Delays in High Court rulings ‘impacting operation of justice’

Decisions in five cases have been outstanding for more than two years

Ireland has the lowest number of judges per head of population in the EU. Photograph: Alan Betson

Ireland has the lowest number of judges per head of population in the EU. Photograph: Alan Betson

 

High Court judges are taking longer to reach decisions in cases, with some judgments being delayed for several years, latest figures show.

After the High Court hears a case it usually reserves judgment, meaning the judge adjourns matters to allow them to formulate and write a decision.

The majority of reserved judgments are issued within three months but, according to data obtained by The Irish Times, some judges are taking more than a year to issue their rulings, with decisions in five cases outstanding for more than two years.

One High Court case, an appeal against a decision of the Refugee Appeals Tribunal, has been awaiting judgment since January 2013.

Another case taken against the Minister for Justice dates to November 2013 but this is due to the fact that Mr Justice Paul McDermott is waiting on a decision from the European Court of Justice.

Ken Murphy, president of the Law Society, said the issue was a source of frustration to practitioners. “I certainly do hear concerns and complaints from time to time about the delay from judges and the impact that has on clients and the justice system.”

He said one reason for the delays was the large workload placed on High Court judges. “I’ve spoke to people who have been appointed to the High Court in recent years who have been taken aback by the grinding workload. There is certainly reason to review whether there is an insufficient number of judges.

“It does seem to be the case that the volume of work in the High Court continues to rise disproportionately to the number of judges there to serve it. That impacts on access to justice and the vindication of the rights of citizens.”

Significant concern

In 2011 delays in High Court judgments were brought to the attention of then minister for justice Alan Shatter, who said the issue was of “significant concern”.

At the time the High Court took longer than three months in 33 per cent (24) of cases. Only three of the 74 outstanding judgments were delayed for more than one year.

Mr Shatter said a series of measures were being introduced to cut down on delays, including additional administrative support for judges and the creation of a special commercial division of the High Court.

Since then, despite the success of the commercial division, the overall situation has deteriorated further. According to the latest register of reserved judgments, 39 per cent of completed cases [61 of 175] have been waiting on judgment for more than three months, and 12 per cent [19] are outstanding for over a year.

Ireland has the lowest number of judges per head of population in the EU. Fianna Fáil justice spokesman Jim O’Callaghan said the lengthy delays were “unacceptable” and resulted in people being denied justice.

“In some cases the fault rests with individual judges. In most cases, however, it is caused as a result of the excessive workload placed on High Court judges.

“The workload of the High Court has grown significantly in recent years, yet we still do not have enough judges per capita to deal with this increased workload.”

Weak position

Labour justice spokesman Sean Sherlock said some delays were inevitable but the delays of a year or more “demand explanation”.

“What we need, rather than more judges in the High Court, is the president of the High Court to explain why these delays are happening.”

His counterpart in Sinn Féin, Donnchadh Ó Laoghaire, said delays were unacceptable.

“It seems very likely there aren’t enough High Court judges there if this is happening so much,” he said.

When a judgment is outstanding for more than three months, it is open to the parties to request a hearing seeking an update. The judge can use this hearing to issue any interim orders that may be required.

Last month Mr Justice Richard Humphreys said appointing more judges was “the single biggest” thing the State could do to improve justice in Ireland.

Our “exceptionally weak position in terms of number of judges per capita” seemed to have passed “under the radar of public consciousness”, the judge said.

A Department of Justice spokesman said the number of High Court judges was increased by two in 2015. He added that in Ireland, unlike in many other EU countries, a large number of judicial functions were fulfilled by noncourt bodies such as the Employment Appeals Tribunal, meaning Ireland did not require as many judges.