Court of Appeal designed to ease chronic delays at apex of courts system

Proposed court would deal with most cases now dealt with by the Supreme Court

Chief Justice of the Supreme Court Susan Denham. Photograph:  Pat Langan

Chief Justice of the Supreme Court Susan Denham. Photograph: Pat Langan

Thu, Jul 25, 2013, 15:16

The proposal to establish a court of appeal is a response to a chronic bottleneck at the apex of the courts system. At its root is a simple problem. The Supreme Court, unusually among such courts in other countries, is the final court of appeal for all cases thrown up by the High Court, regardless of whether or not they have a constitutional element.

As the volume and complexity of cases has increased in recent years, the High Court has expanded to deal with the extra work, but the eight-judge Supreme Court has been struggling to keep up. Ten years ago, the waiting time for an appeal at the Supreme Court was four months. Today, it’s four years.

The court received 605 appeals last year – a 21 per cent increase on 2011. It gave judgments in 121 cases, compared to 64 in the US supreme court and 85 in the supreme court in London.

The proposed court of appeal would sit at an intermediate level between the Supreme and High Courts. It would deal with most cases that are now dealt with by the Supreme Court, thus reducing the higher court’s workload and allowing it to focus on the development of the law. The Supreme Court would hear appeals that were of “public importance” or where it was deemed to be “in the interests of justice” that the appeal by heard by the highest court in the State.

In “exceptional circumstances”, where these tests of public interest and “the interests of justice” are met, the Supreme Court will be able to hear appeals directly from the High Court.

Minister for Justice Alan Shatter has said the creation of a new court would ensure proceedings could take place within a reasonable time and help Ireland become more attractive to investors.

The Bill passed by the Seanad yesterday does not specify the number of judges who will sit on the new court, their remuneration, age of retirement or pensions – issues that will be set out later in legislation. But the new arrangements would adjust some long-established hierarchies. If voters approve the amendment, the Constitution will be changed to provide that the president of the court of appeal shall be the person to substitute for the chief justice on the Presidential Commission.

The commission, which is made up of the Chief Justice, the Ceann Comhairle and the Cathaoirleach of the Seanad, is the collective vice-presidency of Ireland, taking over all functions when the office of president is vacant or the head of State is unavailable. Currently it is the president of the High Court who substitutes for the chief justice on the commission.