Vote 22 - Courts Service

Mr. Brendan Ryan (CEO, Courts Service) called and examined.

We will now deal with Vote 22 - Courts Service and we will examine the 2015 appropriation accounts. We are joined by Mr. Brendan Ryan, CEO of the Courts Service and Mr. John Coyle, Mr. Tom Ward, Mr. Sean Quigley, Mr. Paul Burns, Ms Geraldine Hurley and Ms Marie Ryan from the Courts Service. We are also joined by Mr. John Burke from the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform and Ms Joyce Duffy from the Department of Justice and Equality.

I remind members, witnesses and those in the Public Gallery that all mobile phones are to be switched off completely, and that means aeroplane mode. Putting them on silent will not be adequate because they will interfere with the recording systems.

I advise the witnesses that by virtue of section 17(2)(l) of the Defamation Act 2009, they are protected by absolute privilege in respect of their evidence to the committee. However, if they are directed by the committee to cease giving evidence on a particular matter and they continue to so do, they are entitled thereafter only to qualified privilege in respect of their evidence. The witnesses are directed that only evidence connected with the subject matter of these proceedings is to be given and are asked to respect the parliamentary practice to the effect that, where possible, they should not criticise or make charges against any person or an entity by name or in such a way as to make him, her or it identifiable.

Members of the committee are reminded of the provisions of Standing Order 186 that the committee shall refrain from inquiring into the merits of a policy or policies of the Government or a Minister of the Government or the merits or objectives of such policies. They are also reminded of the long-standing ruling of the Chair to the effect that they should not comment on, criticise or make charges against a person outside the Houses or an official, either by name or in such a way as to make him or her identifiable.

I suspect we will continue until approximately 2 p.m. when the division bells will ring. The witnesses might be pleased or otherwise with the short time we have available. We have a busy schedule today and we want to try to deal with this issue before the summer recess.

We can always come back in the afternoon.

No, we have other work in the afternoon. I invite the Comptroller and Auditor General to make a brief opening statement.

Mr. Seamus McCarthy

The 2015 appropriation account for Vote 22 - Courts Service recorded gross expenditure of just over €107 million, an increase of 1.6% compared to 2014. I have provided a chart which gives a high level breakdown of the expenditure. As indicated in the chart, expenditure on pay was around €49 million. At year end 2015, a total of 948 full-time equivalent staff were employed in the Courts Service. Members should note this pay figure does not include the salaries or pensions of judges. Those are paid directly from the Central Fund of the Exchequer, and are estimated at around €32 million for 2015.

The Courts Service incurred expenditure of €20 million in 2015 in costs associated with the Criminal Courts of Justice building, which came into use in 2009 under a 25 year public private partnership arrangement. The annual outlay includes elements of both acquisition costs and premises running costs, which over the life of the PPP are projected to be of the order of €600 million.

The service has also been engaged for a number of years in progressing other PPP projects for the construction or refurbishment of courthouses. Costs of €1.9 million in 2015 associated with developing those projects are included in the spending of €4.6 million incurred on courthouse capital works.

Appropriation-in-aid of the Vote expenditure totalled €48 million, of which €44 million was court fees revenue. In addition, court-imposed fines totalling €11 million were received and paid over to the Exchequer and around €6.6 million in fines and excise fees was collected by the Courts Service and paid over to the Revenue Commissioners. At the end of 2015, an unspent amount of €1.14 million was liable for surrender from Vote 22 back to the Exchequer.

Mr. Brendan Ryan

I thank the Chairman for the invitation to appear before the committee in my capacity as Accounting Officer for the Courts Service, Vote 22, and I look forward to discussing any aspect of the Vote with him and the members of the committee. I am pleased to report that a clean audit report has been provided by the Comptroller and Auditor General on the 2015 appropriation account. Overall, the Vote was managed successfully and within budget at year end. As the Comptroller and Auditor General stated, a surrender balance of €1,135,706 was recorded on the Vote.

The Courts Service is responsible for the management and administration of the courts. As the committee is aware, the administration of justice is a matter for the Judiciary and, in accordance with the constitutional independence of the Judiciary and the provisions of the Courts Service Act, is outside the scope of the functions of the Courts Service. The committee will appreciate, therefore, that in my discussions with it today I am precluded from commenting on any matter relating to the exercise by a judge of his or her judicial functions or on any matter relating to the exercise of quasi-judicial functions by an officer of the court. I am also, of course, precluded from commenting on matters of Government policy.

Since establishment, the Courts Service has worked to ensure the courts operate effectively and efficiently, that the use of available resources is optimised, that value for money is achieved, and the best possible service is provided to court users. Since the Vote was last considered by the committee in 2014, the Courts Service, in common with other Departments and agencies, has seen a very welcome easing in the severe reduction in funding and staff numbers of previous years. Using the resources available to us, the Courts Service continues to work with the Judiciary to introduce a broad range of changes and reforms, which yield significant savings for the Exchequer while maintaining access to justice and services for the public. The service has diligently cut expenditure and has robust financial measures in place across the organisation to ensure expenditure is kept to a minimum and is incurred only where it is necessary and unavoidable, and that value for money is achieved. We have also, through proactive management, increased court fees, thus reducing significantly the cost to the Exchequer of running the courts.

The Courts Service was established to support the courts in the administration of justice. This is a unique role supporting the third branch of Government. An effective courts system is critical to a functioning modern society. As our society continues to evolve, it places many demands on our institutions, including the courts, and we operate in an increasingly complex environment that has seen considerable change and diversity in the economic, social, demographic and cultural landscape. There are increasing levels of litigation, increased complexity in legislation, greater court user expectations and ongoing technological advances which pose challenges and opportunities. To ensure it continues to fulfil its remit, the Courts Service must continue to adapt and evolve, responding proactively to promote access to justice and provide the necessary support for the Judiciary and the administration of justice generally.

The Courts Service has had a modernising agenda since its establishment in 1999. In recent years, we have been successful in introducing a range of transformational changes which have delivered significant savings and benefits to court users. The programme of structural, organisational and procedural reform, which continued during the economic downturn, introduced a range of efficiency and productivity measures across all aspects of the Court Service. This programme of reform ensured that despite the severe reductions in staff numbers and funding, the Courts Service was able to continue to support the courts in a challenging operating environment, which included year-on-year increases in court sittings, increased judicial numbers and a programme of legislative reform, much of which impacted directly on the work of the Courts Service.

Significant performance and efficiency improvements have been achieved over the past five years as a result of a wide range of change projects implemented. Increased productivity is highlighted by the 25% increase in the ratio of court sittings to staff and a 20% increase in ratio of judges to staff which has been achieved during this period. The measures implemented included reform of the court regional and office structures, with the introduction of cross-jurisdictional combined court offices and the closure of smaller offices. This initiative has reduced the number of provincial offices from 65 to 32. This was the most radical reform in the courts administrative structures since the foundation of the State. It introduced an effective single management structure for court offices, maximised the resources available and released county registrars from management functions to enable them use their professional and legal skills to focus on quasi-judicial work to the benefit of the administration of justice. A review of the combined court office project is being carried out to review and assess the benefits realised and identify opportunities for further efficiencies and reform. A programme of rationalisation of court venues was also undertaken, and overall the number of venues outside Dublin is now down to 85 from 267. This has concentrated business in fewer venues of a standard more suitable for the administration of justice. These measures have successfully maximised the use of resources and freed up judicial and staff time to support the hearing of cases.

We have also worked to introduce a substantial programme of legislative and process reform. An ongoing programme to streamline court procedures is under way. We have also, in collaboration with the courts rules committees, sought to address key obstacles to access to justice, including reducing delays and the cost and complexity of proceedings while at the same time promoting and facilitating recourse to alternative dispute resolution mechanisms. For example, the facilitation of mediation initiatives in the area of family law in Dublin and at a number of venues throughout the country offers very effective alternatives to court determined outcomes, resulting in real and significant ongoing benefits for the parties involved. It also provides savings in judicial and staff time. We work on an ongoing basis with the Department of Justice and Equality in proposing areas of legislative reform and supporting the implementation of the legislative reform programme. This focus on procedural and legislative reform has resulted in improved operation of the courts and efficiency in the use not only of Court Service resources but also, and importantly, those of other justice agencies. There has been increased staff flexibility in a number of areas, such as logging of digital audio recording by court registrars and increased in-house ICT and legal support, all of which have yielded significant savings.

The Courts Service has also made considerable progress on the information and statistics provided on the operation of the courts. These are published in the annual report and available on the Courts Service website. Recognising one of the pillars of the public service reform programme, which deals with greater openness and transparency, the Courts Service continues to progress improved reporting on a range of matters linked to the operation of the courts and intends, through the development of integrated case management systems, as soon as resources allow, to continue to extend the range of data which can be provided.

The Courts Service recognises that technology is a key enabler in delivering improved services to court users and achieving improved efficiencies. Significant benefits have already been achieved through the ICT projects already in place for a range of stakeholders, including savings for the Exchequer and better service to court users. The implementation of our ICT programme has resulted in the optimisation of courtroom and court support technology, including the roll-out of digital audio recording to all court jurisdictions and venues; extended use of video link and videoconferencing, which has resulted in significant cross-justice sector efficiencies, particularly in the Irish Prison Service; facilitating data exchange between An Garda Síochána and the Courts Service through the criminal justice interoperability project, which has generated savings for both organisations; court-generated financial transactions, valued at €1.8 billion, have been transformed and centralised in a shared service centre utilising modern financial accounting technology; and the development of case management and e-filing projects, including the case management systems for small claims, the personal insolvency service, the Court of Appeal and Supreme Court, ICT support for the new fines legislation, and e-filing projects, such as the debt claims online project and e-licensing, which are still under way.

The very welcome additional funding provided in 2016 and again in 2017 for investment in ICT has allowed the Courts Service to commence a programme of maintenance and development of our ICT infrastructure, equipment and systems, including a comprehensive cybersecurity programme, which is critical to maintaining the integrity of ICT support for the courts. An ICT strategy has been put in place to ensure ICT development in the next three years is focused on achieving the maximum benefit for the court user and the State.

The Courts Service has also continued its capital building programme with the development of seven public private partnership, PPP, courthouse projects around the country. The first of these projects, the courthouse in Drogheda, was completed in June and was officially opened on Monday.

The remaining six projects which will provide state of the art court accommodation and facilities are on target for completion this year.

When these projects are completed only five major will remain to be addressed and we are progressing the acquisition of sites where appropriate and necessary to ensure that we are in a position to undertake those projects as soon as funding becomes available. We are also progressing development of a family law and children's court complex and the Hammond Lane site by the Four Courts. This project presents a once in a lifetime opportunity to provide much needed accommodation and facilities for vulnerable people coming before the courts. The accommodation and facilities in Dublin are not adequate and this project will ensure that current and future needs for the hearing of children and family law cases can be met. It is also proposed to provide accommodation for the Supreme Court which publicly acknowledges and recognised its position as the highest court in our justice system. Significant progress has been made on this project and the business case for funding is with the Department of Justice and Equality for consideration.

In addition to the provision of new and refurbished court buildings, the Courts Service is also responsible for ensuring that court accommodation is maintained to an appropriate standard which meets the needs of court users and protects the architectural integrity of our historic courthouses. The additional capital funding provided in 2016 and 2017 will allow a planned maintenance programme to be put in place to address the deficiencies in court accommodation around the country on an ongoing planned basis.

The Courts Service launched a three year learning and development strategy in 2016 to ensure the service has the skilled competent and engaged staff needed to support the administration of justice now and in the future. Between 2008 and 2015, as a result of cuts in staffing and funding, there was a significant erosion of resources allocated to training and this was exacerbated by the impact on our corporate knowledge and expertise with the loss of many experienced staff. The learning and development strategy is designed to address these deficiencies and through staff training and skill development play important part in building organisational capability and capacity. The strategy is delivered using a blended learning approach, using in house experts and on line facilities where possible to maximise the resources available. Additional staff and funding have been provided to support the implementation of the strategy in developing a learning culture throughout the organisation and developing technical and management capacity.

It is critical that the Courts Service has the capabilities and operating model to continue our reform agenda, meet the challenges we are facing and capitalise on opportunities as they arise. In keeping with the renewed focus at government level on key reforms in the civil and wider public sectors, the Courts Service is committed to putting in place a co-ordinated and focused approach to the implementation of change in the organisation. To this end a change management office was established in 2016 to clearly define, prioritise and drive change and reform in a co-ordinated manner and to ensure that the full potential benefits of change projects are captured and realised. A three year high level change programme has also been put in place with a strong customer focus and based on delivering improved outcomes with measurable benefits for court users and other stakeholders.

The Courts Service priority always has been and will continue to be the provision of front line core court services to support the judiciary and court users. This can only be achieved through the ongoing review of the organisation and the delivery of services and the continued implementation of our change modernisation programme.

The Courts Service strategic plan for the period 2014-17 set out the key priorities for the service over the last three years and in the lifetime of that plan considerable progress was achieved in the review and reform of our structures and service delivery with a focus on maximising the use of technology; developing our staff and rationalising processes. The next strategic plan, currently being worked on, will build on these achievements and, informed by the strategies and change programme already in place, will define how the Courts Service can continue to play a key role in delivering improved access to justice, better support for the administration of justice and delivery of improved value for money for tax payers.

Members have indicated in the following sequence, Deputies Catherine Murphy, Marc MacSharry, David Cullinance, Catherine Connolly and Mary Lou McDonald. We have an hour so I would appreciate if members could bear that in mind so that everyone can get in the time available.

I ask the Chairman if he would indicate when I have ten minutes. I welcome Mr. Ryan. The Courts Service has identified a number of land and buildings for disposal. How will they be disposed of? Will it be by public auction? Have they been valued?

Mr. Brendan Ryan

Where we have no further use for buildings, we hand them back to the public either to the local authorities, which were responsible for their management prior to 1999, or to the Office of Public Works, which may have some work for them in the public area. To date, we have returned seven buildings to local authorities. These have been in Drumkeeran in County Leitrim, Ballinrobe and Swinford in County Mayo, Castlecomer and Thomastown in County Kilkenny and Ballyhaunis. We also returned Kilmainham courthouse which is now part of the jail experience. There are only three vested properties for which we have no current use, namely Kanturk, Ballinmore and Birr. We have contacted the local authorities to see if they have an interest in them and we have also been in contact with the Office of Public Works. The Courts Service board policy is that we give them back for public use free of charge. If the local authorities or the Office of Public Works do not want them, then the policy is to put them on the open market for sale, but we have not gone that far yet.

On another capital project, the total spend on the building in Washington Street in Cork is expected to be €25 million. Is the Courts Service liable for the repayment of that sum or how is it funded?

Mr. Brendan Ryan

Does the Deputy mean the one on Washington Street, rather than the one on Anglesea Street which is ongoing?

No, Washington Street.

Mr. Brendan Ryan

The work on that was completed around 2000. To progress that project, Cork city council took out a loan which we repay to them annually. The loan will be finished in about 2025. We pay the loan to the council every year.

What is the liability each year?

Mr. Brendan Ryan

About €1 million. It is in the region of €1.2 million annually. I cannot remember precisely but it is just over €1 million.

Okay, that is how it is funded.

Mr. Brendan Ryan

That was unique. It was the only time we used a local authority to help fund a capital building programme. Normally the Department of Justice and Equality and the Department of Finance would have funded it.

We have a note on the Courts Service's commercial bank accounts. Some €971,000 was held in a commercial bank account at the end of December 2015. How many bank accounts does it hold? Are there bank accounts for each court? Is there one bank account? How does it operate?

Mr. Brendan Ryan

We used to operate numerous bank accounts but we have curtailed that number. My colleague Mr. Seán Quigley is here beside me. His main role in the Courts Service is resource management but he is also its accountant. If the Deputy does not mind, I will ask Mr. Quigley to deal with that.

Mr. Seán Quigley

In the past, there were a significant number of bank accounts around each of the court offices. As part of the modernisation of our financial services, we centralised much of that. We closed a significant number of bank accounts. I do not have the number now, but it is quite small.

These are the bank accounts that run the service. There will also be bank accounts for things such as wards of court, which presumably would be kept separately.

Mr. Seán Quigley

Yes.

There are a number of different elements regarding wards of court For instance in strategy 1 and strategy 4, there are different models of investments. Are they all held individually or is there one consolidated account?

Mr. Seán Quigley

In the accountant's office, there is a single current account. It is not where investments are placed. We place investments with our fund managers and it is based on six unitised funds. Each individual owns a certain number of units in the particular strategy in which they are invested. The moneys are not in a bank account, they are in a fund and we can track the value of funds at any one time based on the number of units held, and the price of that unit.

In strategy 4, where it is not being invested in something that would be required in 20 years time, there will be current needs and there will be needs that will have to be funded on an ongoing basis. How does one do that without having cash?

Mr. Seán Quigley

I am not clear. When the Deputy says strategy 4, does she mean the growth fund for wards of court?

My understanding is that the funds are categorised according to how the investments are made. People affected might be slightly older and have teenage, rather than very young, children.

Mr. Seán Quigley

The growth fund, which is the long-term fund, is used for wards of court. The strategies are changed from time to time based on the advice of our investment advisers. Wards of court have day-to-day needs also. A portion of the growth fund is retained in a cash fund, which is a cash strategy relating to the Euribor plus fund. The equivalent of three years' cash flow is retained in the short-term fund and the other portion is invested in the growth fund for the longer term in order that the short-term money is not exposed to fluctuations in value.

A review was carried out by Aon Hewitt last year. Did the contract for that go to competitive tender?

Mr. Seán Quigley

Aon Hewitt was not specifically engaged for this review but, rather, as general advisor several years ago. The review was part of its function. It was asked to be responsible for the review because it was not the investment adviser during the period to be covered by the review and thus was not compromised or conflicted. However, the review was tendered for.

If the review was tendered for and Aon Hewitt was the adviser for the Courts Service, would there not have been a conflict of interest in that regard in view of the fact that Aon Hewitt was advising on investments and then tendered to do the review?

Mr. Seán Quigley

It was not the adviser during the period under review. Another set of investment consultants were responsible for advice at that time. Aon Hewitt was, therefore, uncompromised in so far as it would not have been giving advice to the Courts Service during the period under review, which was 2007 to 2009.

It would be useful to see the terms of reference for the review. Could they be provided?

Mr. Seán Quigley

They are contained in the report that was furnished to the committee last November.

I will examine that report. Since the financial crisis, the Courts Service has put two significant risk management strategies in place. Does this suggest that those strategies should have been in place before the economic crash because there was a fall in the return on investments at that stage?

Mr. Seán Quigley

It does not imply that. The Courts Service has an investment committee and independent investment advisers. We regularly review what is happening in the financial markets and what the requirements are for investment. We considered what happened during the financial crisis to see if anything was required. Fundamental strategies did not change. However, the measure brought in was the separate cash holding to ensure we do not sell equities when their value is down. That was the main area. I am not sure what the second risk measure the Deputy mentioned was. We are aware that claims have been made that funds were lost during the financial crisis. There is no evidence to support that. One must consider the performance of the funds. In spite of the financial crisis, which was the worst in living memory, our funds have averaged returns, net of fees, of 6% per annum and are currently yielding approximately 8.5% per annum net of fees.

There has been an increase in returns in recent years but in terms of the point made by the witness regarding the downturn, corrective strategies have thereafter been put in place in that cash is held for three years in order that something does not have to be sold when it is at its lowest value. The argument made by some is that that is what impacted on some funds. One set of figures I received shows where the dip occurred. Their ability to recover when it is sold off is negatively affected because there is nothing to recover as money was taken out of the system when it was at its lowest. Does the witness accept that corrective action has been taken as a consequence of a learning exercise in this regard?

Mr. Seán Quigley

We are always learning and considering areas where improvement can be made. The implication in the question is that people lost money because of it being in the growth fund and there being no cash holding. There is no evidence to support that. Even if all investment was in the growth fund, there was no separate cash holding and we were selling units out of the growth fund, those funds are above the level at which they were originally purchased and thus no realised cash has been lost. If the Deputy has evidence to the contrary, we would be happy to investigate the issue but we have investigated several cases in that regard and such a situation did not pertain. It was a pragmatic solution to ensure that that risk was taken off the table.

This a very vulnerable group of people, many of whom do not want to be wards of court. Very often, they are wholly dependent on the Courts Service to properly manage the funds for their care. It is, therefore, an extremely important group of people who must be protected as well as possible. The witness has indicated he expects there will be another review. When will that take place and will it be independent?

Mr. Seán Quigley

On the basis of the request of this committee in its report of July 2015 that these reviews might be carried out every two to three years, the next is due in 2019. It will be put out to tender. We fully appreciate the importance of managing these funds effectively and our track record over the 15 years since the Courts Service was established has been very good in terms of what has been achieved. If the Deputy has examples of specific cases which involve a suggestion that funds have been lost, we will investigate that but we have no evidence thereof.

I might come back to the witness on that point. There is much material in the statement concerning savings, efficiencies, modernisation and so on. Some of the difficulties in regard to the Courts Service relate to the time that people have to wait, particularly at District Court level where it can taken an inordinate length of time for cases to be heard. Does the modernisation programme include timescales for dealing with cases because some escalate to higher courts due to delays at District Court level.

Mr. Brendan Ryan

Delays and waiting times occur for several reasons, many of which are outside the control of the Courts Service, such as the unavailability of a witness, vital evidence being unavailable or because parties are-----

I am addressing the issue of court dates.

Mr. Brendan Ryan

I have statistics regarding court dates. There are not significant delays in the District Court. In the District Court, as in the Circuit Court, criminal matters take precedence, followed by family law matters and then civil matters. In terms of waiting times for family domestic violence cases, 29 of the 34 offices included in the most recent report deal with such cases within a month while the remainder do so within three months.

Urgent and barring applications are dealt with on the day – we are talking about domestic violence. As I said, 29 of the 34 offices will deal with cases within a month. In respect of family law, including custody and access, 17 of the offices will deal with cases within one month and the other 17 will have dealt with them within three months.

Let us move into civil matters. What is the position?

Mr. Brendan Ryan

Of the 34 offices, a total of six say they deal with civil matters within a one month period. Some 21 offices deal with cases before the end of three months and a further seven do so with a six month period. The committee will appreciate that the Judiciary tends to give priority initially to criminal law and then to family law. Civil law is afforded the least priority.

That does not match my experience on the civil law side, for example, in planning matters, where there can be inordinate delays. It makes a mockery of the system by virtue of the length of time it takes. I will give some separate examples.

Mr. Brendan Ryan

I appreciate that. However, Deputy Murphy will appreciate that the Courts Service can only be responsible once parties are ready to proceed. We start counting the time from then. Prior to that, it is a matter between the parties involved in the issue - they are talking among themselves.

No, I am talking about cases that are ready to proceed. They are waiting and constantly told there is another date.

Mr. Brendan Ryan

Is Deputy Murphy referring to the District Court?

Yes, that is in the District Court.

Mr. Brendan Ryan

If the Deputy could send me the details, I will respond to her.

I certainly will.

Please respond through the committee secretariat for all inquiries.

It would be useful if Mr. Ryan could give use those statistics as well.

Mr. Brendan Ryan

I will of course.

I want to move on to the response to a parliamentary question I tabled in respect of professional media relations. I got the reply on 19 June. A total of €301,000, exclusive of VAT, was spent between 1 June 2014 and 31 May 2017. Is that exclusive? Does the Courts Service have someone in situ? Is this additional or is this the totality of it?

Mr. Brendan Ryan

That is the totality. We go out for tender on a regular basis for the provision of media relations services for the Courts Service. The figure relates to the costs over a three year period. The annualised cost is approximately €100,000 for the provision of media relations services.

How would they play out? Is it intermittent?

Mr. Brendan Ryan

No, the company is Curran Communications Limited. The company works full-time for us. That is the company fee over a 12-month period. We pay the company a monthly fee.

Can we see the details of the contract?

Mr. Brendan Ryan

Yes, if it is not commercially sensitive.

I welcome everyone. The first thing is that there are 18 people on the board. Are there gender balance issues, with only four ladies?

Mr. Brendan Ryan

I am a member of the board. The Chief Justice and the four presidents of the courts are ex officio members. The other five judges are elected by their colleagues within each Bench.

I understand how it comes about. Is there any target for the board? Is the board seeking to change the arrangements to try to address the gender balance issue or to ensure a better balance?

Mr. Brendan Ryan

The board is always conscious of gender balance, but it is really outside the control of the board.

Has the board made representations to the Minister for Justice and Equality to see how this might be looked at?

Mr. Brendan Ryan

In fairness, the Minister for Justice and Equality is aware of it.

I know he is aware of it. It is a matter of fact. There are 18 on the board and there are four women.

Mr. Brendan Ryan

The board changes this November.

Will the board be making representations to ensure a better balance?

Mr. Brendan Ryan

The board does not appoint anyone to the board. The board members are appointed under legislation.

"No" is the answer. Is that it?

Mr. Brendan Ryan

Members of the board are appointed under legislation.

I appreciate that.

Mr. Brendan Ryan

We will be making representations.

Does the board have a view that it has decided to recommend change, albeit that it has no authority?

Mr. Brendan Ryan

This matter has not been discussed at the board.

Can I recommend that the board might discuss it and maybe make a recommendation in advance of the change in October?

Mr. Brendan Ryan

Yes.

I note that 14 of the 18 people are legal professionals. Only four are from other walks of life and there is only one accountant. Does Mr. Ryan believe the board has adequate expertise to manage the service with such a budget?

Mr. Brendan Ryan

We have a broad range of expertise on the board. The mandate of the Courts Service is to manage the courts and support the Judiciary. I think we have a broad range of services. The Minister-----

It is about money at the end of the day. The board is not presiding over court cases. The board is managing a business, in effect, on behalf of the State. Does the board have adequate expertise for that? There are 14 people with legal expertise. They would probably best say how a court case should go in terms of interpretation of evidence. However, in terms of managing the business of the Courts Service, is that appropriate?

Mr. Brendan Ryan

I think we are well covered at the moment. The person with the financial expertise is also chairperson of our audit committee. It is well covered. We also have expertise. Mr. Quigley is the accountant of the Courts of Justice. He is an accountant and we have several accountants within the organisation.

There is no accountant on the finance committee. Is that unusual?

Mr. Brendan Ryan

There is no accountant on the finance committee.

Is that wise?

Mr. Brendan Ryan

Mr. Quigley, who is beside me, attends all finance committees. He is not a member of the finance committee but he attends all committee meetings.

He is not a member of the board but he attends the finance committee. Is that correct?

Mr. Brendan Ryan

Yes.

Therefore, there is no board representative with financial expertise on the finance committee.

Mr. Brendan Ryan

No.

Again, I call on the board to look at that.

Mr. Brendan Ryan

Yes.

Perhaps the broad expertise might be there.

I want to move on to wards of court. Can Mr. Ryan explain for the record how much money is in control of the Courts Service on behalf of individuals who are wards of court?

Mr. Seán Quigley

The accountants office manages funds. In addition to wards of court there are other funds. In total, at the end of September last year, which was the last financial period, there was €1.675 billion in funds.

What are the other funds, other than for wards of court?

Mr. Seán Quigley

They include funds for minors and lodgements of defence.

They are similar situations where the beneficiaries were third parties. Is that correct?

Mr. Seán Quigley

All the beneficiaries are third parties.

Who manages the fund?

Mr. Seán Quigley

Currently we have State Street investment managers managing these funds.

The firm is free to invest according to its best guess. Is that correct?

Mr. Seán Quigley

No it is not. We have an investment committee and we have independent investment advisers.

Who is on the investment committee?

Mr. Seán Quigley

It is chaired by the President of the High Court. There are representatives from the Circuit Court and the District Court. I am on it as the accountant of the Courts of Justice. We have a person from the National Treasury Management Agency and another external person with investment expertise.

Who is that?

Mr. Seán Quigley

Paul Farrell.

Is that a position that the board tenders to try to get someone in?

Mr. Seán Quigley

We rotate that position every number of years.

We have three legal people on a committee but no financial expertise determining how best to invest €1.5 billion of people's money. Is that a fair comment?

Mr. Seán Quigley

We have three judges on the committee. There are 11 people on the committee in total. We have access to independent investment advisers, who we rely on-----

I am a little confused. Of the 11 people, there are three judges, who will not have any financial expertise. Who are the other eight?

Mr. Seán Quigley

We have two people from the accountant's office - myself and the head of the court funds office.

Does Mr. Quigley have specific experience in equities, investment and such things?

Mr. Seán Quigley

I am a chartered accountant, but I do not claim to be an investment expert.

In his previous life, would Mr. Quigley have worked for Davy or other such companies managing funds?

Mr. Seán Quigley

No. That is why we have access to independent investment advisers. No one on the investment committee is claiming to be an expert. We all bring-----

I am not saying that. I do not want Mr. Quigley to be unduly defensive. I simply want to get to the bottom of it. I realise Mr. Quigley is doing the best he can, as are the three judges. Who else is there? There is an external person and that role is tendered out. Then, there is Mr. Quigley.

Mr. Seán Quigley

We have representatives from the wards of court office and the county registrar.

Again, I imagine the average county registrar would not have been trading on the floor of an investment house. There are 11 on the committee. Apart from the one person who the board tenders for to give advice, who is a trader, financial expert or investment analyst?

Mr. Seán Quigley

I do not think we have a trader on the committee. In addition, as I mentioned, we have someone from the National Treasury Management Agency.

That is one person. Of the 11 we have probably two people with specific financial expertise, apart from Mr. Quigley, who is a chartered accountant. I realise Mr. Quigley would understand these things but, as he said himself, he would not describe himself as an expert. There are 11 people on the internal investment committee. Two people have expertise specific to investing large amounts of money in stocks, equities etc. Is that a reasonable assessment?

Mr. Seán Quigley

It depends on one's definition of expertise, but we rely heavily on our independent advisers. Obviously, we draw on the wide knowledge that is on the committee.

I get that. Of the 11, we have two who have proficiency in investment management. Is that fair to say?

Mr. Seán Quigley

We have two, plus we have two accountants, myself and my colleague from the Court Funds Office.

By his own admission, Mr. Quigley stated he would not have been an expert in that field. Is the other accountant an expert in that field?

Mr. Seán Quigley

No.

Two of the 11 people on the committee that advise on these matters-----

Mr. Seán Quigley

Let me correct that, they do not advise on these matters.

What do they do then?

Mr. Seán Quigley

This is why we have independent investment advisers.

I understand that. What do the 11 people do?

Mr. Seán Quigley

We will ask our investment advisers for an opinion on a particular matter. The members of the investment committee, who have expertise in this area, will comment on that opinion. We do not look to those members of the investment committee to provide us with advice. That is why we pay independent investment advisers.

What do the 11 people do when they meet?

Mr. Seán Quigley

They will bring to bear their collective experience in terms of the interests of beneficiaries.

The members of the Judiciary, the President of the High Court, who has ultimate responsibility for wards of court will bring to bear their knowledge of the requirements of the best interests of minors and wards of court.

I hear what Mr Quigley is saying, but I am bound to conclude there is no expertise.

Mr. Seán Quigley

I thought that Deputy MacSharry and I agreed there were two people.

No, we did not agree. Mr. Quigley said there were two people with specific expertise, nine others do not have that expertise. They do not take decisions and they do not advise, and as Mr. Quigley stated that the work is contracted out to a company. What is the name of that company?

Mr. Seán Quigley

Aon Hewitt.

Aon Hewitt are advising. The 11 people meet, ask Aon Hewitt what the Courts Service should do with the cash and then discuss its recommendation. The Courts Service then approves the advice on investments from Aon Hewitt and makes the decision. Is that what happens?

Mr. Seán Quigley

Obviously the Aon Hewitt advisers would be subject to questioning and challenged as to how they arrived at their recommendations but ultimately the Courts Service would rely on their expertise.

This is just an opinion, given that just two members of the 11 member committee are effectively qualified to adjudicate on the merit of the recommendation of third party advice that put the finances of minors and wards of courts at risk. That is insufficient when such amounts of money are involved. Without going into specific cases, what percentage of the resources of wards of court or minors would have been lost due to the crash or poor financial management? How many would have lost 50% of their proceeds of their entitlement as beneficiaries?

Mr. Seán Quigley

First, to go back to the composition of the investment committee, that committee was put in place based on the recommendation of Mercer Investment Consultants, who we engaged back in 2001-2002. We did not come up with the composition of the committee, it was based on expert advice on what the composition should be.

It is not personal.

Mr. Seán Quigley

My point is that we did not come up with the composition of the committee.

I am not an expert, but it would seem reasonable to me that if I want financial advice, I would not have a committee comprising nine gardeners on an 11 man committee to give me that investment advice. That is not to impugn the fine reputations and work of those people in their individual field of expertise which is not investment of €1.5 billion. That is a suggestion that Mr. Quigley might look at. Albeit that was expert advice, I suggest that the Courts Service needs to design a system that is a bit more robust in the knowledge that some wards of court have lost a very significant amount of money that could have accrued to them, if things were managed better.

Mr. Seán Quigley

I have no problem in looking at the composition of the committee. In regard to the suggestion that wards of court have lost funds, we have no evidence to substantiate that. If Deputy MacSharry has evidence to substantiate that we would be happy to look at it.

I understand that. That brings me to my next point. What is the level of oversight? Can the Comptroller and Auditor General for example look into the investment decisions, second guess the investments after the fact, look at the value for money, the outcomes, or is it a secret society?

Mr. Seán Quigley

The role of the Comptroller and Auditor General is controlled by legislation.

I know. Who has oversight of the committee?

Mr. Seán Quigley

Legally the Accounting Officer of the Courts of Justice is accountable. We have appointed independent external auditors for the past 15 years to audit these funds.

Who are the auditors?

Mr. Seán Quigley

It is Grant Thornton at present. We have published the financial statements. We send copies to the Minister for Justice and Equality, the Minister for Finance, Public Expenditure and Reform and we copy the Comptroller and Auditor General. As things stand legally, the audit is outside of the remit of the Comptroller and Auditor General. It is not a matter for the Courts Service to amend the legislation.

Is it fair to say that there is no public oversight of a fund of €1.5 billion on behalf of third parties?

Mr. Seán Quigley

It depends on what one means by public oversight, but if the Deputy is saying-----

Pubic oversight would be oversight by the Comptroller and Auditor General, the Oireachtas, the justice committee, the Financial Services Ombudsman and the Committee of Public Accounts.

Mr. Seán Quigley

We are before the Committee of Pubic Accounts discussing this matter. I take the Deputy's point. At present the Comptroller and Auditor General does not have a role to scrutinise the accounts of this committee. That is not a matter that I have any control over. I have no problem with that.

Mr. Quigley is misunderstanding the thrust of my questioning. None of this is personal. I am not holding Mr. Quigley responsible for the fact that the system may need improvement. I am merely asking a few questions to determine my own gut feeling that it does. Clearly I feel from what I have been hearing today that it does.

Mr. Quigley has stated that no ward of court has ever lost any money and I accept that is what he has said, but I am not in a position to check that, because there is no oversight. I think in the interest of transparency and good standing of the Courts Service, we need a better system. The board might look at that and look at the potential, through legislation, to give a level of oversight to the Comptroller and Auditor General, the NTMA, and the Committee of Public Accounts.

Mr. Seán Quigley

To clarify that point, the board of the Courts Service does not have the remit to do this. It is a matter for the Department of Justice and Equality to bring forward the legislation.

We are very familiar with the pigeon holes with the impermeable walls - that is theirs, this is ours, and that belongs to somebody else. What we are trying to do is to streamline it and get everybody working together so that we know what is going on.

Mr. Brendan Ryan

Chairman, may I add, the Courts Service has never had an issue with the Comptroller and Auditor General coming in to have oversight of these funds? As Mr. Quigley stated we cannot bring forward legislation. We do not bring forward legislation.

Would Mr. Ryan report to us? If legislation is required along those lines, would Mr. Ryan let us know in a note so that the Committee of Public Accounts can make recommendations?

Mr. Brendan Ryan

The Department of Justice and Equality is well aware of our views on this issue and that we have no objections to that. It is a matter for the Department of Justice and Equality to bring forward the legislation.

We will help them along in terms of translating its views and the views of the Courts Service into practice. Will Mr. Ryan send us a note on what needs to be done to give us a level of oversight?

Mr. Brendan Ryan

A simple piece of legislation.

The Deputy has one minute remaining.

A sum of €7.1 million has been spent on courthouse maintenance. Does the OPW not own the property?

Mr. Brendan Ryan

No. The Courts Service was established in 1999. Prior to 1999 all courthouses and the maintenance of same was the responsibility of the local authorities. Since 1999 we have been vesting some of the buildings and I just explained to Deputy Murphy that the buildings we do not require are being handed back for public use. We are responsible for the courthouses that we vested. The OPW works with us. We are a client of the OPW and it helps us.

Are they the go-to people when the Courts Service wants something done?

Mr. Brendan Ryan

Yes.

In the main is the €7.1 million paid to the OPW?

Mr. Brendan Ryan

It would assist in the procurement and tendering process for the various jobs.

Does the OPW do some of the work?

Mr. Brendan Ryan

No. The OPW would provide the technical expertise.

A sum of €5,631,000 is spent on training and incidental expenses. What is the nature of incidental expenses? That is a significant amount of money.

Mr. Seán Quigley

Training would be a very small element. It would be on a range of day to day expenditure. I do not have the analysis but I am happy to provide it.

Will Mr. Quigley provide the committee with the breakdown of the expenditure, as that would be useful?

I thank the witnesses.

I call Deputy Cullinane. Eventhough Deputy Cullinane has ten minutes, I ask him to try to use only eight to give everybody an opportunity.

I thank the Chairman, I have no problem with that request. I will follow on from the last issue. Am I correct that Ms Duffy is present on behalf of the Department of Justice and Equality?

Ms Joyce Duffy

Yes.

Mr. Duffy heard the discussion between Deputy MacSharry and Mr. Quigley on oversight of the moneys of the wards of court and the words Mr. Ryan used were that a simple amending Bill would suffice to deal with the issue to allow the Comptroller and Auditor General to have an oversight role and be able to audit the accounts. Is that something that is being or has been considered by the Department?

Ms Joyce Duffy

It is a matter for consideration but I do not think it is quite that simple. There would need to be some discussions with the Departments of Finance and Public Expenditure and Reform and also with the Office of the Comptroller and Auditor General. It has been brought to the Department's attention.

Will Ms Duffy outline the process? A lot of things are complicated but there is a solution to everything. It can be done, I would imagine, notwithstanding the complexities.

I see a Vote on the monitor.

We will have to finish because we have to come back afterwards and do something totally different.

If we have to finish prematurely, we will, but it looks as if we have time to allow one or two more speakers.

I will keep going for as long as I can.

I have 15 seconds remaining for questions.

On the discussions that were taking place, at what level were they and when was the last time a meeting took place?

Ms Joyce Duffy

I am sorry, but I do not have those details with me.

Will Ms Duffy furnish them to us in a note?

Ms Joyce Duffy

Yes.

I will quickly put a question to Mr. Ryan. Which court deals primarily with mortgage arrears? Is it the Circuit Court?

Mr. Brendan Ryan

Is the Deputy talking about repossessions?

Mr. Brendan Ryan

It would be the Circuit Court.

Was there a commitment in the programme for Government to have a stand-alone court to deal with mortgage arrears?

Mr. Brendan Ryan

There was indeed.

What is the status of that commitment?

Mr. Brendan Ryan

The matter is with the Department of Justice and Equality.

Will Ms Duffy explain the position in that regard?

Ms Joyce Duffy

It is a matter that is under consideration. In terms of statistics, the current caseload has actually reduced.

I have seen all of the parliamentary questions and I am aware of all of that; what I am asking about is the establishment of the court.

Ms Joyce Duffy

It is still a matter for review. It is being considered in consultation with colleagues in the Courts Service and also with the President of the Circuit Court. There is a plan that could have in place dedicated Circuit Court sittings on dedicated days with dedicated judges.

Therefore, it would not be a specific court; rather there would be dedicated sittings of the Circuit Court.

Ms Joyce Duffy

Yes, dedicated, specific sittings.

Is that matter still being considered?

Ms Joyce Duffy

It is still being examined very carefully.

Let me put a question to Mr. Ryan. I understand a lot of these cases first go before a registrar.

Mr. Brendan Ryan

A county registrar.

I have attended some of the hearings where one has the borrower, the lender, legal teams and the Money Advice and Budgeting Service. Was there a High Court judgment on the role of the registrar?

Mr. Brendan Ryan

Not that I am aware of, off the top of my head.

It is my understanding there was. I know that in Waterford the registrar is no longer dealing with such cases. He defers all cases because the role of the registrar has been called into question. I think the High Court's judgment was that only a Circuit Court judge should adjudicate on these matters, not a registrar. Does anybody know if that is the case?

Mr. Brendan Ryan

My colleague, Mr. Coyle, will respond in a minute, but on repossessions, the county registrar can only grant an order for repossession with consent.

Yes, I know that, but it is my understanding the competency of the registrar was the subject of proceedings in the High Court. Does Mr. Coyle wish to add something?

Mr. John Coyle

There was a question in the High Court about the EU consumer directive. As part of the consideration of an application for repossession the court should undertake an assessment of the fairness, if one likes, of the arrangement with the borrower in the context of the EU directive. As I understand it - I may be wrong - the issue was raised in a case. A comment was made, but it was subsequently to be part of a further hearing in the High Court, if my recollection serves me right. As far as I am aware, that has not yet taken place, but I may be wrong. The issue concerned the proficiency of county registrars to adjudicate on repossessions. As the chief executive said, the county registrar can only grant a repossession order with consent or by agreement.

I ask Deputy David Cullinane to conclude.

The Chairman will have to make a ruling one way or another. We are all waiting our turn. Are we coming back to this issue on another day?

No; we are wrapping up. There are votes in the Chamber and members are free to go to vote.

That is right, but we have to bring the meeting to an end.

The first vote is on the defence motion.

I would not like to miss it and it is my turn next, but Deputy David Cullinane has not finished. The Chairman will have to indicate what will happen in the future. We cannot deal with the issue today. Can we come back to it?

Will Deputy David Cullinane conclude?

I will conclude for the purpose of moving the meeting on.

Does Deputy Catherine Connolly wish to speak?

I do, but I will not have the time to do so as I do not wish to miss the votes. When someone plays by the rules here, he or she deserves to have an opportunity.

We all play by the rules.

The Chairman gave an indication that there would be five-minute slots, but we cannot do that now. He has to make a ruling; therefore, the meeting is over if we cannot return to the issue.

I am making a ruling. A vote has been called and it is up to members to vote if they wish to do so. I can choose to vote or not to vote. I can also choose to abstain. I do not have to vote.

I am not missing the vote, but I would certainly like the opportunity to ask further questions.

I would like to proceed as I am next to ask questions.

Yes. We will then adjourn.

I would certainly like the opportunity to ask further questions about the Courts Service. I have been sitting here all day.

When does the Deputy wish to do so?

I will leave it in your good hands.

If the meeting is being adjourned, will the Chairman allow me back in?

It will be adjourned until the autumn.

I had two minutes out of ten.

I thank the Chairman.

I just want to know if I can come back in a second time.

I will ask my questions while members are having a domestic.

The Deputy has 20 seconds.

Thank you. Do people see the way I am treated? What system is in place for Oireachtas Members to ask genuine questions about court awards? If there is no formal system in place, will the witnesses consider putting one in place? That might ease everyone's lives a little as such issues arise frequently.

On asset disposal, for instance, I have been asked about the courthouse in Borrisokane. Obviously, there are valuations, but is there a process in place whereby such buildings are offered to local authorities? Has that happened in the case of the courthouse in Borrisokane?

Mr. Brendan Ryan

Yes.

What was the response?

Mr. Paul Burns

The building was returned to the local authority and the education and training board-----

That is right.

Mr. Paul Burns

-----with no consideration.

I am sorry, but what did Mr. Burns say?

Mr. Paul Burns

There was no charge.

I know what happened. I just wanted to know if there was a payment.

Mr. Paul Burns

No.

Mr. Brendan Ryan

We were not here earlier, but a question was asked about this matter. When we return facilities to public service use, we do not charge.

Okay; there was no charge, which is fair enough. I knew what had happened to the building; I just wanted to know if there was a transaction charge.

Mr. Brendan Ryan

No; we would not charge.

We will conclude. Mr. Ryan mentioned that five major towns had not yet been dealt with. Portlaoise is one of them.

Mr. Brendan Ryan

I am well aware of it.

Mr. Ryan should not tell me that he is in consultation with the OPW and the local authority. I have been hearing that for about three years. Will he give me a more specific reply? We are down to possibly one or two sites being looked at.

Mr. Brendan Ryan

Yes.

Will Mr. Ryan give us as specific a note as he can?

Mr. Brendan Ryan

Do you want a note, not a verbal response?

If Mr. Ryan could give me the information, that would be great.

Mr. Brendan Ryan

Mr. Burns was down with the CEO.

We will be adjourning the meeting at 3.30 p.m. Voting could take an hour. It is now 2 p.m.

Let us say 3 p.m..

Is that agreed? Agreed. What about Portlaoise?

Mr. Paul Burns

In the last year we have looked at a number of properties there in conjunction with the local authority. The county council has been very helpful in suggesting potential sites. Most recently, a site was identified reasonably close to the county council offices, which we visited. Our colleagues in the OPW have made an assessment of it. From an architectural point of view, we are getting the valuation side of the OPW to examine the site and discuss matters with the local authority.

To do with the acquisition of the site.

Mr. Paul Burns

Its potential acquisition, subject to achieving value for money.

Is it for sale or is it owned by the local authority?

Mr. Paul Burns

It is linked with a local authority road project. There are a number of issues with the site, the first of which is access to it because the road has not yet been built. Second, there are electricity wires running across the site which would need to be rerouted. Obviously, the cost of the site is another issue.

Portlaoise is unusual. Does Mr. Burns liaise with the Irish Prison Service because the biggest prison complex in the country is to be found in Portlaoise?

Mr. Paul Burns

In the design of any courthouse we consult the Irish Prison Service on the provision of facilities. There is a standard design that takes into account its requirements in the transmission of prisoners.

Is the plan to include it as a PPP bundle in the next batch?

Mr. Brendan Ryan

That decision will be outside our control. We will get the batch ready and if capital funding is available, we will run with it, but if it is to be part of another PPP bundle, we will run with it in that way.

Reference was made to five towns. Is Mr. Ryan waiting to have all five included?

Mr. Brendan Ryan

No; we already have sites in Wicklow and Roscommon. I hope we will resolve the issue in Portlaoise shortly. Tralee and Galway are the other two places mentioned. We do not have to wait for all of the ducks to be in a row.

Will one or two projects proceed on their own?

Mr. Brendan Ryan

Very much so.

But there is as yet no timetable for the site.

Mr. Brendan Ryan

No.

At this stage we will adjourn the meeting. I cannot sign off on the Vote for the Courts Service because we were caught for time. Officially, we will adjourn the disposal of the Vote until we meet again some time after the summer recess. From a practical point of view, it will be in the context of the audit report that will be issued by the Comptroller and Auditor General in September. When we come back to look at the Courts Service in the next Oireachtas term, we will wrap up anything that was not wrapped up today as part of our consideration of the 2015 Vote. Is that agreed? Agreed.

The witnesses withdrew.
Sitting suspended at 1.50 p.m. and resumed in private session at 3.30 p.m.
The committee adjourned at 6.25 p.m. sine die.