By Terry Heaney, Partner, Defence Litigation Unit
In November 2010, following a comprehensive review of existing legislation, the Law Reform Commission published its report on the Consolidation and Reform of the Courts Acts.
The report recommends that the existing Courts Acts should be consolidated into a single Courts (Consolidation and Reform) Act. The Courts Acts currently comprise two hundred and forty different pieces of legislation. One hundred and forty six of these Acts precede the foundation of the State. One hundred of these date back to the nineteenth century and some date back even further. For example, the requirement that judges wear wigs and gowns (“coifs and habits”) during legal terms is found in the Courts Act 1476. The single piece of legislation proposed by the Law Reform Commission would reduce to three hundred and fifty nine over fifteen hundred sections which comprise the existing Courts Acts.
In addition to modernising the legislative framework within which the courts operate, the Law Reform Commission has proposed a number of significant reforms which would improve the efficiency and effectiveness of the Irish legal system. Many of these are of particular relevance to the conduct of personal injuries litigation.
The new legislation proposed by the Law Reform Commission aims to simplify and standardise court procedures and the language and terminology used. For example, different terms are currently used to describe a person bringing civil proceedings such as “Plaintiff” in personal injury actions, “Applicant” in judicial review cases and “Petitioner” in company law matters. It is recommended that “Applicant” be used to describe any person bringing civil proceedings, “Respondent” to describe any person served with civil proceedings and “Application Notice” to describe any document initiating civil proceedings.
Monetary Jurisdictional Limit of the Circuit Court
The report recommends that the jurisdictional limit of the Circuit Court should be increased from €38,092.00 to €50,000.00 for personal injury claims and €100,000.00 for all other claims. This should reduce legal costs as many cases which are presently litigated in the High Court could be dealt with in the Circuit court resulting in lower solicitors’ professional fees and savings in senior counsel’s fees.
Judicial Case Management and Case Conduct
The report proposes that parties to litigation should be obliged to comply with “case conduct principles”. The issues between the parties should be identified, defined, narrowed and prioritised as early as possible. Proceedings should be conducted in a manner which is just, expeditious and likely to minimise costs. The parties should be encouraged to use alternative dispute resolution procedures to settle the proceedings.
In keeping with recent changes in court rules, particularly concerning the Commercial Court, the report proposes that the principles of “judicial case management” be adopted for the conduct of all civil proceedings. The court shall, so far as is practicable, ensure that the parties:-
• Conduct the proceedings in accordance with the above case conduct principles,
• Have regard to the need to allot the court’s time and resources appropriately, and
• Deal with the proceedings in a manner that is proportionate to the amount of money at stake, the importance and complexity of the proceedings and the parties’ resources.
At present, only parties to High Court personal injury actions are required to disclose expert reports, the identity of witnesses and full details of special damages being claimed. The report proposes that this obligation of disclosure should be extended to all courts.
While it remains to be seen if all of the recommendations of the Law Reform Commission will be adopted, many of the proposed changes are long overdue and if implemented would result in a more transparent, efficient and cost effective legal system.
- Consolidation and reduction of the Courts Acts
- Simplification of legal terminology
- Increase in the monetary jurisdictional limit of the Circuit Court
- Judicial case management to narrow legal issues
- Extend disclosure obligation rules.