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.