The Irish Times view on court reform: a creaking system

The State’s courts are in bad shape – and that’s bad for democracy

As Chief Justice Frank Clarke remarked at the Burren Law School last weekend, the nuts and bolts of an effective courts system are themselves vital to the democratic process. Photograph: Brian Lawless/PA Wire

As Chief Justice Frank Clarke remarked at the Burren Law School last weekend, the nuts and bolts of an effective courts system are themselves vital to the democratic process. Photograph: Brian Lawless/PA Wire

 

Poland’s recent experience shows that, even in advanced liberal democracies, the rule of law is a fragile thing. But it takes much less than outright political interference in the judicial-legal system – the cause of such scandal in Warsaw – to threaten that precious edifice. As Chief Justice Frank Clarke remarked at the Burren Law School last weekend, the nuts and bolts of an effective courts system are themselves vital to the democratic process. If the system is not seen to be working, then the public trust on which it is built grows weaker.

Some progress has been made in making the courts work better. The creation of the Court of Appeal and the opening of new court buildings across the country have been important advances. The long-overdue Judicial Council Bill, which will put in place a structure for training and disciplining judges, is finally close to being enacted. Mr Justice Clarke made a strong case for the construction of a new family court building in Dublin, stressing the “dreadful conditions” in which family litigation currently takes place. He also offered some useful ideas, questioning, for example, whether changes were required in how justice is administered at local level – a system that has changed relatively little in a century.

The judiciary has taken some steps on its own. Mr Justice Clarke has begun to open up the workings of the Supreme Court somewhat, while High Court president Mr Justice Peter Kelly is chairing a review of civil court procedures. Judges could do more: they could push for wider availability of court documents, they could use technology better and they could take more of a stand on the most pressing problem with the legal system: its exorbitant cost for citizens.

Ultimately, however, there is only so much that can be done without political will and investment. The Republic spends less than 0.2 per cent of GDP on its courts, putting it in third-last place in the EU. If the Government were to put a fraction of the energy it has wasted on the shoddy judicial appointments Bill into tackling the real problems with the legal system, we’d all be better off.

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