The Irish Times view on the District Court: ripe for reform

The workhorse of the courts system needs more investment and accountability

While the court sits in public, the often noisy, chaotic conditions make its work hard for the uninitiated to follow. Photograph: Matt Kavanagh

While the court sits in public, the often noisy, chaotic conditions make its work hard for the uninitiated to follow. Photograph: Matt Kavanagh

 

Few institutions are at once as important and as neglected as the District Court. The lowest tier of the court system is by far the busiest, with responsibility for dealing with everything from low-level crime and childcare to driving offences and planning. It is the place in which most citizens encounter the courts system; for some of them it is a life-shaping moment, for others a monthly appointment.

Yet its significance seems inversely related to the attention – and, those who run it argue, the resources – it receives. Having handled 82 per cent of the work of the courts system last year, and given the pressures on it, it does appear as if increasing caseloads have not been met with greater investment in judges and staff.

But there is also a significant gap in accountability in the District Court, and a strong case for drastic reform of its work practices. Its judges’ decisions are not published and the data on sentencing is patchy. While the court sits in public, the often noisy, chaotic conditions make its work hard for the uninitiated to follow. The judges’ decisions and conduct are subject to limited review, and they enjoy very wide discretion in choosing a punishment. In her book The Irish District Court: A Social Portrait, Dr Caroline O’Nolan noted that decisions could be influenced “by the character and humour of the presiding judge, the appearance and demeanour of the defendant or on previous interactions between the defendant and other criminal court actors”. That risks creating an impression of an arbitrary system of justice where individuals’ fortunes and livelihoods are shaped by the whims of a presiding judge. Successive governments have damaged the court further by allowing personal relationships to influence the appointment of some district judges.

Some of this is changing. The establishment of the Judicial Council will improve accountability and promised reform of the appointments system will reduce politicians’ involvement in the selection process. But the District Court is too important to put off other questions about its funding, its practices and its future.

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