The Chief Justice and the Presidents of the Court Jurisdictions
PUBLIC STATEMENT - March 31st 2020
The Chief Justice and the Presidents of each of the Courts (Court of Appeal, High Court, Circuit Court and District Court) held a remote meeting yesterday (Monday 30th March 2020) to review the measures already adopted to ensure the continuance of essential elements of the administration of justice during the COVID-19 pandemic but also to plan for the future.
As soon as it became clear that the coronavirus was spreading across Europe, the Courts Service began contingency planning.
An Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar T.D, addressed the Nation from Washington D.C. on Thursday 12th March 2020 and, on the following day, the Chief Justice and the other Court Presidents discussed the impact which the measures then announced by the Government would have on the safe conduct of court proceedings. It was agreed that all courts would move quickly towards dealing only with urgent cases or finishing proceedings already at hearing. It was agreed that each Court President would work in conjunction with relevant Courts Service staff to determine the urgent cases which would need to continue to be heard and to put in place practical measures to ensure that those cases could be conducted safely and in a manner which fully complied with all Government guidance and direction.
It must be acknowledged, however, that there are many cases which are urgent. Criminality and the arrest of suspects has not ceased. Urgent family and childcare issues remain. The legal rights of the vulnerable continue to require vindication. There has been an increase in urgent corporate insolvency matters.
The need to keep these vital aspects of the administration of justice open must be recognised as must the fact that they place different burdens on different courts with colleagues in both the District and Circuit Courts having to conduct a significant number of cases to meet those demands. The Chief Justice and the Presidents would like to acknowledge the dedication of those judges who have been sitting on a regular basis to ensure that urgent issues can be determined. Judges in the higher courts have, when not required for urgent sittings, been concentrating on ensuring that the delivery of judgments is brought up to date and that all necessary case progression (insofar as it can be conducted remotely) is continuing. This will allow those courts a better opportunity to immediately address any temporary backlog as soon as conditions allow.
The precise way in which necessary physical hearings have to be conducted is being kept under constant review and must, of course, be adjusted to reflect changes in Government guidance and direction. After the announcement by the Taoiseach of further restrictive measures last Friday evening work continued over the weekend leading to the publication of new measures on the Courts Service website on Sunday evening last, 29th March 2020. Those measures will be kept under further review to ensure that there is full compliance with the current high level of restriction. But it does remain the case that the administration of justice in urgent matters remains a vital part of the structure of the State.
However, the principal focus of the Chief Justice and the Presidents at their meeting held remotely yesterday was to plan for the future. While the precise level of restriction in place may be varied from time to time, the courts must plan against the likelihood that some form of restriction will remain in place for some time. With that in mind a lot of work has been done to increase the amount of court work which can be done without requiring persons to be physically present. Further measures will be considered as circumstances permit. There are many cases which are not so urgent that they must be dealt with immediately but which, nonetheless, cannot properly be adjourned for any appreciable period of time. Already a significant amount of court administration is being facilitated electronically to avoid the requirement to attend court offices.
Importantly, a considerable amount of work has been done on putting in place the ICT infrastructure necessary to facilitate remote court hearings which nonetheless comply with the constitutional obligation that justice be administered in public. An initial systems trial will be conducted in the immediate future and, if successful, will be expanded to ensure that the system works satisfactorily prior to it being deployed to conduct actual hearings. It is currently hoped that it will be possible in early course for the courts to pilot remote hearings, where they are suitable and where they can be conducted in a manner which is fair and where the parties and their representatives can comply with all Government guidance and direction for the time being in force. It may well be possible for such a pilot facility to be in place close to the beginning of the new legal term on 20th April 2020. Further statements will be issued to update both the public and practitioners on these developments and on other measures designed to allow the maximum number of cases to progress and be ultimately decided subject only to that being capable of being done safely. Each President will, in due course, issue further guidance on how such measures will apply in the relevant court.
It was also agreed that, in the current circumstances and in the light of current Government direction and guidance, it would be appropriate for judges, in cases where they considered it necessary, to comply with the obligation that justice be administered in public by means of allowing only bona fide members of the press to be present in court.
Finally, it should be noted that work is continuing to ensure that all elements of the Judicial Council are fully operational within the time limits specified in the Judicial Council Act 2019.