Chief Justice says ‘unrealistic’ expectations of role underline need for ‘comprehensive’ reform

Artificial Intelligence is ‘looming challenge’ to courts, District Court president tells centenary conference

The Chief Justice Donal O’Donnell has said the “unrealistic” expectations created for the holder of the office of Chief Justice underline a need for “comprehensive review and reform” of the role.

The increased statutory roles of the Chief Justice, combined with expansion of the Supreme Court’s international obligations and other engagements, “creates unrealistic and unsustainable expectations” of the office holder who is still expected to play a full role as presiding member in the Supreme Court, the “most important aspect” of the role, Mr O’Donnell said.

Addressing a conference in Dublin Castle on Friday marking the centenary of the “revolutionary” establishment of Ireland’s independent courts system, he listed some of many statutory functions of the Chief Justice who also sits on more than 30 committees.

He has suggested the Chief Justice be permitted to nominate any serving judge to perform some of the statutory roles currently assigned to the Chief Justice, which would improve efficiency but requires legislative change.

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The role of Chief Justice today, and the support necessary to perform it, “requires comprehensive review and reform”, he said. He could identify with a comment by a character in a novel, The Fraud, by Zadie Smith, who declares: “Poor man. Who’d be a Chief Justice?”

The presidents of the High, Circuit and District Courts told the conference of significant increases in the number and complexity of cases coming before their courts.

High Court president, Mr Justice David Barniville, said, for reasons including the commencement last year of the Assisted Decision-Making Capacity (ADMC) Act providing for all High Court wards to be discharged within three years, there is “enormous” work to do to protect the interests of vulnerable people.

Circuit Court president Patricia Ryan said its jurisdiction, roles and responsibilities have grown “immensely”, reflecting the complex needs of our society and growing population and the expansion and complexity of new legislation. Dealing with applications under the ADMC Act is anticipated to have a significant effect on the Circuit Court’s resources, she said, noting an additional five judges for that work are yet to be appointed.

District Court president Paul Kelly said there were 547,519 new incoming matters before the District Courts in 2022, representing 85 per cent of all cases before the entire courts, when the District Courts then had just 36 per cent of the country’s judges.

Family law and childcare cases occupy significant time, he said. “These see people at their lowest ebb, fighting desperately for protection from violence, nowadays often violence from adult children of elderly parents; or to recover arrears of maintenance, or access to their children.”

The “most significant” change over the past century has been in the thinking and mindset of the court and its judges with a greater focus on matters such as human rights, civil liberties, protection and welfare of children, and support and recognition for victims, he said.

A “looming threat” to the courts is Artificial Intelligence, he said. “Can we trust what is put in front of us?”

Surreptitious recording of court proceedings and the posting online of sensitive material in breach of the in camera rule is causing great difficulty for judges and the parties and children involved in litigation, he said.

The ‘Century of Courts’ conference, organised by Professor Niamh Howlin of University College Dublin with the Courts Service and the Irish Legal History Society, was addressed by other senior judges, Courts Service CEO Angela Denning, academics, barristers and historians.

A multi-media exhibition at the event included a ‘New Irish courts’ movie reel from April 12th 1924, featuring the new Irish judges at Dublin Castle; designs for proposed brehon-style judicial robes which were not adopted; artwork by court sketch artist Mick O’Connell and commemorative stamps launched by An Post for the centenaries of the Courts of Justice Act 1924, which established the new courts, and the Ministers and Secretaries Act 1924, establishing the Irish Civil Service.

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