Inside Ireland’s District Courts: ‘If alcohol disappeared overnight, the courts could close’

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The District Court is the workhorse of the courts system representing all human life

Judge Elizabeth MacGrath tears through the list of cases before her, but not even the fast pace of legal proceedings in Nenagh District Court can warm the cold, well-ventilated courtroom.

The Co Tipperary judge is a stickler on public health measures in a time of Covid. Masks are compulsory, except when testifying. Windows and doors remain open in the 177-year-old courtroom to circulate air and a one-way system ensures some social distancing. When a carbon dioxide monitor on the judge’s bench goes red, she clears the court for 10 minutes to clear the air.

Over the course of a Friday in December, Judge MacGrath deals with a large volume of cases involving a wide variety of matters, from road traffic to public order offences, thefts and drug charges.

One man testifies he did not receive a fixed charge notice over an alleged breach of Covid-19 regulations for travelling outside 5km limit last year. He argues that there are six men of the same name in the halting site where he lives, and that he never received the fixed charge notice. The case is struck out.

At the end of the day, she has dealt with 96 defendants involving 264 criminal offences and nine other applications, including two licensing applications. On top of that are several unscheduled applications for bench and search warrants as well as domestic violence protection orders.

“All human life is there,” the judge says over her lunch break, reflecting on the breadth of issues that come before her court.

Many cases stem from alcohol or drug addiction or mental health issues – “what I call the lack of structure and purpose in life”. Many issues go back years, to juvenile cases with people “falling through the cracks” in education and with family issues.

“I have grandchildren in front of my court and I remember their grandfathers being in court when I was a solicitor.”

A similar pattern emerges when The Irish Times sits through other District Court hearings in Dublin city and Cloverhill in Clondalkin, Cork city, Bandon, and Portlaoise.

Reporting on the District Courts is a near dizzying experience, with judges speeding through long lists of cases. The pressure to complete lists is evident but the judges slow down, and often change tone, for more complex cases and/or those involving vulnerable people, personal litigants and interpreters.

The District Court, the lowest and busiest tier of the courts structure, is the workhorse of the courts system, where more than 80 per cent of all litigants start and end their exposure to the justice system.

Sitting every day since the pandemic began in early 2020, its 64 judges – about one third of the State’s 167 judges – handled 476,174 cases last year, representing 82 per cent of the work of all the courts in 2020.

'All criminal proceedings including rape and murder prosecutions, are commenced in the District Court and therefore we literally cannot turn anything away'

This 24/7 service deals with mostly low level crime, including assaults, public order offences, theft, fraud, criminal damage, the possession and sale of drugs, less serious sexual offences, a large volume of family and childcare cases, and virtually all road traffic prosecutions.

The vast bulk of regulatory criminal matters, such as planning, fisheries and waste management prosecutions are part of its workload. More than 200 bodies, including Government Departments, can initiate District Court prosecutions.

“For the 400,000-plus people who cross the thresholds of the District Court in Ireland every year, it’s a very big deal for them,” says District Court president Paul Kelly. “It’s the real life experience of ordinary people day in and day out in all its mundanity and desperation and difficulty.”

“It’s important to the State and to the rule of law in the community that the District Court is robust and able to deal with that sort of work,” he stresses.

Echoing the views of other judges interviewed by The Irish Times, he says that even without the pandemic-related backlog, “serious challenges” face the District Court. “We do not have enough judges to provide the sort of service we would like to provide and that the country deserves.”

He has made a case for 18 more judges to the Government-appointed Judicial Resources Working Group, due to report this summer.

Like many of his colleagues, he believes outdated systems need to be changed so that all the courts can adapt better to 21st-century needs and he welcomes moves to update the Courts Service information technology system. “While the pandemic has brought us into contact with more remote court hearings and more technologically-based work, we’re still sort of doing what was done in the 19th century but with video added.”

Pointing to a pilot scheme in the UK where TV license summonses are dealt with online, he says similar initiatives here could deal with lower level cases. A greater emphasis on alternative dispute resolution and mediation would also help divert cases away from the court system, he adds.

A “big fan of plain English”, Judge Kelly also believes “intimidating and unnecessarily complicated” court procedures and forms should be made more user-friendly.

Appointed a District Court judge in 2010, he was assigned to the courts north of Donegal's Barnsmore Gap before returning to Dublin last year to take up the position of District Court president. Until he went to Donegal, the Dubliner didn't know that allowing geese to wander on the road and selling under-sized oysters were offences. Nor had he seen hail breaking through the roof of a courtroom, soaking a hapless lawyer, until an icy January day in the old courthouse in Glenties. In Donegal, he says his daily criminal lists were 150-200 cases, while family law and childcare lists could be up to 100 and 30 cases respectively.

Across the country, the courts expose many lives of quiet desperation, he says. The judges deal daily with people struggling with poverty, addiction, mental health issues, homelessness, domestic violence and other difficult family situations. Like his colleagues, Judge Kelly notes the particularly devastating impact of alcohol addiction.

'I have no problem putting in extra dates to try to deal with cases but what worries me is that the quality of justice administered is being damaged; that seriously worries me'

“If alcohol disappeared overnight, the courts could close down,” he says. “It’s an absolute scourge. It cuts across almost the entire range of offences; it’s behind most public order, assaults and criminal damage, it’s probably behind 80 per cent of family law, has a huge impact in childcare and, obviously, there’s drunk driving. It’s sad in many ways; there are people who would be up before me every month, if not every week, the hopeless alcoholic who just can’t stay sober and isn’t doing a huge amount of harm, they’re messy and probably more of a danger to themselves.”

He notes there was probably less drug addiction evident in the Donegal courts than he sees in the capital. In his early years in Donegal, cannabis was the most common drug, with occasional appearances of the amphetamine MDMA, ecstasy, and some heroin, but a lot less than would feature in the Dublin courts.

In his later years in Donegal, he noted more cocaine-related and drug-driving cases which, he suggests, may be linked to gardaí now having the technology to detect drug driving. Violent crime, featuring knives and other weapons, is more evident in Dublin cases compared to Donegal where fights were more likely to involve fists, he says.

In the children’s court in Dublin, he deals with teenagers using bicycle saddles as weapons in bike thefts, with Deliveroo and Just Eat delivery workers particularly vulnerable to losing their bikes, scooters and, as a result, their livelihoods.

Judge Gráinne Malone, one of six Dublin Metropolitan District Court judges assigned to deal mainly with criminal business in the Criminal Courts of Justice, including domestic violence, says the District Court is a demand-led service and, to that extent, "certainly in the criminal arena, is like the A&E".

“With very limited exceptions, all criminal proceedings including rape and murder prosecutions, are commenced in the District Court and therefore we literally cannot turn anything away.”

In the 10 years since she has been on the bench, she says the District Courts are dealing now with more serious criminal cases, while prosecutions for minor matters are also increasing. The volume of cases is “too much”, she says. She would like to have more time to deal with cases as well as adequate time to undergo judicial training courses and read reports.

Among the cases in a busy list before Judge Malone on a Monday in December is a man who admits a further breach of a safety order. His ex partner says she wants to tell the judge of the impact on her. The woman trembles as she outlines her fear as the man stood close behind her while she put their child into a car seat during one access visit by the man. The importance to the woman of telling her story, and being heard by the judge, is evident.

In Cloverhill court in west Dublin, Judge Victor Blake deals with criminal custody matters and regularly sits through lunchtime in an effort to clear his long lists.

Several prisoners who come before him via video link on a Tuesday in early December have addiction, mental health and other medical issues. A number are not presented in time to speak with their lawyers, resulting in hurried consultations when their cases are called.

On the Tuesday of Christmas week, there are 198 charge sheets before Judge Blake from all over the State, involving offences ranging from public order to attempted murder. The work is not over after the last case is dealt with because, in common with his colleagues, there are warrants to be processed and reports to be read.

'We're still sort of doing what was done in the 19th century but with video added'

In Portlaoise District Court, Judge Catherine Staines, the only permanent judge in her district, says her workload has increased because the population of the commuter counties around Dublin has "just exploded" but the districts have not changed. She has come up with novel ways of funding important parts of the court's work. She estimates she has a larger "poor box" than other judges because, pre-pandemic, the Electric Picnic music festival held annually in nearby Stradbally would result in about 1,000 cases of young people charged with possession of cannabis, ecstasy and cocaine. Such cases are dealt with by contributions to the poor box for first offences.

The individuals tend to be from better-off backgrounds and are “terrified” by her stock speech about where cocaine comes from and their being part of a criminal enterprise, the judge says. “They can see the consequences of a criminal conviction for them and how it can affect their job prospects and their ability to travel. It has a very sobering effect on them.”

She uses the poor box to fund the appointment of guardians in high-conflict family law cases and to compensate victims of assault. She is alarmed at the prevalence of cocaine but estimates alcohol abuse is behind 70 per cent of the cases before her. “During lockdown, there was a lot less crime because people weren’t going out drinking and going to nightclubs,” she says.

Judge Staines worries about a backlog of about 1,000 cases in her court and a 10-month delay for a hearing date and she is sitting extra days to get through cases.

In Nenagh, Judge MacGrath believes the volume of work that the District Court is being asked to do with the number of judges and supports in place is “totally and utterly unreasonable”.

“I have no problem putting in extra dates to try to deal with cases but what worries me is that the quality of justice administered is being damaged; that seriously worries me.”

There are inadequate resources to deal with childcare matters, she believes, noting some childcare cases can each take six days or longer. “Where am I supposed to fit days for a childcare hearing with the schedule lists I have?”

She would like to see “a total revamp” of the court with a case management system where routine scheduling work could happen outside the courtroom so that court time could be devoted “to hearing matters in a proper fashion and to reduce the long delays on hearing cases”.

The Covid-related backlog of cases has added “another layer of stress”, she adds.

The 2018 book, The Secret Barrister, a critique of the chronically under-funded UK criminal justice system, resonated with Judge MacGrath. She is concerned that people before the courts become numbers and figures because the courts lack proper resources.

“Clearing the list becomes the priority and the actual substance of what you are dealing with and the individuals you are dealing with comes secondary,” she says. Most regional districts have just one judge but she believes two are necessary “to really run things properly”.

Judge Mary Dorgan, who handles all family law and childcare cases for Cork city and its environs, endorses her colleagues’ concerns. “On Mondays and Wednesdays, we have very big childcare courts, maybe 40 cases each day which means I have 40-50 reports to read. We deal with about 1,000 childcare cases annually, about one fifth of the national total. On Tuesdays and Thursdays, I do the main family law applications. On Friday, I do juvenile justice, the under 18s. We work extremely hard, I cannot keep working at this level.”

Alcohol and drug addiction, including a “terrible” heroin problem, are issues in many cases before her. While some of the services available, including domestic violence supports, are “excellent”, she is concerned about gaps.

Her main concern is the lack of appropriate residential placements for some children in care of Tusla, the Child and Family Agency, who are not suitable for foster care for reasons such as their juvenile offending, drug use or their aggressive tendencies.

A residential placement has still not been secured for a child who came out of Oberstown, the State’s only juvenile detention facility, last August, she says, adding, “That child is at home in squalid conditions”.

“The problem is that the HSE closed down its own units and farmed residential childcare out to private providers who are now saying, ‘We’ll get rid of Johnny, he’s problematic and we’ll take Mary instead, she’ll be quieter’.”

Being “problematic” can mean smoking a cannabis joint, says the judge. “Then I have to try and find somewhere for them and there’s nowhere. It’s not on, these are children. There is money for projects like quartz footpaths in Cork city but no money for these children; it’s not sexy, it’s not something that will get votes.”

The District Court president is concerned the available services “are not joined up”, leading to prisoners being released into homelessness or unemployment, difficulties in accessing medical and addiction treatment outside of a controlled environment, and a general lack of support and community services.

“There are so many cracks in the services that are available and so many obstacles thrown in the way of people,” says Judge Kelly. “ The services that are there are fantastic but they are just completely overwhelmed, especially the mental health services.”

'It could be sometimes argued that maybe the court is part of the problem as much as it is part of the solution'

The pandemic has made things worse because a lot of face-to-face services ceased to be available at a time when demand for them increased. The Courts Service annual report for 2020 disclosed a 65 per cent rise in domestic violence applications, and a 27 per cent rise in applications for orders to protect vulnerable children, over the previous five years.

The impact of homelessness is evident across the court lists with the problem of having nowhere to go a particularly pressing issue in many family law cases.

There are, however, some good news stories. A homeless man who came before Judge Malone on trespass and other charges had his case put back for a probation report after the judge heard he has not been in trouble for two years, is successfully battling a 10-year drug addiction and he and his partner now have a home, thanks to the Peter McVerry Trust.

The prosecuting garda said: “I didn’t recognise him, he looks much better than when I last saw him.”

“I’ve made bad mistakes, I’m not a bad person,” the man told the judge.

Judge Colm Roberts believes the court “should be available quickly for those who need it but it shouldn’t be needed for everybody” and that there should be alternatives. He is one of 20 “moveable” judges, a type of super-sub dispatched to cover judges who are out ill, on holiday, or unavailable for other reasons, or where the demand on a court is heavy.

In Bandon District Court over two days in December, Judge Roberts sees all the usual challenges, with many cases seeking legal remedies for other societal problems, be they medical issues, or related to substance abuse or mental health.

In every town, people are arrested for being intoxicated in a public place under section four of the Criminal Justice (Public Order) Act, often just to take them off the streets, he notes. He laments that all the court can do is fine the individual, which resolves little. “What is the point in fining someone who is a hopeless alcoholic with mental health problems with nowhere to live?”

“One of the challenges of the District Court – and being a District Court judge – is trying to be part of the solution rather than being part of the problem. It could be sometimes argued that maybe the court is part of the problem as much as it is part of the solution. That is because of other services that don’t exist and everything ends up in the court, for good or bad.”

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