The Irish Times view on the Court of Appeal backlog: Grinding to a standstill

Fine Gael oversaw creation of Court of Appeal. It has responsibility to make sure it doesn’t fail

The Court of Appeal has dealt with 850 appeals it inherited from the Supreme Court, but 550 remain, and meanwhile its own separate caseload continues to increase. File photograph: Bryan O’Brien/The Irish Times

The Court of Appeal has dealt with 850 appeals it inherited from the Supreme Court, but 550 remain, and meanwhile its own separate caseload continues to increase. File photograph: Bryan O’Brien/The Irish Times

 

The Court of Appeal is less than four years old. Its president, George Birmingham, is less than two weeks in the job. Yet the warning from Mr Justice Birmingham last week that he faces an “immediate crisis” due to a huge backlog of appeals and a shortage of judges sounds oddly familiar. Why? Because for a decade leading up to 2014 – the year the Court of Appeal was established after a referendum – this was an incessant refrain from the judges of the Supreme Court. Indeed, the bottleneck at the apex of the judiciary was precisely the reason the Court of Appeal was set up in the first place.

Chronic backlog

Instead, it’s now clear, the creation of the new court, which sits between the High Court and the Supreme Court, has merely resulted in the transfer of the chronic backlog from one place to another, and done so at huge expense. On his second day as president, Mr Justice Birmingham said waiting times of at least 20 months for appeal hearings would get worse, and more appeal dates could be cancelled, unless new judges were appointed urgently.

The Court of Appeal is a vital part of the court system, and the Government has a duty to ensure it can do its work

The new court has dealt with 850 appeals it inherited from the Supreme Court, but 550 remain, and meanwhile its own separate caseload continues to increase. The court is supposed to have 10 judges, but two have recently retired and three more are due to leave within months. As the court president pointed out, it’s difficult to allocate complex appeals to judges due to depart soon, as such cases involve reserving judgments.

This situation cannot continue. The Court of Appeal is a vital part of the court system, and the Government has a duty to ensure it can do its work. To begin with, the law should be changed so as to allow judges deliver, after their retirements, judgments on cases which they have heard before retirement. Next, the Cabinet must ignore the vacuous protestations of Minister for Transport Shane Ross and nominate new judges to the court as a matter of urgency.

Fine Gael oversaw the creation of the Court of Appeal. Now it has a responsibility to make sure it doesn’t fail.

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