Chief Justice concerned that cost of State projects may limit funds for new courts

New buildings needed as Four Courts is ‘beyond breaking point’ says Frank Clarke

Mr Justice Clarke said the former hotel in Temple Bar where Dublin family law disputes are mostly heard, is ‘wholly unsuitable’. File photograph: Chris Maddaloni/Collins

Mr Justice Clarke said the former hotel in Temple Bar where Dublin family law disputes are mostly heard, is ‘wholly unsuitable’. File photograph: Chris Maddaloni/Collins

 

The State’s top judge has expressed concern that the runaway costs of the rural broadband and children’s hospital projects might eat up money needed for a new courts complex in Dublin.

The judiciary are anxious that a €140 million building on a site at Hammond Lane/Church Street, beside the Four Courts in Dublin, should be funded in the current discussions over capital expenditure in the next Budget.

The principal reason why the project requires urgent attention is the “dreadful conditions” in which a significant amount of family law disputes are heard in Dublin, the Chief Justice, Frank Clarke, has said.

He was speaking on Sunday to the Burren Law School in Co Clare, where the theme of this year’s conference is “Democracy in Crisis?”.

Mr Justice Clarke said that the administration of justice by the courts is an important part of our democracy and it was vital that public confidence was maintained.

The proposed new building would house a Family Law and Children’s Court complex, but also provide new premises for the Supreme Court. Moving the Supreme Court would free up space in the Four Courts, which is “beyond breaking point”.

Mr Justice Clarke said the old Dolphin Hotel complex in Temple Bar where Dublin family law disputes are mostly heard, is “wholly unsuitable” for what are inevitably difficult and delicate cases.

Mentioning the “potential major expenditure on matters such as broadband and the national children’s hospital,” the Chief Justice said he fully understood both the difficulties the Government faced in attempting to meet capital funding requirements across a range of departments, and the difficulty the Department of Justice and Equality faced in attempting to deal, within its allocation, with the demands not only of the courts “but also, in particular at the moment, of An Garda Síochána”.

It is understood the department is saying that it does not have more than €80 million as matters stand for the proposed new court complex. The Courts Service is arguing that its project is “shovel ready”, while work scheduled for two Garda stations, which has been given a cost of €80 million, is not ready to begin.

Moving the Garda station project to a later Budget would free up the funding needed for the new courts complex, the Courts Service is arguing, it is understood.

“I appreciate that there is no bottomless pit of money available,” Mr Justice Clarke said.

“However, Hammond Lane is, as they say, shovel-ready – subject to planning, and planning is ready to go once funding is in place. It is not the kind of building which can be constructed in phases and it would be a complete waste of a valuable state resource (in the shape of a large site adjacent to the Four Courts in state ownership) for it not to be developed to the maximum extent permissible under planning parameters.”

Increase in judges

As well as urging increased funding of other supports for the operation of the courts, such as adequately-paid judges’ clerks and an increased IT budget, Mr Justice Clarke also said that significant increase in the number of judges was required.

A recent EU survey found that Ireland had the lowest number of judges per capita in the union. Meanwhile the Irish population continues to grow and the litigation coming before the courts continues to increase in complexity.

Mr Justice Clarke said he is in discussion with the Government about the possible establishment of a high-level Government committee to examine judicial numbers. If it was established, then he would propose establishing a parallel high-level judicial committee which would interact with Government.

The Chief Justice said he very much welcomed recent progress in the passage of the Judicial Council Bill through the Oireachtas. The council will, amongst other matters, provide for a system for investigating complaints against the judiciary, and for the ongoing education and training of judges.

Mr Justice Clarke said work on a judicial skills programme could begin even before the new council was established. He hoped to persuade the Government that a start could be made, on an ad-hoc basis, in putting such a structure in place so the new council could “hit the ground running” when it is established.

The establishment of the council has been identified by the Government as key to addressing the high cost of non-life insurance premiums. Minister of State at the Department of Finance, Michael D’Arcy, has said the high awards being made by judges need to be recalibrated downwards.