The Irish Times view on access to justice: a lot more to do

The biggest problem with the courts system – one that makes a mockery of principle of open access to justice – is prohibitive cost of being involved in legal action

There has been progress in modernising the courts system in recent years, and some important milestones were noted by Chief Justice Frank Clarke in his annual start-of-term statement this week.  Photograph: Brian Lawless/PA Wire

There has been progress in modernising the courts system in recent years, and some important milestones were noted by Chief Justice Frank Clarke in his annual start-of-term statement this week. Photograph: Brian Lawless/PA Wire

 

Change comes slowly in the legal system. A culture of deference, rigid hierarchies, institutional conservatism, entrenched interest groups and a legacy of under-funding by the State combined to produce a system that altered remarkably little over the course of the past century. The evidence has long been on display in the court system, where the digital revolution hasn’t yet happened and which has yet to adopt the norms of transparency now expected of all public services. Perhaps only the Garda Síochána – also, surely not coincidentally, long-micromanaged by the Department of Justice – has been more averse to change than the legal sphere.

There has been significant progress in recent years, and some important milestones were noted by Chief Justice Frank Clarke in his annual start-of-term statement this week. The courts are a more humane place than they were. Procedures are being updated. Cameras have been allowed into the Supreme Court for the delivery of judgments, and that scheme is likely to expand.

The mountains of paper beloved of lawyers are gradually – finally – being digitised. The Chief Justice could have made clearer commitments on the availability of court documents – a long-standing problem that seriously obstructs access to justice – but he did set out useful plans for the coming years, including an overhaul of the courts’ IT system and the introduction of new online filing procedures.

The biggest problem with the courts system – one that makes a mockery of the principle of open access to justice – is the prohibitive cost of being involved in legal action. Ultimately, responsiblility for serious intervention to bring down those costs falls to Government. And the Government manifestly has no appetite for taking it on.

Instead of devoting its time and resources to serious, much-needed reform that would benefit ordinary court users, it has allowed itself get bogged down in an interminable saga over a judicial appointments Bill dictated by Minister for Transport Shane Ross as the price for keeping Fine Gael in office.

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