The Irish Times view on court resources: running out of judges

A shortage of judges in the High Court should have been foreseen by Government

In July the president of the High Court, Ms Justice Mary Irvine, dispensed with the usual diplomatic formulas when she said the court was in "a desperate scenario" because of a shortage of judges. Court lists were under huge pressure and waiting times were growing to unacceptable levels. Ms Justice Irvine said the High Court alone would need 17 new judges.

She got five. In early summer the Government passed legislation to provide for that more modest increase, and in mid-September it nominated lawyers for appointment to the new positions. But in court last week, Ms Justice Irvine pointed out that none of those judges would be able to sit before November because they had not yet got their warrants of appointment. She said she would have no option but to cancel a “substantial amount” of trials including potentially rape and murder cases. That duly made headlines and appears to have unblocked whatever obstruction was holding back the appointments (neither Áras an Uachtaráin nor the Department of Justice would explain why it was taking so long to formally appoint the nominees). The appointments are due to be made at Áras an Uachtaráin today.

It should not have come to this. With the easing of Covid-19 restrictions, as well as long-term population growth, a predictable judicial retirement rate and the increase in complex litigation, these problems were foreseeable. Why the High Court has had to wait until the last minute – in fact, several weeks after the last minute – to receive a bare minimum increase has not been explained by Government. These appointments are not a gift to the judiciary or to the Courts Service; the people who suffer when cases get delayed are the victims of crime, injured people who have medical bills to pay and others whose lives are on hold while they await an outcome in their case.

In May the Government set up a working group on judicial resources. It will report by next April. It is good that serious thinking is taking place about the long-term needs of a growing system. But making plans for the future is not an excuse for neglecting problems in the present.