33rd Amendment of the Constitution (Court of Appeal) Bill 2013: Second Stage

Wednesday, 24th July 2013

I welcome the Minister to the House. Unlike the arrangements in other common law jurisdictions, the Irish Supreme Court is the court of final appeal in all appeals from the lower courts. According to recent figures published by the Courts Service and reported in The Irish Times, the Supreme Court received 605 appeals last year, a 21% increase on 2011. It issued 114 judgments, up 56% from 2011. This is quite extensive compared with the US Supreme Court, which issued 64 judgments last year, and the UK Supreme Court which issued 85 judgments last year. We are all aware there is currently a four-year backlog of cases at the Supreme Court.

The establishment of a court of appeal would represent a major reform and streamlining of the court system, and will bring Ireland more in line with Article 6 of the European Convention of Human Rights. While retaining the right of appeal from the court of appeal to the Supreme Court, in line with well-defined constitutional standards, it will help reduce the backlog of cases by removing from the Supreme Court’s remit cases that are not appeals on constitutional issues or cases of major importance. This will make the Supreme Court more of a constitutional court in the true sense.
I welcome the abolition of the one-judgment rule in cases involving the constitutionality of laws. This will allow the Supreme Court to issue more than one judgment and will be beneficial to the development of jurisprudence and public interest law. I agree with the Minister, Deputy Shatter, that an efficient and effective court system will help make Ireland more attractive to investors and multinational companies.

My one concern pertains to section 7, which deals with the interface between this Bill and the Thirty-second Amendment of the Constitution (Abolition of Seanad Eireann) Bill 2013. This is not so much a concern about the Bill before us, which I fully support and welcome, but more about the disquiet it raises in me about how uncertain and complex are the ramifications of the possible abolition of the Seanad. This is just one example of many instances of “if the Seanad is retained, then this, and if the Seanad is abolished, then that”. For example, section 7 references the vote on the thirty-second amendment. If the people vote “Yes” to abolish the Seanad – a big if – the date of that decision is not the same as abolition day, which is also mentioned by this Bill. Therefore, is the implementation day of the court of appeal expected for the term of the next Government rather than within the term of the current Government or will we have to have many Bills with all of these choices? There is a question with regard to the day of the vote and the date of abolition, if agreed, because these are not the same.
As I made very clear during yesterday’s debate, the question of Seanad abolition is one for the people and the people alone to answer. However, I remain concerned about the lack of clarity and certainty about what our Constitution will look like without the Seanad and how the gaps that will be left will be filled.