The Minister for Justice has published the Courts Bill 2013 (explanatory memorandum here) which will change two aspects of how the courts system works in Ireland: (1) reporting of certain cases ordinarily held in private and (2) the monetary jurisdiction of the lower courts.
(1) Relaxation of the rules on private hearings
The changes in the Bill on private hearings will commonly be described as relaxing the in camera rule. In fact, what the Bill does is add to the list of cases which must be heard otherwise than in public but to which bona fide members of the press may attend, so long as nothing which might identify the parties is published. (There is a slight technical difference between cases heard “in camera” and those heard “otherwise than in public”, but it’s not relevant here.) The change will essentially allow for court reporters to publish accounts of family law* proceedings, including applications for domestic violence orders although judges will retain the power to exclude the press in certain circumstances. Interestingly, a judge will have the power to exclude the press from hearing evidence which may contain commercially sensitive information. This provision is likely to be relied on in many family law cases, justifiably or otherwise. The aim is to increase public confidence in the judicial system by partially removing the veil which ordinarily hangs over such cases.
It is somewhat disappointing to see that while the Bill proposes to allow court reporters to attend hearings at which an application for a domestic violence order is made, the Bill does not close off the loophole whereby breach prosecutions can be fully reported. I wrote last October:
if a domestic violence order is breached, a criminal prosecution is brought and held in public. Anyone can attend the hearing and the media can report on it. After years of this unacceptable position being tolerated, it appears that situation will change.
The Department informed me that it was intended to close off the loophole in a Criminal Law (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill but I do not see why it could not be included in the Courts Bill. I assume that breach prosecutions will be made subject to the new rules in the Courts Bill, so that the press can attend hearings and publish reports so long as they do not identify the parties. Nevertheless, it is hoped that the restriction on reports of breach prosecutions will be introduced soon.
* Family includes, in this context, cases involving civil partners and cohabitants.
(2) Increase in civil jurisdiction of the lower courts
The Bill will increase the jurisdiction of the District Court from the current €6,348.69 to €15,000. Over that amount the Circuit Court will hear cases with a value up to €75,000 (up from €38,092.14), beyond which cases will be dealt with in the High Court. This should have the effect of reducing legal costs: as a rule of thumb, the higher the court the higher the cost and by bringing more cases into the lower courts the costs of those cases will be reduced while the burden of the High Court will also be lessened.
Two things are interesting in this part of the Bill:
- The Circuit Court will have jurisdiction in personal injury cases only to a maximum of €60,000. The Minister’s justification is as follows: “As a further measure to deal with concerns relating to possible inflation of awards and a consequent effect on insurance costs, I am proposing to restrict the jurisdiction of the Circuit Court to €60,000 in respect of personal injury actions.” I don’t know what this means other than suggesting that the insurance industry lobbied for the lower limit.
- In 2002 the Government changed the law to increase the District Court jurisdiction to €20,000 and the Circuit Court to €100,000 (with no lower personal injury limit specified) (I wrote about it here). The relevant sections of the Courts and Court Officers Act 2002 were never commenced (ie. activated) on the basis that the Government wanted to monitor the impact of the Injuries Board. They are now increasing jurisdiction by only 75% of what was decided on 11 years ago, for reasons unknown.
Nevertheless, the changes are good as the existing limits of the jurisdiction of both lower courts is too low. The greatest impact may be on the District Court which, due to the historic low limit, has tended not to have a significant civil law list. That will now change.