‘Pent-up demand’ in courts for debt cases as Covid protections end, Minister told

Official briefing notes impact of pandemic across justice sector from the courts to crime

Heather Humphreys who has  temporarily taken over the justice portfolio.   Photograph: Gareth Chaney/Collins

Heather Humphreys who has temporarily taken over the justice portfolio. Photograph: Gareth Chaney/Collins

 

There is an expected “pent-up demand” for courts, insolvency services and legal aid in relation to debt cases as pandemic protections and supports end, officials have told the Minister for Justice .

A briefing prepared for Heather Humphreys, as she temporarily took over the role to facilitate maternity leave for Helen McEntee in late April, outlines the impact of the pandemic across the justice sector from the courts to crime and even the classification of films.

The document outlines a decrease in the number of cases in the Supreme Court, the Court of Appeal and the High Court.

The High Court has seen a reduction in cases on the commercial list (down 58 per cent), non-asylum judicial reviews (down 18 per cent), personal injuries cases (down 14 per cent) and asylum cases (down 4 per cent).

Debt cases in the High Court fell by 69 per cent in 2020, down to 548 that year from 1,744 in 2019.

Department officials said this figure “supports expectations of pent-up demand for the services of the courts, ISI [Insolvency Service of Ireland], Legal Aid Board and Abhaile [service for those in mortgage arrears] once current banking and debt enforcement moratoria are lifted and when current social supports come to an end”.

In March, the President of the High Court Ms Justice Mary Irvine reportedly highlighted the expected demand from debt cases as she argued for between 15 and 20 more judges to be appointed during a Bar of Ireland online event.

This week Ms Humphreys was forced to defend the Government decision to appoint five judges in the wake of criticism from Ms Justice Irvine who told the summer edition of The Parchment Magazine that the High Court is in a “desperate situation” because of shortages on the bench.

Ms Humphreys said the five new judges, with the possibility of a sixth, was “one of the largest increases in judges in living memory”.

Her officials did not link the expected increase in debt cases to the number of judges in the briefing prepared for her at the end of April.

A department spokesman said the Government “is committed to ensuring the courts are adequately resourced to ensure the efficient administration of justice”. He also said the courts have returned to normal business since May and are working on a plan on how to deal with demands that will arise after the pandemic.

The High Court is said to have been sitting every day and additional sittings will also be held during the September vacation to address backlogs arising.

Crime levels

Separately in the briefing Ms Humphreys was told that Garda Commissioner Drew Harris had advised that “since the introduction of the current [Covid-19] restrictions there has been a noticeable decrease in most categories of crime, including public order offences”.

However, there were increases in domestic abuse (up 20 per cent), drugs possession, possession of offensive weapons, cybercrime and online fraud, and online child sexual abuse and exploitation.

Separately, the Data Protection Commission noted an increase of 8.8 per cent in terms of the number of cases logged during 2020 to a total of 10,156 cases. This is despite a drop in the number of contacts and complaints compared to 2019.

The Border Management Unit reported a significant decrease in passengers arriving into Dublin Airport from 15,172,081 in 2019 to 3,636,256 in 2020.

The disruption of film releases during the pandemic was reflected in the work of the Irish Film Classification Office (Ifco). While film submissions up to March 17th, 2020 (220) were broadly in line with 2019 (214) there was a 70 per cent drop for the rest of the year – 279 films versus 948 in the same period in 2019.

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