Minister for Justice Heather Humphreys has defended the Government's approval for five extra High Court judges, following sharp criticisms from the president of the High Court that it is not enough.
In a sharp rebuke, the court's president, Ms Justice Mary Irvine, said she is "sort of speechless" at the number of judges that has been approved to help deal with a backlog of cases.
In an interview with the Parchment Magazine, she said the High Court is in “a desperate scenario” because of the shortages: “To make a real difference, we need 17,” she declared.
The five extra judges are “already accounted for”, with two to be assigned to crime, while Ms Justice Irvine said there are people held in custody for 18 months pending trial.
Another of the new judges appointed by the Cabinet will be needed to work on the strategic infrastructure and commercial planning list which needs three judges, but currently has one.
Another will be required to handle the State’s extradition list which she said is “set to double” due to a new agreement on European arrest warrants, and the fifth will deal with help-up cases on the asylum list.
“That’s the five new judges accounted for and that will just keep the tide at bay,” she said, adding that some personal injuries cases are forced to settle for reasons that have nothing to do with the facts of the case.
Some plaintiffs cannot afford to wait months for a case to be heard or a defendant may settle because the costs are accumulating while the case does not get heard, she said.
“These are factors which only come into play because we do not have enough judges to meet demand. This is not access to justice.
“I don’t understand how Government doesn’t seem to appreciate how important timely access to justice is for the citizen and for Irish business,” she added.
She also told the summer edition of the magazine of the Dublin Solicitors Bar Association that: "I sometimes think the fact that we can always provide a judge for a very urgent case doesn't help our case [for more judges].
“But the trouble is that to make room for that urgent case we have to cancel someone else’s case. I often feel it’s the small person that bears the brunt of the shortage of judicial resources.”
Speaking in Drogheda, Ms Humphreys was asked about Ms Justice Irvine's criticisms, saying that the five appointments are a "considerable increase".
She insisted the government is “committed to ensuring the courts are adequately resourced to allow for the efficient administration of justice”.
Ms Humphreys said: “That’s why we passed legislation only this month . . . to increase the number of High Court judges by five, and possibly six.”
She said: “That’s one of the largest increases in judges in recent memory.”
The Minister added that each new appointment costs approximately €370,000 per year for the salary, allowances and support staff.
She said the increase in the number of High Court judges from 37 to 42 is a “very significant investment” and a “considerable increase” in numbers “with the potential to add another one”.
Ms Humphreys said that the Judicial Planning Working Group is examining a range of issues, including the number of High Court and other judges as well as work practices and productivity in the Courts Service and it is due to report next spring.