Keeping Courts open and safe in 2020 – Courts Service Annual Report 2020 confirms 580,000 matters through the courts, first 2,411 remote courts ever and 13,326 video links to Irish prisons (3,798 in 2019)
The Chief Justice Frank Clarke, Chairperson of the Courts Service Board, presented the Annual Report 2020 to Minister of State at the Department of Justice, with special responsibility for Civil and Criminal Justice, Ms. Hildegarde Naughton T.D. today at a socially distanced small event in Phoenix House, Smithfield, Dublin.
The Chief Justice’s brief words to the socially distanced few, recognised that the Courts, no less than all other sectors of society, had to adapt quickly and in radical ways in 2020. Attributing the innovative and speedy approach to work already underway as a result of the Courts Service’s recently commenced Modernisation Programme, the Chief Justice acknowledged that the main focus was ‘to try to keep as much of the core function operational as could be achieved while complying with public health regulation and guidance, with particular emphasis on supporting vulnerable court users and domestic violence applications.. Many of the innovations which occurred would not have been thought of 10 years ago’
The Chief Justice recognised the great effort made to establish the remote courts option, which the Courts Service put in place in a matter of weeks, within the first month of the pandemic. 2020 saw 2,411 remote courts take place, an increase from zero the previous year and 13,326 video links to Irish prisons increased from 3,798 in 2019, supporting the sector wide effort to minimise the incidence of Covid-19 in prisons.
Ms Angela Denning, Chief Executive, of the Courts Service also recognised the dedication of Courts Service staff, judiciary, practitioners, the wider justice sector including the Department of Justice to ensuring that the courts stayed open and safe in 2020. Ms. Denning acknowledged ‘Our introduction of remote court technology since April 2020 has facilitated 5,873 Court sittings, hearing thousands of matters and cases. Considerable effort was also made by Courts Service staff to make the most of our buildings, repurposing locations and identifying other external venues to ensure courts could proceed while adhering to public health guidelines and restrictions. Many staff working in operational roles, court office and support office roles found new and innovative ways to work and continue to provide access to justice to as many as we could under the circumstances’.’
The Courts Service Annual Report 2020: Statistical overview
- 65% increase in domestic violence applications over 5 years.
- 96% drop in possession cases over 7 years, 65% drop in bankruptcies, and 46% drop in debt judgments ‘marked’.
- Increase by 16% of drugs cases at District Court level up to 38,635 cases in 2020 from 33,242 in 2019. The increase in drugs cases is up from 23,216 from 2016 – an increase of 66% over the past four years.
- 15% in new and appeal cases relating to serious crime to 21,322, from 18,530 cases in 2019.
- 11% increase of new serious cases in the Circuit Criminal Courts, 18,275 new serious cases in 2020 up from 16,487 in 2019. This is up from 13,974 such cases in 2016 – an increase in serious crime of 31% over four years.
- 31% increase in Circuit Court criminal cases over 4 years.
- 66% increase in less serious drugs cases over four years.
- There was however a reduction in the number of less serious and minor crimes coming to the District Courts, down 6% to 382,455 in 2020 from 406,480 in 2019.
- 70% drop in licensing applications – due to pandemic shutdown.
- The Supreme Court and the Court of Appeal are completely up-to-date with all matters having used remote technology for almost all their hearings.
- Criminal Trials with juries were affected by restrictions, but use of vacation periods for hearings and the restart of hearings across the country earlier this year has seen waiting times managed.
- The Special Criminal Court received cases involving 116 offences and 31 defendants last year – up from 70 offences involving 24 defendants in 2019.
- Personal Injury Actions – reductions in new cases and awards.
- New Personal Injury cases filed were down 19% to 17,810 in 2020, from 22,000 in 2019. There was an €8 million drop in the total amount of awards at High Court level and a €5 million reduction in the Circuit Civil Court. This marked a 22% reduction in the amount awarded at Circuit Court level. Likewise there was an almost one quarter (23%) decrease in Garda Compensation claims.
- Personal Finances and Debt – 96% reduction in new Possession cases over 7 years.
- There was a marked drop in new cases initiated in the area of personal finance, no doubt because of pandemic related circumstances, a rise in such actions is expected after restrictions are lifted.
- A reduction of three quarters (73%) in new Property Possession cases points to policy, and the suspending of action in this area, but it also follows the trends of recent years which had seen new cases reduce by 82% over the previous 5 years (2014-18).
- The 327 new cases lodged last year were in comparison to 1,217 in 2019. The figures last year were down from 8,293 seven years ago – a 96% reduction in new possession cases in that time. Notwithstanding the unique circumstances of 2020, possession cases had already reduced by 85% over the previous six years. Orders to execute possession orders dropped from the 220 granted in 2019 to 70 last year – a two thirds reduction.
- At the same time personal debt saw a 44% decrease in Recovery of Debt (liquidated claims) cases initiated, with three quarters (77%) reduction in new bankruptcy summonses issued sought, and 65% decrease in Bankruptcy Petitions.
- There was also a 46% decrease in Judgments for debt marked in the office, with a 28% decrease in Personal Insolvency cases being filed at the Circuit Court. Orders to execute court judgments for debt fell from 2.457 in 2019 to 893 last year – for debts marked in an office. The same figures for execution orders for recovery of debts ordered and decided by a court dropped from 329 in 2019 to 139 last year.
Family Life and Disputes
- 65% increase in Domestic Violence applications over 5 years. The effects of lockdown for extended periods – did not decrease the availability of the family law courts – which remained open and part of the “We Are Still Here” campaign of the wider justice community. However, there is evidence that there were increased pressures or pressure points on family life throughout the pandemic requirements to stay at home.
- There was a 29% increase in new applications for Divorce with a one quarter increase in wives seeking divorce in the Circuit Court.
- Year on year there was also a 12% increase in Domestic Violence protections sought, with more than a quarter (27%) increase in Childcare orders sought to protect the interest and safety of vulnerable children. Meanwhile a 71% increase was experienced in Adoption matters initiated in the High Court.
- Over the past five years there has been a 65% increase in the number of domestic violence applications sought from the courts – increasing from 13,941 to 22,970 in that period.
- However, just as other areas of civil, less urgent, actions, there was a reduction of more than 48% in new Judicial Separations sought, a 40% decrease in Maintenance orders sought, and a 30% decrease in guardianship, custody and access in the District Court.
- Lessened commercial activity during the pandemic is evidenced by the numbers of new cases initiated for Licensing and claims of bad products and service. The 70% decrease in Licensing applications reflects the closure of public houses and dance venues, for a lot of the past year – where special exemption orders for late serving of alcohol were not required.
- Likewise the downturn in the area of commerce saw an almost one quarter reduction in actions and processes initiated for recovery of monies or replacement of goods. This resulted in a 23% decrease in Small Claims initiated.
- Prolonged working from home, and people going on PUP / income continuance saw a reduction in employment law cases from 113 down to 16.
- The Commercial List of the High Court saw an increase in new cases of 185, up from 172 the previous year. The court saw 143 cases resolved in 2020 up from 95 the previous year.
- There was an 84% increase in Assault (Civil) actions filed in the High Court.
- There was also a one third (32%) decrease in actions relating to the Regulation of Professions (Solicitors, Doctors, Nurses etc.).
- Although there was a 29% decrease in Habeas Corpus actions taken to challenge the legality of detention, there was also a 37% increase in High Court Bail applications – mostly reflecting appeals for denial of bail in the lower courts.
The Courts Service numbers at a glance
• €1.98 billion in court funds managed on behalf of minors and wards of court.
• 1,300 training days provided for staff – mainly through online/virtual classrooms.
• €66 million in capital expenditure.
• Budget of €155 million – 78% from the exchequer and 22% raised through fees.
• The net cost to the state of running the courts across the country is €122 million.
• The Courts Service collected €6.5 million in fines last year.
• The Courts Service administered €1.4 million in poor box payments in 2020.