Executive summary

As part of its 2020 Programme for Government: Our Shared Future, the Irish Government prioritised reforming courts to make their processes more efficient, affordable and accessible. This led to the creation of a Judicial Planning Working Group to identify reform initiatives and evaluate staffing needs required to enhance the efficient administration of justice over the next five years. This Working Group was established in the context of broader justice sector reforms in Ireland that are being pursued in response to increasingly widespread calls from citizens for more accessible justice services that meet 21st-century needs. The comprehensive Review of the Administration of Civil Justice, led by the former President of the High Court, Mr. Justice Peter Kelly, and the ongoing criminal justice system review, highlight the ongoing efforts to modernise the court system in Ireland.

This study analyses the judicial workforce and relevant support structures and processes. A summary of the main findings and recommendations is presented below.

The Irish justice system is currently experiencing a shortage of judges, has limited case management capacity, and court operations are not as efficient as they could be. Furthermore, technological infrastructure needs to be upgraded to manage and collect data from court cases. To enable smooth court operations, there is scope to increase judicial positions at every court level in Ireland. The study suggests the notional need for an average minimum increase of 26.2% in full-time judgeships, although these results do not capture potential efficiency gains in required judicial time that could result from the improved, more streamlined court operations that this report also recommends. Additional temporary judicial positions are required to manage case backlogs generated by the COVID-19 pandemic, and judicial back-up teams are needed to cover for sick leave, holidays and targeted backlog reduction efforts. For this purpose, the study recommends introducing a more flexible judicial hiring options, provided that specific safeguards for judicial independence are in place. Creating teams of legal staff at the court to assist with compiling all backlogged cases, reviewing them to screen out cases that were settled but were not reported as such, compiling issues lists, and developing solid case-management plans with the parties to resolve these cases would address the imminent need to handle backlogged cases. At the same time, more support staff is needed for judges and operations at several court levels.

In addition, the study identifies other areas where reform action could be beneficial to Ireland:

  • There is a need for a long-term strategy for the judiciary at each court level, framed by a broader joint strategic outlook for the Irish justice system as a whole, with a view to reaping the optimal benefits of Ireland’s current reform agenda. It is important to establish effective mechanisms to sustain meaningful collaboration among the key justice stakeholders, and develop and implement change management plans that align with a common long-term vision for the future of the Irish justice system.

  • Second, there is room to strengthen strategic human resources management through evidence-based planning, additional training, specialisation, and strategies to attract and retain a highly qualified and diverse pool of applicants to the judicial profession. Carrying out a review of staff support and training needs could support these efforts.

  • Third, Ireland faces limitations in the collection and use of justice data. This may hinge on the fact that data is not currently collected for the purpose of case and court management, which limits the capacity of the Department of Justice and the judiciary to access the data needed to manage resource allocation effectively and assess case trends and their impact on judicial operations. The report highlights options to scale up the collection of data to underpin management decisions.

  • Fourth, while significant efforts have been undertaken by the Irish judiciary to streamline court processes, the study highlights inefficiencies across all court levels in relation to case management and identifies further scope for procedural simplification. Adopting advanced case-management techniques supported by an automated system could address this issue. Case- and court-specific timelines could be developed in the short term through collaboration between the judiciary and Courts Service, enabling the development of broader court performance measures, which this study recommends be adopted. Courts Service’s current Modernisation Plan envisions the creation of an advanced automated case-management system reflecting new timelines and performance measures, which would benefit from being developed in close collaboration with the judiciary. The report also underscores opportunities to introduce differentiated techniques based on case complexity and recommends consideration of the option to create case management teams to monitor case progression. The development of a sound automated system with the required features may take several years, and it is therefore urgent to commence the process. This effort should be placed in the broader context of an upgrade to existing digital tools and connectivity, building on the lessons learned in Ireland from the measures adopted during COVID-19 pandemic to mainstream the use of technology into procedural steps and trials.

  • Finally, the study emphasises options to enhance accessibility of justice for individual users and lay litigants by mapping their justice needs and identifying pathways to ensure that these needs are met, along with the need to adopt easy-to-use tools, information, partnerships with legal counselling services and ad hoc training for judges and court staff to facilitate their engagement with the justice system and the courts.

Looking ahead, holistic reforms to justice system processes and workload distribution in these areas could have a significant contribute to building a sound judiciary and improving overall court performance, taking advantage of the possibilities offered by digital tools, data collection and good practices from OECD countries to create a more efficient justice system that safeguards access by all to justice in Ireland. Indeed, the justice modernisation efforts underway in Ireland could be underpinned by a clearer understanding of the human resources needed and the factors that drive efficient court performance.

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