Supreme Court braced for a shake-up but reforms will leave important questions unanswered
Reforms will adjust long-established hierarchy in courts system
Minister for Justice Alan Shatter has said the Government will increase the size of the Supreme Court from eight to 10 judges in the coming months, a move that will allow it to sit in three divisions for the first time and help cut into the waiting list. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill
At a recent hearing in the Supreme Court, as two barristers ruminated at length over how to go about delivering a box of documents to the court, Mr Justice Donal O’Donnell rested his chin in his hand and stared blankly into the distance. “This is not exactly high jurisprudence, gentlemen,” he told the barristers.
Variations of this scene occur frequently in the court. Often in place of the barristers are ordinary citizens who choose to represent themselves (last year, citizens without legal representation made up 26 per cent of all applicants). Spend a while in the court and you’ll find some old faces reappearing; serial lay litigants who must each time be patiently talked through every step of the court’s arcane codes and procedures.
The judges do so with patience and courtesy, but behind the scenes the logjams weigh heavily on the mood in the court. The floor in a typical judge’s chambers is piled high with file boxes. A rule of thumb is that a four-hour hearing will require eight hours’ preparatory reading. “There is a feeling of pressure,” says one.
Unusually among equivalent courts elsewhere in the world, the Supreme Court 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 High Court has expanded to handle the increasing volume and complexity of the cases coming before it, a bottleneck has developed further up the chain in the Supreme Court. In 2003, the waiting time for an appeal at the State’s highest court was four months. Today, it’s four years.
According to figures published this week, 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. “They’re absolutely overburdened, and sometimes that feeds into the quality of the work,” says one senior counsel. “It’s unreal to expect them to go through all those documents.”
Moves are afoot to ease the burden, and in the process to bring about the biggest transformation in the history of the court. Minister for Justice Alan Shatter has said the Government will increase the size of the court from eight to 10 judges in the coming months, a move that will allow it to sit in three divisions for the first time and help cut into the waiting list. The Government expects that as the backlog is dealt with, the Supreme Court will be reduced again by not replacing retirees.
Nonetheless, the two new appointments – in addition to the retirements of two current judges, John Murray and Nial Fennelly, over the next two years – will give the Government the chance to significantly alter the profile of the institution. One of the first things some lawyers believe it should do is appoint more women and address the striking gender imbalance on the current bench.