Court of Appeal backlog ‘could take over a decade to clear’

Backlog of number of cases processed fell by 187 in past year

A backlog of some 1,800 cases that are waiting to be heard in the Court of Appeal could take more than a decade to clear, a legal expert has said. File photograph: Frank Miller

A backlog of some 1,800 cases that are waiting to be heard in the Court of Appeal could take more than a decade to clear, a legal expert has said. File photograph: Frank Miller

 

A backlog of some 1,800 cases that are waiting to be heard in the Court of Appeal could take more than a decade to clear, a legal expert has said.

The 10-judge court was established in 2014 after a referendum with the aim of reducing a crippling logjam that had built up in the courts system.

It was hoped that its creation would ease the pressure on the Supreme Court, to which hundreds of cases had been referred. Litigants faced a wait of up to 4½ years for their appeal to be heard.

The Court of Appeal now hears nearly all criminal and civil appeals from lower courts except for cases judged to be of exceptional public importance, which can still be referred straight to the Supreme Court.

Seth Barrett Tillman, a law lecturer in Maynooth University, said the new court had made only modest progress in addressing the backlog during its first full year in operation.

“In short, after one complete calendar year’s effort and millions spent and permanently committed in public funds, the number of pending cases started at 2,001 cases, but was reduced to 1,814 pending cases: a total reduction over the course of 2015 of merely 187 cases,” Mr Tillman wrote in The Irish Law Times academic journal.

Assumption

“At this rate, and under the assumption that the number of appeals does not grow over time, the total backlog will be solved in just under 11 years.”

Mr Tillman told The Irish Times the 11-year estimate was a “favourable assumption” which anticipated the number of new referrals not increasing over the years.

“But of course that’s extremely unlikely. The whole history of the appeal court system is that people are growing more litigious and that cases are becoming more complex,” he said.

“That is not to say the judges on the court of appeal are lazy or less than diligent. What it is to say is the Court of Appeal never had a prayer of solving the problem that was put to the people in this referendum, which was solving the backlog.”

Mr Tillman also said it was likely that the appeal court dealt with the “low-hanging fruit” in its first year: cases that were shorter and less complex, meaning the 11-year estimate could increase further.

“I would not be surprised, given the extraordinary amount of cases they have to choose from it, that the judges grab cases that are quick and easy to dispose of and leave the lengthier cases until later.

“That’s not an attack, that’s human nature. It’s the smart way of doing it. But it means things are only to get tougher in the future.”

Mr Tillman said the court’s judges had done “a tremendous amount of work” in their first year but “the idea that they could actually solve the problem this court was designed to solve seems to me very, very unlikely”.

The most effective way of reducing the caseload, according to Mr Tillman, is to ban oral argument in the vast majority of appeal cases.

This means lawyers would submit their arguments on paper rather than by making them in open court.

Oral argument

“The idea that every run-of-the-mill case should get oral argument is very, very wrong-headed.”

A civil servant working in the Courts Service said Mr Tillman’s 11-year claim was “dramatic” and that many of the cases listed in the statistics would be dropped before reaching the court.

The source also said that once the court “finds its rhythm” it would begin to process cases more efficiently.