Top judge warns Irish appeal court is close to being ‘overwhelmed’

Most appellants will wait at least a year before their appeal is heard, and the delays are likely to get worse

Mr Justice Sean Ryan: “The result unfortunately is an ever-lengthening list of cases seeking dates for hearing and schedules being arranged far into the future.” File photograph: Eric Luke

Mr Justice Sean Ryan: “The result unfortunately is an ever-lengthening list of cases seeking dates for hearing and schedules being arranged far into the future.” File photograph: Eric Luke

 

The President of the Court of Appeal has warned it is “coming to the point of being overwhelmed” by its caseload.

Delays of over a year for most appeal hearings will get worse unless action is taken, Mr Justice Sean Ryan indicated.

He was “confident” the Government will take “effective measures” to address the problem as the Attorney General and Minister for Justice are “sympathetic” to the court’s difficulties. He also welcomed an offer from the Supreme Court to hear (over two weeks in December) some of the appeals which the Court of Appeal had inherited from a Supreme Court backlog.

On its establishment in 2014, the 10-judge Court of Appeal inherited a Supreme Court backlog of some 1,650 appeals and has reduced that to about 650.

That backlog, plus about 600 new appeals annually from the High Court, means most appellants will wait at least a year before their appeal is heard, and the delays are likely to get worse.

On Thursday, Mr Justice Ryan outlined, in a detailed statement read in public, the problems facing the appeal court.

Mr Justice Ryan said it was unclear how many of the 650 Supreme Court legacy appeals will proceed as they have yet to be processed in case management but experience suggested about 60 per cent would go ahead.

The appeal court has capacity to deal with about 320 appeals each year, he said.

“It is well-known, despite the best efforts of an extremely talented and dedicated team, this court is not only being outpaced by the inflow of appeals from the High Court in civil matters but is coming to the point of being overwhelmed,” he said.

“The result unfortunately is an ever-lengthening list of cases seeking dates for hearing and schedules being arranged far into the future.”

He stressed he did not want to sound “over pessimistic” and there were “some encouraging” signs, including an offer from the Chief Justice, Mr Justice Frank Clarke, to provide four Supreme Court judges to assist Court of Appeal judges in hearing some of the legacy appeals over a two-week period from December 4th next.

He and his appeal court colleagues were “extremely appreciative” of the approach of the Supreme Court judges, “which reflects the very best collegiate spirit of the judiciary”.

Litigants who wished to avail of the Supreme Court offer could apply to the Supreme Court registrar for hearings, which could result in their appeals being heard five months earlier, he said.

Mr Justice Ryan said, “I am confident, despite the many other demands on State resources, the government will put effective measures in place to deal with these problems as soon as practicable”.

Since its establishment, the Court of Appeal has prioritised the hearing of criminal appeals and appeals affecting the liberty of a person or urgent matters such as child abduction cases. Four Court of Appeal judges are allocated to criminal appeals and the waiting time for those is usually within three to six months.

Six of the 10 Court of Appeal judges are allocated to the considerably larger number of new civil appeals from the High Court, which has 40 judges, plus the legacy appeals. The waiting time for civil appeals is at least a year.

The Supreme Court is also an appellate court with a current effective membership of six judges, due to retirements and the fact that Mr Justice Peter Charleton is chairing of the Disclosures Tribunal. It hears about 70 appeals annually in cases involving points of law of public importance or which are considered important in the interests of justice.