Senior judge says he was not told of plan to suspend second non-jury court

Mr Justice Tony Hunt responds to report that Special Criminal Court 2 not being used from next year

Mr Justice Tony Hunt: “As far as we are concerned, unless and until Court 2 is removed by legislation, we intend to make full use of it and we intend to give people the earliest possible trial date.” File photograph: Collins Courts

Mr Justice Tony Hunt: “As far as we are concerned, unless and until Court 2 is removed by legislation, we intend to make full use of it and we intend to give people the earliest possible trial date.” File photograph: Collins Courts

 

The senior presiding judge in the Special Criminal Court has said he was not made aware of plans to suspend operations of one of the non-jury courts, and that it will continue to sit unless it is abolished by legislation.

Mr Justice Tony Hunt made the comments on Monday in response to a report in Saturday’s Irish Times that Special Criminal Court 2 will not be used to hear cases from next year.

The second special criminal court was established in 2016 to help reduce a two-year backlog of cases which had built up.

According to the Department of Justice last week, this backlog has now been cleared and “based on current waiting times it is considered that business in 2020 will be dealt with in Special Criminal Court no 1 only”.

The department said it is the advice of the head of Circuit and District Court that legislation should not be passed to abolish the court entirely and that it should be available to sit again “if required”.

Apparent contradiction

Mr Justice Tony Hunt appeared to contradict the department at a sitting of Special Criminal Court 1 on Monday afternoon in the course of a bail hearing.

He said reports of the suspension of Court 2 was “news” to all of the judges in the non-jury court.

“As far as we are concerned, unless and until Court 2 is removed by legislation, we intend to make full use of it and we intend to give people the earliest possible trial date,” he remarked.

Asked about the judge’s comments, the Department of Justice on Monday reiterated that the second court “could sit as required”.

Such issues are a matter for the courts service and judiciary, it said. “Under the provisions of the Courts Service Act 1998, management of the courts is the responsibility of the Courts Service, which is independent in exercising its functions. Court schedules are a matter for the president of the relevant court, and the Courts Service.”

Wait times for a case in the Special Criminal Court have decreased significantly since the establishment of a second court. Figures from the Courts Service released on Monday show there is currently a six-week wait for a trial in Court 1 and an eight-week wait in Court 2.

There are currently three trials listed for the Special Criminal Court in 2019 and 2020, as well as seven matters listed for sentence or for mention.

The number of cases before the non-jury court has dropped every year since 2016 when its judges dealt with 60 offences or alleged offences. That dropped to 54 in 2017 and 51 last year.

The number of people appearing before the court has dropped from 35 in 2017 to 29 in 2018.

Debate reignited

The expansion of the Special Criminal Court in 2016 reignited a debate on the operation of a non-jury court in peacetime and its increasing use for non-paramilitary offences.

The UN Human Rights Committee has called for the abolition of the court which it views as a breach of Ireland’s human rights obligations under international treaties.

Mr Justice Hunt made the comments at a bail hearing for Robert O’Leary (41) who was arrested in Dublin last week by members of the Special Detective Unit as part of a cross-border investigation in connection with the discovery of a car bomb under a police officer’s car in Belfast in June.

Mr O’Leary, with an address at Clancy Road, Finglas, Dublin 11, is charged with membership of an unlawful organisation, styling itself the Irish Republican Army, otherwise Óglaigh na hÉireann, otherwise the IRA, on August 20th, 2019. He was granted bail under strict conditions.

A second man, Paul Casey (49), was remanded in custody pending a bail application next Monday.