Supreme Court braced for a shake-up but reforms will leave important questions unanswered
Reforms will adjust long-established hierarchy in courts system
More significantly, a referendum is to be held in the autumn to create a Court of Appeal, which will hear most appeals from the High Court and leave the Supreme Court free to deal with constitutional cases or those involving a fundamental point of law.
The new court, according to legislation published yesterday, will sit at an intermediate level between the Supreme and High Courts. Drawing largely from the model suggested in 2009 in the report of the Working Group on the Court of Appeal, chaired by now chief justice Susan Denham, the Bill states that the new court will hear appeals from the High Court while the Supreme Court will hear cases on appeal from the new court. In exceptional circumstances, provided that the case involves a “matter of general public importance or in the interests of justice”, the Supreme Court will take appeals directly from the High Court.
The reforms will also adjust the long-established hierarchy in the system. If voters approve the amendment in the autumn, 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.
In another change, the president of the Court of Appeal will become an ex officio member of the Council of State.
Minister for Justice Alan Shatter told The Irish Times he envisages that the “vast majority” of appeals will be concluded at the Court of Appeal, significantly easing the burden on the higher court.
“This is a vastly important reform,” he says. “It’s important that those who resort to our courts have their issues of dispute resolved with reasonable speed. The Supreme Court is under enormous pressure because of the very substantial appeals that are taken nowadays from the High Court to the Supreme Court, and we must ensure that litigation is concluded within reasonable time.”
However, the Bill leaves a number of questions unanswered. It does not specify how many judges will sit on the new court, their remuneration, age of retirement or pensions – matters that have been the source of speculation in recent months and will have to be settled by law if the referendum is passed. One senior counsel suggests these factors will be important in attracting judges to the court, particularly if a perception develops that the more stimulating cases are all going up to the Supreme Court. “If it’s regarded as a dumping ground for very boring cases like personal injuries quantums, you’re not going to get top-calibre people applying for it. They’d be bored out of their minds,” says the lawyer.