There will be “great and lasting damage” to the courts system if there are continued reductions in the courts budget, the Chief Justice has said.
Speaking at the launch of the Courts Service annual report for 2013 today, Mrs Justice Susan Denham said gross funding for the service had decreased by a quarter since 2008.
“Ireland’s courts are among the least costly in all the countries of the Council of Europe,” she said.
“Any further or continued subtraction of monies and staff from the Courts Service budget will cause a great and lasting damage to our courts system.”
Speaking on the review of courts in the Dublin region, Mrs Justice Denham said “things cannot remain as they are currently organised”.
Dublin was the only county that had not undergone some form of reorganisation of offices and court venues, she said.
“This cannot remain so – we have an obligation to utilise the resources we have to best provide ongoing service levels to the public,” she said.
The Courts Service is currently consulting on proposals to close courts in Dún Laoghaire, Tallaght, Swords and Balbriggan as well as to centralise criminal business in the Criminal Courts of Justice complex, near Phoenix Park, and to send all traffic cases to Blanchardstown.
Mrs Justice Denham said if the venues and staff are not reorganised in a more “streamlined way”, then “it is inevitable there will be disruption to the operation of the courts”.
“It will mean facing a situation where courts will have to be cancelled at short notice,” she said.
The judge also said the new Court of Appeal, to which six judges were appointed yesterday, was a “landmark development in the State” and would enable appeals to be dealt with in a reasonable time and support the development of “cohesive jurisprudence”.
The annual report for 2013, shows almost 348,000 orders were made at the District Court and 60 per cent of all summary matters there related to road traffic offences.
Mrs Justice Denham said this put a “great strain” on the system. “I hope our officials and those of the Departments of Justice, and Transport, can seek imaginative alternatives in this area,” she said.
The report also showed there were 567 rape offences and 923 indecent or sexual assault offences before the courts in 2013. Of these, there were 160 guilty pleas, 301 acquittals, and no prosecution for 376. There were 35 rape convictions and 130 convictions for indecent or sexual assault.
Bankruptcies increased by more than 90 per cent, from 35 in 2012 to 67 last year, the report showed. The increase can be attributed to a change in bankruptcy law that reduced the term from 12 to three years.
Cases related to debt judgments fell by almost a fifth at the Circuit Court and applications to wind up businesses were down by 37 per cent. However, the number of orders committing people to prison for non-payment of debt rose by more than 20 per cent, up from 1,921 in 2012 to 2,335 last year.
Applications made at the High Court to repossess homes and other properties increased by 23 per cent, but the number of orders made to allow repossession dropped by 45 per cent.
Much of the business of repossession has relocated to the Circuit Court following a change in legislation and there was an increase of more than 40 per cent in the number of orders of possession made there, from 258 in 2012 to 363 last year. Only 30 of these cases did not involve residential property.
In family law, there was a 2 per cent increase in judicial separation and applications for separation at the High Court were made by women in more than 80 per cent of cases, while at Circuit Court level the figure was 71 per cent.
Among other figures in the report, there has been a 66 per cent reduction in the cost of interpretation over a six-year period.