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court delay Covid-19 pandemic led to vast backlog of 122,000 District Court cases

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The Courts Service has been worked closely with An Garda Síochána to reduce court delays. Photo: PA

The Courts Service has been worked closely with An Garda Síochána to reduce court delays. Photo: PA

PA Wire/Press Association Images

The Courts Service has been worked closely with An Garda Síochána to reduce court delays. Photo: PA

The Covid-19 pandemic created a massive backlog in the District Court, with more than 120,000 cases being significantly delayed.

Restrictions on court business after the March lockdown resulted in tens of thousands of cases involving speeding, public order, less serious assault, theft and drug offences not receiving a hearing date.

At the height of the problem in mid-October, 122,000 summons cases were still awaiting a listing, according to figures released by the Courts Service.

The backlog is now down to 95,000, but this is still more than three times the number of summons cases usually awaiting a listing.

While major inroads have been made in recent weeks, officials fear it could be the middle of next year before the backlog is finally cleared.

The District Court is considered the workhorse of the Irish legal system, dealing with around 400,000 new criminal matters each year.

Although the District Court remained open during the first lockdown, its workload was scaled back. Only urgent matters were dealt with and large numbers of non-urgent cases were adjourned.

In addition, summons requests from gardaí weren’t processed for several months.

Summonses are the most common way defendants are brought before the District Court when they are facing less serious offences and road traffic cases. Instead of arresting the accused and bringing them to court, gardaí provide details of the alleged offence to the Courts Service, which sends back a printed summons with a court date.

These are then served on defendants, compelling them to appear in court on a particular date.

The Courts Service began processing these again only in the last week of July.

Even then, the main focus of the District Court remained directed at dealing with criminal and family law cases that needed urgent attention and cases where a waiting time had built up during the preceding months.

While many thousands of cases have been delayed as a result, officials do not believe this will put prosecutions in jeopardy.

At the time the listing of summonses resumed in July, there were around 101,000 awaiting a scheduled date. But with 4,600 new summons applications being received from gardaí each week, this figure continued to grow, reaching 122,000 by October.

In a statement, the Courts Service said extra sittings and staggered lists to accommodate social distancing in courtrooms were now being used to eat into the backlog.

Increasing court capacity to hear summons cases means more than 97,000 applications have been scheduled since July.

More than 55,000 of these were listed in the six weeks from mid-October.

The statement said the Courts Service worked closely with An Garda Síochána and “put huge efforts and energy into ensuring the inevitable delays did not become an immovable backlog heading into 2021”.

It also said the use of video conferencing has quadrupled since April, with almost 10,000 video-conference calls having taken place since then between prisons and courts for remand and other matters, rather than transporting prisoners to court.

Virtual courtrooms have also been used, most notably for domestic violence protection orders, although the number of such hearings is said to be relatively small in the District Court compared with the superior courts.

The Courts Service said, "the summons scheduling waiting list is now being steadily reduced and we are working to eliminate it completely despite the Covid environment meaning it is not business are usual. We will continue to monitor this area closely in the coming months and work with the Judiciary and AGS to maintain the good progress that is been made".

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