Annual Report of the Supreme Court 2020
14th April 2021
Just Access and efficiencies achieved during Covid Restrictions
- Virtual hearings, automation of administration & services, online filing of appeals, and the E-filing of submissions now being fully utilised, has resulted in: no backlog of cases in the Supreme Court, waiting times slashed from a high of five years some years back, and down from 12 months in 2019, to three months currently.
- Court members involved remotely in ten international networks as Brexit approached.
- Court introduced new rules in 2020 to make its system even more efficient.
The annual report of the Supreme Court was launched today by Chief Justice Frank Clarke and offers a comprehensive insight into the important and varied work of the Court during 2020.
The Supreme Court Annual Report 2020 highlights the work of the court throughout what was an unprecedented and challenging year, which saw:
- A transition to remote hearings, with the first remote hearing taking only place 40 days after announcement of the first set of Covid related public health restrictions.
- 142 new applications for leave to appeal cases were lodged.
- 158 Applications for leave were resolved by year end.
- 117 remote sessions, ‘Virtual courts’, were held on the dedicated video-conferencing platform, Pexip.
- The Court delivered 89 written judgments.
The report details significant improvements in waiting times for appeals to be heard, to below 14 weeks - an historic low. As well as remote hearings, revised rules and practices were introduced to case management and steer cases to more net points for hearing in the court room.
The Chief Justice, Mr Justice Frank Clarke said that, “in a truly unprecedented year, the Supreme Court moved quickly to conducting its work remotely, ensuring continuity in the Court’s core function - the determination of cases that come before it”.
He said that following the announcement of Covid Restrictions in March 2020, “the Supreme Court in conjunction with the Courts Service, began to explore the possibility of remote hearings. Within weeks the Court was conducting all its business through remote hearings. All apart from one appeal occurred by remote hearing”.
Changes in Operations throughout 2020:
A change to remote hearings and automation of services in the Supreme Court were a feature of 2020, as the court responded to the restrictions on physical hearings and office visits imposed by the Covid pandemic. Supreme Court Registrar John Mahon said of the change to remote hearings “that the judges of the Court, and the staff who support them, developed the processes and procedures necessary to ensure that this move was effected in a just, efficient, and safe way. It is a testament to all concerned that Supreme Court hearings were not delayed in any significant way during the year and that a backlog of hearings was not allowed to develop. In fact, at year end, all scheduled appeals had their hearing”.
The automation of virtually all business flows in the office in support of the Court’s remote hearings and the sharing of electronic documentation, created significant challenges for office operations throughout the year. This happened in tandem with the necessity to observe physical distancing requirements and other Government guidance.
The challenges of 2020 were overcome.
The changes in procedures for hearing cases, and the number of applications for leave to appeal filed reducing in 2020, resulted in time gained being used to further reduce the waiting time for an appeal to get a hearing.
The Chief Justice said that the Supreme Court, “almost invariably now issues, in advance of the hearing of substantive appeals, a statement of case which sets out the understanding of the Court of the background and issues involved in the appeal. The statement of case is often accompanied by a request for clarification which allows the Court to better understand the precise matters on which the parties truly differ and which, therefore, the Court will be required to decide. This procedure had been in contemplation for some time but was expedited because of the need for greater focus given the limitations of remote hearings”.
Shortest Waiting times in Memory:
Appeals being granted leave to appeal today have a 14-week waiting time. The Chief Justice pointed out that some could have their hearings scheduled as early as June. The numbers of reserved judgments stood at 6 today, compared to up to 20 in other years. He said that the Supreme Court was operating with waiting times shorter than in living memory, and that it is approaching a point of being as short a waiting time as is possible.
It is likely that it will not be realistic to reduce the waiting time much further - except in those very rare cases where urgency requires – without unrealistic demands are placed both on the parties and on the Court.
The reduction in applications for leave filed is likely to be short lived and it is anticipated that the rate of increase in such applications experienced in the period 2014 to 2019 will resume later in the year.
Outreach Work of the Supreme Court – Community, Professions and Schools & Colleges
The Supreme Court has continued to operate its national outreach programmes. Ms Justice Marie Baker of the Supreme Court reported that during early 2020 the Court sat in both Waterford and Kilkenny. Meetings and conversations were had with civic society and community groups, schools, colleges, and professional associations in both cities. Large attendances were experienced at public lectures delivered by members of the court – and the judges were particularly taken by the level of interest in the work of the Supreme Court.
Ms Justice Baker expressed how pleased the Court was with the Comhrá (conversation) programme which enables secondary school students to ask questions by live video- link to judges of the Supreme Court. That extended last year – before Covid - to Comhrá Live – where the court visited five schools in the South East and engaged with the students, answering questions of a wide and varied nature. The programme continued online as the year progressed.