Courts Service Report 2017: A lot done. More to do?

Author: Killian O'Reilly and Aideen Farrelly

August 16, 2018

Now that the Court term has concluded for the vacation period, here are some of the highlights from the Courts Service Annual Report for 2017 which was published in July:

Awards

The Courts awarded a total of €206m in personal injury claims in 2017. Almost half of that (€99 million) related to medical negligence claims.

The report notes that there were only 400 awards in personal injury cases in the High Court in 2017 but doesn’t break out average award figures. That said, it is possible to establish that of those 400 High Court awards, only 62% exceeded the minimum High Court jurisdiction of €60,000.

The Circuit Court made 1075 awards in personal injury cases nationwide. Of those, 37% fell below the minimum level of €15,000 and 61% fell between €15k-€60k.

Number of Personal Injury Claims

Over 22,000 claims were issued across the District, Circuit and High Court. 39% of those (8909) were issued in the High Court, with 55% (12,497) issued in the Circuit Court.

While the number of claims issued reflects a gradual upwards trend over the last 5 years, it does not support the view that there has been an upsurge in personal injury claims.

One area where there has been a marked increase is in Circuit Court defamation claims, where the number of claims increased by 85% between 2016 and 2017. The Courts Service does not identify the cause of this increase. Perhaps it can be explained at least in part by an increase in claims arising from social media use and anecdotally, we know that there has been a rise in “shoplifting” style claims in retail outlets. An increase in the monetary jurisdiction of the Circuit Court from €38,000 to €75,000 in 2014 may also be a contributory factor.

The report also notes that there was a 56% decrease in the amount of employment claims taken through the Courts. This is likely to be as a result of the Workplace Relations Commission, which is a more efficient and cheaper system for the resolution of employment disputes.

The Commercial Court Division of the High Court, which deals with high value and urgent commercial disputes, saw a 23% increase in cases, likely to be as a direct result of the upturn in the economy.

Court of Appeal

The Court of Appeal is still struggling with its heavy workload. Chief Justice Frank Clarke outlined in his introduction that “despite utilising all available resources, appeals lodged in the Court of Appeal exceeded the number disposed of.”

The Court of Appeal has not met expectations in terms of dealing with the backlog of cases inherited from the Supreme Court in 2013. The current waiting time for an appeal in a civil case to be heard is 20 months. We are aware that the Court of Appeal is currently drafting a Practice Direction to re-classify the criteria for “expedited appeals”, which may result in an increase in efficiency.

Key Challenges

The Courts Service faces an ongoing challenge of an ever increasing workload with relatively static resources. The focus of its Strategic Plan 2017-2020 is to optimise the use of technology, improve processes and case management, provide improved court facilities and to ensure effective governance and accountability. Some measures proposed by the Courts Service to meet these goals include putting in place an online Legal Costs Adjudicator regime, extending the eLicensing system nationwide and expanding their website, www.courts.ie.

It remains to be seen whether problems such as the extreme backlogs faced by the Court of Appeal can be successfully overcome in the short term. There have been calls by the Chief Justice for the appointment of additional judges to ease the strain. How the Judicial Appointments Commission Bill and the Judicial Council Bill will impact on the ability of the Courts Service to deliver on its mandate remains to be seen.

Perhaps a case of “A lot done. More to do?”

The report can be accessed here.

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