What will our Court of Appeal do?

The Four Courts in Dublin, where the country's High and Supreme Courts reside. Credit Richard Watts on Flickr

On October 4th we as a nation passed the 33rd Amendment of the Constitution in the Court of Appeal referendum.

The yes vote consented to the establishment of a new fifth layer to Ireland’s judicial system, a new Court of Appeal which will operate as Ireland’s second highest level of judiciary in between the already existing High and Supreme Courts.

However, a lack of informed discussion on the courts referendum, largely due to the greater importance apportioned to the Seanad referendum by the media, means that a lot of people are now wondering what effect it will actually have on our courts system.

Function

The Court of Appeal will hear appeals from the High Court, thereby lessening the burden of the Supreme Court which currently has a four-year backlog of appeals to be heard [that includes over 500 appeals awaiting resolution].

The new court will be able to refer cases to the Supreme Court, which will only preside over disputes that “involve a matter of general public importance”, according to Minister for Justice Alan Shatter.

The Four Courts in Dublin, where the country's High and Supreme Courts reside. Credit Richard Watts on Flickr
The Four Courts in Dublin, where the country’s High and Supreme Courts reside. Credit: Richard Watts on Flickr

The Court of Appeal will also lead to the scrapping of the Court of Criminal Appeal, which formerly comprised of a mix of High and Supreme Court judges, and was frequently derided for its inactivity.

How much will it cost, when will it start and how many new judges will there be?

According to the Government, the Court of Appeal will cost between €2.5-€3m per year to operate with the main expenses accruing from judges fees, support staff and overhead costs.

All going well it should be up and running by Autumn 2014, and will necessitate the appointment of around 10 new judges (dependent on how many will be needed to get through the Supreme Court’s backlog at the time of establishment).

How comprehensively was it passed?

As opposed to the Seanad referendum which was defeated, all 43 electoral constituencies voted in favour of the formation of the Court of Appeal, and the yes vote accounted for 65% of turnout.

Former solicitor and current Justice Minister Alan Shatter has endured a tempestuous relationship with lawmakers since coming to office. Credit European External Action Service on Flickr
Former solicitor and current Justice Minister Alan Shatter has endured a tempestuous relationship with lawmakers since coming to office. Credit: European External Action Service on Flickr

Again, much criticism was aimed at political parties and the media for prioritising one referendum over another and glossing over many of the substantive issues, however the general political consensus on the yes side effectively put paid to any meaningful public discourse on the issue.

Any criticisms?

The main point of contention around the new court’s function is the amount of judges Ireland will have in the upper echelons of the judicial system.

Added to the 36 High and 10 Supreme Court judges, the 10 new appointees to the Court of Appeal will mean that we’ll have around 56 judges. That’s a third of the amount of judges that England has for 1/15th the size of population, and some sceptics have labelled this excessive.

As such, those opposed to the constitutional change have lobbied to increase the workload of judges currently in operation, and have suggested reducing their nine-week holiday period in order to work through the massive backlog more effectively.

(Featured image credit Richard Watts on Flickr)

 

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