New full-time court of appeal for civil and criminal cases recommended
THE GOVERNMENT should hold a referendum to establish a new full-time court of appeal to deal with civil and criminal cases, a high-level working group said yesterday.
Waiting times for hearings at the Supreme Court had grown from four months in 2003 to 30 months in 2008, the report found, and Ireland had the busiest court of last instance in the common-law world.
Established by the Government in December 2006, the group examined the necessity for a general court of appeal and recommended changes to the Constitution.
It found that a large increase in litigation and an increase in the number of High Courts, along with new legal issues such as breach of copyright via the internet, had put increased pressure on the Supreme Court.
The current Supreme Court, the court of last instance in Ireland, is made up of eight judges including the Chief Justice, sitting in courts of between three and seven, depending on the importance of the legal challenge.
While criminal cases are appealed to the Court of Criminal Appeal, most civil cases, with a few exceptions, may be appealed to the Supreme Court.
Over time this has resulted in the Supreme Court being involved in "error correction", the report said, while its primary purpose should be to explain the Constitution to the people.
The Supreme Court finalised 229 cases in 2007, compared to 82 in the UK's House of Lords, 74 in the US Supreme Court, and 27 in New Zealand's Supreme Court.
The number of new cases passing through the country's 36 High Courts increased by almost 50 per cent from 2006 to 2008, with a knock-on increase in appeals to the Supreme Court.
The resulting caseload had created delays of up to 30 months, including in commercial appeals, which, the report, said potentially undermined Ireland's attractiveness as a destination for commercial or industrial activity.
Delays in family law appeals placed a considerable strain on families and individuals, and lengthy court proceedings also had the potential to hold up infrastructural projects and increase their cost.
"A failure to address the problems posed by Ireland's superior court appeal system may be damaging for Irish society and for the Irish economy," the report warned.
"Without a reform of the system, increased delays are inevitable."
Increasing the number of judges and divisions of the court would "run the risk of inconsistency", the report said. It also ruled out establishing a court of appeal on a statutory footing alone, as it would be unable to deal with constitutional issues and would lack credibility.
It said many of the cases appealed to the Supreme Court would be more appropriately dealt with by an intermediate appellate court.
A consolidating amendment to Article 34 of the Constitution would establish a new court clearly and eliminate any incoherence in the Constitution, it said.
Minister for Justice Dermot Ahern welcomed the report, but was wary of increasing costs. He said he would not rule out a referendum, but would not commit to one until his department had examined the report's recommendations and devised "a cost-effective solution".
He said the delays at the Supreme Court were of concern, but he was anxious to ensure costs to the State were minimised.