New legislation aims to prevent delays during criminal trials due to legal disputes

McEntee says pre-trial hearings would improve process in sexual offence cases

The Government has introduced legislation to prevent criminal trials being bogged down by lengthy legal arguments in the absence of a jury.

Minister for Justice Helen McEntee has published the Criminal Procedure Bill 2021 which will introduce preliminary hearings that will happen in advance of the trial proper commencing.

It has become commonplace for criminal trials to encounter significant delays due to legal disputes over admissibility of evidence, or rules and procedure.

Ms McEntee said the pre-trial hearings would significantly improve the trial process for sexual offences, white collar crimes, organised crime and other complex offences


If the legal issues under dispute was dealt with at this stage, it would be less likely for juries to be sent away during the trial, and less likely that victims were subject to stressful delays.

“Trials are too often delayed or disrupted because issues which should be dealt with in advance, such as the admissibility of evidence, are subject to legal argument in the absence of the jury.

“This legislation will make it less likely that a jury will be sent away immediately after being sworn in to allow for legal argument, or sent away multiple times during the trial.

“Preliminary trial hearings will help ensure that the parties are ready to proceed on the day of the trial. This will deliver efficiencies and savings as certain criminal trials will now have fewer delays,’ she said.

Ms McEntee said the effect of delays on victims were particularly stressful:

“The trial process can be an incredibly stressful experience, and victims may have prepared themselves mentally for the trial to start on the designated day.

“When a trial is postponed at the last minute, or potentially interrupted multiple times for legal argument, this can make the victim’s experience all the more difficult. This legislation will importantly reduce the impact of numerous delays on victims of serious sexual offences,” she said.

A number of reports in recent years which examined the legal issues surrounding complex criminal cases such as white collar crime and sexual crime have recommended a pretrial process.

Such a hearing could help identify at a very early stage any matter which could ultimately lead to the collapse of a trail. It would save considerable time, and a lot of expense to the State, if these issues were flagged before a jury was sworn in.

“Preventing lengthy legal argument mid trial and helping to ensure that trials start when they are supposed to will deliver significant efficiencies and savings in the courts.”

Seven prominent cases in recent years have been beset by delays. Legal arguments delayed proceedings in the case against former Anglo Irish Bank CEO Seán Fitzpatrick by seven weeks in 2015. Mr Fitzpatrick was acquitted.

In 2012, the Rape Crisis Network highlighted the detrimental impact delays in the legal process had had for victims of sexual crimes for decades.

The provisions in this Bill have been developed in consultation with the Courts Service and the Director of Public Prosecutions.

This Bill will be included on the Government’s legislative agenda and proceed for debate in both houses of the Oireachtas, subject to the agreement of the Business and Justice Committees.

It is intended that it would complete its passage through the Oireachtas before summer.

Harry McGee

Harry McGee

Harry McGee is a Political Correspondent with The Irish Times