Courts Service Annual Report 2020 Offers Insights into Challenging Year

The Courts Service Annual Report sets out the changes and trends in the Irish courts system in 2020.  

In 2020, the courts, like all other organisations, had to adapt quickly to the COVID-19 pandemic and sought to do so with minimal disruption to the justice system.  Much of the annual report focusses on the challenges to be overcome in the sudden and unexpected transition to working largely virtually in 2020 and the changes necessary in the move to online/virtual and socially-distanced in person hearings.

At the start of 2020, the Courts Service had begun a 10-year Modernisation Programme, aimed at making the courts more digitally accessible. This programme focused on seven key priorities identified in the Corporate Strategic Plan 2018-2020. However, the nationwide lockdown which started in March 2020 reduced the focus to two key priorities, namely keeping the courts and ancillary services open whilst maintaining the safety of its staff, the judiciary and users of court services. 

Chief Justice Frank Clarke notes in his introduction to the Annual Report that the adoption of new remote methods of working is likely to have a significant influence on the procedures adopted in the coming years to create a justice system more fit for the digital age.

Some key measures introduced to control the spread of COVID-19 included all written reserved judgments being delivered electronically and published via the courts website; attendances at court offices by appointment only to reduce footfall; and only essential hearings proceeding as in-person hearings during the most restrictive lockdowns.

Interestingly, the courts received just under 597,000 new cases in 2020, amounting to a decrease of 15% across all courts, with a 31% decrease in civil applications and a 6.5% decrease in new criminal cases. Just under 111,000 new contentious civil cases were begun in Ireland in 2020, a decrease of 20% from 2019. Time will tell how much of this reduction reflects the suspension of activities which might usually give rise to claims, and how much reflects interruptions in getting new cases issued.  Either way, this can on no analysis be suggested as reflecting a long-term trend and the statistics are likely to revert to previous levels as soon as they reflect a fully reopened economy and society.

The Supreme Court saw a 38% reduction in applications for leave to appeal filed in 2020 and a 43% decrease in the appeals resolved in 2020. The Supreme Court received 158 applications for leave to appeal. It granted leave in respect of 40 of these (25%) and refused leave in relation to 111 applications (70%). This figure represents a 14% increase since 2015, the first year of the “new model” Supreme Court following the establishment of the Court of Appeal in 2014.  However, 2020 is the first year with a year-on-year decrease in applications for leave to appeal, with a decrease of 36%.  The decrease, like all decreases across the court system, is likely explained by the overall reduction in cases heard by the High Court during the COVID-19 restrictions. Of 1,360 appeals transferred from the Supreme Court to the Court of Appeal on its inception in 2014, only 39 remain pending.

Similarly, there was a 51% decrease in appeals heard by the Court of Appeal, which the Annual Report notes is attributable to the reduction in cases heard by the courts in 2020. Despite this, the Court of Appeal determined almost as many new appeals in 2020 as it did in 2019, with 476 in 2020. In our view, this was because the appellate courts, who do not generally hear oral evidence, found it much easier to migrate large volumes of their business to a virtual/online model. At 31 December 2020, there were 534 appeals pending in the Court of Appeal, a 37% decrease from the same date in 2019.

The waiting time for a hearing in the Court of Appeal at the end of 2020 was approximately 25 weeks, down from 60 weeks in 2019.  This is obviously influenced by a net reduction in new incoming cases.

In 2020, there was a 4% decrease in incoming Judicial Review cases and a 6.5% increase in Judicial Review matters resolved by court/out of court.  There were 913 judicial review applications commenced in 2020 and 1,536 judicial review matters were resolved. The reduction in new cases may well reflect to some extent the inevitable interruption to State decision-making processes during the restrictions, though the relatively low decrease tends to suggest that the level of interruption was fairly modest, i.e. State decision-making processes continued to function at close to normal levels overall during the restrictions. The increase in cases resolved may reflect the fact that Judicial Review cases almost never require oral evidence; often are urgent; and are amenable to being heard remotely, so it is perhaps unsurprising that the High Court cleared some backlog in a class of cases which are less likely to require in-person hearing.

Other highlights include:

  • there were 11 High Court applications for examinership in 2020, compared to 8 in 2019;
  • there were 75 applications for winding up orders made to the High Court, 49 of which were granted;
  • there were 7 High Court applications to restrict directors, 2 of which were ordered: this is an increase from 2019 when there were 5 applications, 1 of which was ordered;
  • there were 35 new applications for personal insolvency, less than half of the 73 applications made in 2019;
  • there was a 24% increase in High Court written judgments made in 2020 with 434, compared to 294 in 2019; this may reflect the fact that judges who could not sit in person busied themselves in writing up reserved judgments (as they are not normally allocated writing time, unlike in many other common law jurisdictions);
  • 13,326 remote (video-link) appearances were facilitated from prisons;
  • 17,810 personal injury actions were filed in 2020, a decrease of 19% on 2019;
  • personal injury award amounts in the High Court ranged from €7,500 to €22,500,000. The total amount awarded was over €222 million.

Coming years will reveal the extent to which this forced experiment in modernisation will become embedded in the overall functioning of the Irish courts. However, the experiences of 2020 show that the courts are receptive to the changes necessary to modernise for the digital age. 

Also contributed by Aoife Gunning.

This document has been prepared by McCann FitzGerald LLP for general guidance only and should not be regarded as a substitute for professional advice. Such advice should always be taken before acting on any of the matters discussed.