Supreme Court has cleared backlog of cases during pandemic

Waiting time for appeal hearing down to 14 weeks but Chief Justice warns reduction could be short-lived

The Chief Justice, Mr Frank Clarke, pictured shortly after his appointment to the position in 2017.  Photograph: Nick Bradshaw/The Irish Times

The Chief Justice, Mr Frank Clarke, pictured shortly after his appointment to the position in 2017. Photograph: Nick Bradshaw/The Irish Times

 

MARK HILLIARD

The Supreme Court is now as “up to date as we are ever going to be” in its work as a result of a Covid-19 related slowdown in activity, the Chief Justice Mr Frank Clarke has said.

“The number of cases coming to the court have been somewhat reduced over the last year, partly I think because the courts from which we hear appeals, the High Court and the Court of Appeal, have themselves been operating under some restrictions,” he said.

Mr Justice Clarke was giving an online presentation of the Court’s 2020 annual report which showed waiting times for appeal hearings had been reduced to an historic low of less than 14 weeks.

If a case was given leave to appeal today, it would likely proceed to full hearing in late June or early July. With the exception of some urgent cases, Mr Justice Clarke noted, the process could not realistically be speeded up any more.

“In terms of hearings we are as up to date as I think we are ever going to be,” he said. “In terms of judgments, we are again more up to date than we have been in living memory.”

As of Thursday this week, there were only six outstanding judgments in cases already heard by the Court, compared to a normal number somewhere in the high teens.

There were 142 new applications for leave to appeal lodged during 2020, while 158 applications for leave were resolved. The Court delivered 89 written judgments.

However, the report noted such reductions in applications are “likely to be short lived” with an increase in the rate anticipated later this year.

The Supreme Court moved quickly to facilitate online business to escape the often cramped physical court environment, holding a number of mock hearings. In total, 117 remote sessions, or “virtual courts”, were subsequently held through the Pexip video-conferencing platform.

The last physical sitting took place on March 12th, 2020, the same day that then-Taoiseach Leo Varadkar addressed the nation about the severity of the coming pandemic from the steps of Blair House in Washington DC.

As the judges listened in on the radio, “it became immediately clear that the way in which the court would have to work…was going to have to change radically”, Mr Justice Clarke said.

The single physical hearing conducted post-pandemic was in the spacious Dining Hall of King’s Inns, dealing with the Government’s climate change programme.

Among various changes during the year was the introduction of “statements of case” ahead of hearings, setting out the understanding of the Court of the background and issues involved in an appeal. This allows the Court to better understand points on which the relative parties differ and was introduced partly because of the “limitations of remote hearings”, the report explained.

A return to full appeal hearings, when possible, is virtually certain, although remote work is likely to play a role in the buildup to future cases, especially for short preliminary discussions.

The Chief Justice said that those “who have suggested that it would be possible for the court to dispense with a lot of the oral hearings I think are mistaken. It wouldn’t give as good a result and it wouldn’t even achieve greater efficiency”.