Government plans to halve size of Supreme Court
Retirees will not be replaced if proposal for new court of appeal is approved
Eight judges currently sit on the Supreme Court, and two more – Judges Mary Laffoy and Elizabeth Dunne – have been nominated by the Government and are due to be sworn in later this month.
The Government plans to halve the size of the Supreme Court to five judges if the proposal to establish a court of appeal is approved by referendum tomorrow.
It is envisaged that, if a new appeals court is created and the backlog of appeals at the apex of the court system is reduced, the next five retirees from the Supreme Court will not be replaced.
The highest court would then sit as a five-judge court in all cases.
The appointment of two extra judges to the court, bringing the total to 10, is a short-term measure aimed at reducing the four-year backlog of appeals – a problem the Government hopes to address in the long-term with the proposed court of appeal. That court would hear most appeals from the High Court and leave the Supreme Court free to deal with cases of major importance.
The Supreme Court currently sits as a three-judge court in routine cases and as a group of five or seven in constitutional cases.
It is understood the Government believes that, if the backlog clears and the Supreme Court’s workload eases, within a few years it should be reduced to five members – the minimum allowed by the Constitution.
The next two departures will be those of Judges Nial Fennelly and John Murray, who are due to retire in 2014 and 2015, respectively. Chief Justice Susan Denham and Judge Mary Laffoy will retire in 2017.
All the major parties are calling for a Yes vote in tomorrow’s court referendum, and an opinion poll by The Irish Times and Ipsos MRBI, published on Monday, suggested the proposal is set to be approved.
Excluding the large number of undecided respondents, the poll suggested the plan to set up the new court was backed by 76 per cent, with 24 per cent in favour of maintaining the present system. The proportion of undecided voters was 44 per cent, 43 per cent said they would vote to establish the new court and 14 per cent said they would vote against change.
Critics of the proposed court say that it is unnecessary and that the backlog could be cleared if the Supreme Court changed its work practices and became more efficient.
The Master of the High Court, Edmund Honohan, has described the proposal as a “crude device” that will lead to a rise in appeals.
The Law Society and Bar Council, which represent solicitors and barristers, last week called for a Yes vote. In response, Mr Honohan said: “The lawyers are quite happy to see another source of revenue . . . They’re in a win-win situation. Their clients win and they win.”
In a speech last week, Chief Justice Susan Denham said the backlog at the highest court was an “unsustainable situation” with untold costs for society and the economy.
She said that the Supreme Court was one of the busiest courts of its kind in the world, receiving 10 times more appeals than when the Constitution was adopted in 1937.