for an open and accessible court system is imperative.
We don’t want to have a situation where client consultations are conducted around the corners of courthouses.
Court Service update
Angela Denning CEO of The Court Service outlined that across its 103 courthouses and 251 , it was not always possible to maintain all sites at the desired standard due to the age and legacy issues present in the buildings. Ms Denning outlined that capital investment and maintenance costs are set against limited resources, and the value to exchequer.
Ms. Denning confirmed the €100m funding envelope for the Hammond Lane Family Court Complex, and that refurbishment of the Children’s Court in Smithfield will form a separate action. On questioning in respect of what might be an ‘optimum number of court houses’, Ms. Denning advised that a Estates Strategy and Venue Review, currently underway, along with various other demands and demographic changes will give rise to the need for additional resourcing.
Other issues that arose included the staggering of lists, remote call overs and hybrid motion lists. On the issue of social distancing within the court, Ms Denning advised that while at the moment social distancing is set at 2m, once the advice on that changes, the Courts are in a position to modify the capacity of the courts.