Chief Justice threatens to cancel court sittings because of cold
Letters released under Freedom of Information say it was a ‘significant health matter’
Chief Justice of the Supreme Court Mrs Susan Denham in court: she wrote ‘a number of members of the court have fallen ill . . . and I believe that the cold temperatures have been a factor in this.’ Photograph: Collins Courts.
The Chief Justice warned she would have to cancel court sittings earlier this year because it was so cold in the Supreme Court as a result of a faulty heating system in the Four Courts in Dublin.
The problem became so serious that Mrs Justice Susan Denham brought in a thermometer to take temperature readings herself and sent them to the Government.
In correspondence released under the Freedom of Information Act, she said Supreme Court judges were working in temperatures as low as 13.5 degrees.
She told Simon Harris, the Minister responsible for the Office of Public Works (OPW), that if there was no adequate heating in the court, “I shall have to cancel court sittings”.
In the letter released by the OPW, dated January 30th last, she added: “This I am loath to do as cases are important and urgent for the parties, but this is a significant health matter.”
She said “the court and conference room of the Supreme Court were so cold that I brought a thermometer and took the temperature for some days from Monday, January 19th”.
Her letter to the Minister included two pages setting out 25 temperature readings taken by her between January 19th and January 23rd. These show the temperatures varied between 13.5 degrees and 19 degrees in the court and its conference room.
In her letter, Mrs Justice Denham said the readings showed the “entirely inadequate heating in the Supreme Court”.
On Wednesday, January 21st, “the heating system failed to come on and engineers did not resolve the problem until close to 11am. This matter is a significant health issue.”
Describing it as “a serious issue”, she reminded Mr Harris that the issue was not new and referred to concerns she had raised about the heating in the Supreme Court in December 2013.
In a letter to Mr Harris’s predecessor, Brian Hayes, on December 4th, 2013, she said she was expressing her own concerns and those of members of the Supreme Court about the heating system in the Four Courts.
“For the last number of weeks, there have been problems with the system which has resulted in temperatures in the building generally being very low. A number of members of the court have fallen ill in this time and I believe that the cold temperatures have been a factor in this.”
She added: “If the matter is not resolved as a matter of urgency, I will have no option but to cancel sittings of the Supreme Court and to advise judges of the court to remain at home.”
After receiving her letter this year, Mr Harris wrote to her on February 6th saying the Commissioners of Public Works very much regretted the heating system had given so much trouble recently. “They have assured me that their engineers are doing everything they can currently to ensure that adequate heat is provided.”
He said ultimate resolution of the heating problems for the long term at the Four Courts would require significant work which the commissioners were studying at present.
The chief executive officer of the Courts Service, Brendan Ryan, wrote to the Chief Justice on January 21st apologising on behalf of the service for “the ongoing discomfort and disruption” caused due to the problems with the heating system which were outside the direct control of the service.
“Despite the best efforts of the Courts Service, the heating system in the Four Courts remains totally unreliable”.
Documents show problems connected with the heating system at the Four Courts date back to 2009 and the Courts Service had a meeting with the OPW in 2010 that resulted in work on the system.
Mr Ryan wrote to John McMahon, commissioner of the Office of Public Works, on January 21st seeking a meeting “as a matter of urgency” to review the situation.
He wrote: “We cannot tolerate a situation where we are living in fear of the heating system failing and court sittings being put at risk, not to mention the undoubted health issues that fall out of such failures.”
In response to Mr Harris on February 9th, Mrs Justice Denham thanked him for taking the matter in hand so promptly.
“The current measures which are being taken by the commissioners has resulted in greatly improved heat in the Supreme Court and conference room.”