Court of Appeal: the new bottleneck

At least three more judges needed to give Court a fighting chance of providing required service

When the people voted in 2014 to amend the Constitution so as to allow for the creation of a Court of Appeal – an intermediate court to sit between the Supreme Court and the High Court – the Government sold the idea as essential to easing a chronic backlog of cases at the apex of the court system. It was a sound argument. An explosion in litigation and steady expansion of the High Court over many years had created a bottleneck at the Supreme Court where by 2014 there was a four-year waiting list for an appeal to be heard.

However, it’s now clear, three years on, that there was a serious design flaw in the new system as configured after that referendum. The situation in the Supreme Court is all but resolved; it has dealt with its legacy appeals and now, for the first time in its history, has the ability to select which cases to hear. Its workload has been slashed. The problem is that the bottleneck hasn’t gone away; it has simply transferred from the Supreme Court to the Court of Appeal. The situation is so bad that the appeals court is “coming to the point of being overwhelmed”, its president, Mr Justice Ryan, warned last week.

Since its establishment, the 10-judge Court of Appeal has been in overdrive. In 2016 alone, it disposed of 590 civil appeals and delivered 190 criminal law judgments. The backlog of 1,650 cases it inherited from the Supreme Court has been reduced to about 650, but with 600 new appeals coming each year from the High Court, appellants are having to wait a year for their cases to be heard. Those delays may get longer.

In an attempt to ease the pressure, Chief Justice Frank Clarke has offered to provide four Supreme Court judges to assist their colleagues on the Court of Appeal in hearing some of the legacy cases over a two-week period in December. That offers a short-term fix, but the only viable solution to the problem is clear. The Court of Appeal needs at least three more judges if it is to have a fighting chance of providing the service for which it was set up and which is vital to the proper functioning of the justice system.