Intentions of new laws often hard to discern, Chief Justice says
Clearer legislation will make resolution of litigation more efficient, claims Frank Clarke
Minister for Justice Charlie Flanagan and Chief Justice Frank Clarke: Amending legislation creates “constant and shifting uncertainty” in the interpretation of the law, says Mr Justice Clarke. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill
The Chief Justice has issued a “cry” for great clarity and simplicity in new laws, saying the intentions of lawmakers in both Europe and Leinster House are sometimes difficult to make out from the legislation they pass.
Speaking at the launch of the Court Service annual report, Mr Justice Frank Clarke said this applied particularly to planning and environmental laws where complex legislation can sometimes hold up major projects for years.
“The solution lies at least as much in the hands of legislators in producing greater clarity as it does in the courts and, from my perspective, lies even more on the legislative side,” he said.
He said if planning and environmental law continue to become more complex “there will continue to be projects which, even though they may successfully clear all hurdles at the end of the day, may suffer by being held up for too long”. This was an apparent reference to the Apple Data Centre project in Athenry which was abandoned this year after being tied up in litigation for years.
Mr Justice Clarke said he was not complaining about the content of the laws as “that’s not a judge’s business.
“It is a cry for clearer legislation which will make the resolution of litigation easier and therefore quicker.”
He also warned that constantly amending legislation “as we have been doing a lot in recent times” creates “constant and shifting uncertainty” in the interpretation of the law.
The Irish Times understands that senior members of the judiciary are concerned their current workload is nearly unsustainable. In response, the Government intends to establish an advisory group to assess the impact of proposed legislation on the workload of the courts
Fifteen pieces of legislation were passed or progressed last year which will have a significant impact on the courts. These include the Victims of Crime Act and the Domestic Violence Bill.
It is understood judges, including Mr Justice Clarke, believe the courts are already near breaking point in terms of resources and that further legislative changes could have an impact on their ability to operate.
The Court of Appeal, which was set up in 2014 to help speed up waiting times, is also feeling the strain. There were 661 civil cases on the waiting list at the end of last year, compared to 520 a year earlier. There is currently a wait time of about 20 months for civil cases in the court or 10 months if the appeal is urgent.
Separately, it is understood senior judges are in talks with the Government about possibly doubling the size of the Court of Appeal from 10 to 20 judges in an attempt to reduce waiting times.