The Supreme Court granted permission for 12 new cases to be appealed before it in 2015, rejecting more than two out of every three leave-to-appeal applications, figures from the Courts Service show.
In its first full year operating under new rules, the Supreme Court received 88 new applications for leave to appeal and dealt with 38 of the cases, rejecting 26.
Of the 88 cases, 66 were appeals from the Court of Appeal and 22 were directly from the High Court, known as leapfrog appeals.
The 10-member Supreme Court also finalised 411 legacy cases, a backlog carried over from its old jurisdiction, prior to the establishment of the Court of Appeal.
At the end of October 2014, following a referendum to allow it to be set up, the Court of Appeal began its work and the Supreme Court’s jurisdiction changed.
The general right of appeal from the High Court to the Supreme Court was replaced by a general right of appeal to the Court of Appeal.
The Supreme Court can now only hear appeals it considers to involve a matter of general public importance or in the interests of justice, either from Court of Appeal decisions or directly from the High Court.
Over the course of the past 12 months, the court has begun to lay down criteria for the cases it will accept.
In one case, Fox v Mahon and Ors [others], it said that even where an appeal from the High Court might be warranted because it raises issues of general public importance or is in the interests of justice, the court presumes “such an appeal is better taken when the issues have been refined” by the Court of Appeal.
Barrister Ben Clarke has said the Supreme Court's conclusions in that case provide useful guidance for future applications.
They included the conclusion that where it is “clear and probable” that a case will come before the Supreme Court in any event, because of the importance of the issues, applicants must specify what those issues are.
They must also state why those issues will not fall away or be better clarified during a Court of Appeal hearing.
Writing in the Bar Review earlier this year, Mr Clarke said the first application for “leapfrog leave” to appeal from the High Court, Barlow and Ors v Minister for Agriculture, set down “tentative” principles.
These included that if the threshold for public importance is met, the court must decide if there are “exceptional circumstances” meriting a direct appeal.
It suggested these circumstances might be based solely on the issues involved or in cases where “a clock in the real world is ticking”.
The Supreme Court also dealt this year with Walshe v Ireland and Lyons v Ireland, both applications for the right to appeal a Court of Appeal decision not to allow the applicants to challenge the results of the marriage equality referendum.
The court’s decision to reject the applications showed it was not enough that the subject matter of an appeal was of importance; there also needed to be merit in the grounds of appeal for a case to be accepted.
A spokesman for the Courts Service said that the Supreme Court had made significant progress in overhauling its backlog in 2015 and that it had been engaged in a review of its total caseload under the direction of the Chief Justice, Ms Justice Susan Denham.
“The Court’s work is in transition, as new practice and jurisprudence continue to be developed,” he said.
“It will take some time for the radical change in the court’s structure to fully be realised.
“This transitional phase will subsist until the legacy position of older cases is fully dealt with.”
Supreme Court activity in 2015
Number of legacy* appeals finalised
Applications for leave to appeal received
Applications for leave to appeal finalised
Applications for leave to appeal rejected
Applications for leave to appeal allowed
*Cases initiated prior to establishment of Court of Appeal in October 2014