The Irish Times view on the court system: the long road to reform

The courts are poorly funded and the legal system is conservative by instinct - a mix not conducive to change

Mary Irvine, the first woman to have served as president of the High Court, retires this week after two years in the role. Those two years were an extraordinary time in the life of the country and the court, with the Covid-19 pandemic having brought normal activity to a halt and ushering in new ways of working. Given the central role of the High Court in the legal structure, Ms Justice Irvine’s assured handling of the crisis was vital in ensuring the justice system continued to function at a dangerous moment in national life. It will also leave a legacy, as it should lead to a reduction in the number of unnecessary in-person hearings and better use of technology in a sector that has been notoriously slow to embrace the digital revolution.

Ms Justice Irvine ran the High Court’s wardship list, which involves managing the affairs of some of the State’s most vulnerable people. For those often voiceless citizens she was an effective advocate; again this week she drew attention to the “deeply troubling” shortage of specialist beds for those suffering from eating disorders.

Court reform is a slow process. A judicial system that is poorly funded compared to the European mainstream sits atop a system that is conservative by instinct. The profession itself is controlled by the minority who have done well out of it. It’s a mix not conducive to change. But there has been progress in some areas. As chair of the committee of judges who drafted new personal injury guidelines, Ms Justice Irvine takes credit for her part in reforming a broken system and cutting awards for mainly minor injuries. That will improve confidence in the legal system. It is telling that the sharpest criticism of her came from within the profession, where some never forgave her for reducing legal incomes and aired their grievances loudly (if anonymously). That telling criticism provided a service, as a reminder of the entrenched opposition that must be faced whenever legal reform is on the agenda. It should go without saying that the overriding concern in designing a legal system is the best interests of society, not of those who make money in it.