A new planning and environment court that formally launched on Monday will enable fair and speedy decisions from highly specialised judges, the president of the High Court has said.
Mr Justice David Barniville said the court, which falls within the High Court jurisdiction, will allow for further judicial specialisation in a “very complex and systemically important” legal area.
Such a court is “rightly required” by all parties in these types of cases and by society in general, he said.
The court has been assigned a third judge, and it is likely more judges will be required to keep up with demand, said Mr Justice Barniville.
Headed by Mr Justice Richard Humphreys, much of the new court’s work has been operational since last April, but it was formally established on Monday.
Before 2018 all planning judicial reviews were dealt with in a general High Court list. In 2018 a strategic infrastructure development list was established, with a judge appointed to oversee it and to assign the cases to a range of judges. A more specialised list was created in October 2020.
The new division has specialised judges and aims to produce judgments within two months where possible. The Court Service said the use of specialist judges will increase efficiency, as lawyers will not have to traverse the regulatory background.
Case hearings which typically stretched over two to three weeks before 2020 are now generally confined to three days There are currently some 140 cases live in the list, which is virtually paperless and predominantly held by video link, the service said.
Speaking at the court’s launch on Monday, Mr Justice Humphreys said the new court marks a “huge step forward” for Irish environmental law. Cases in this list are often document heavy, technicality heavy and European Union law heavy, he said. This can make them time-consuming if mixed into regular court lists, he added.
Attorney General Rossa Fanning said nobody who values the rule of law wants to see litigation weaponised as a tactic of obstruction and delay. We cannot live in a society where vital infrastructural developments are, as a matter of routine, paralysed for years by legal objection, he said.
There is “no area of law more complex” than the balancing of rights in planning and environmental disputes, and this new court will perform a “vital societal role”.
Planning matters should generally be resolved by local authorities and An Coimisiún Pleanála (the title to replace An Bord Pleanála), but it is “unrealistic” to believe there will come a day when there is no litigating of planning matters.
“It is a legitimate aspiration that where there is to be litigation, it will be dealt with swiftly and efficiently by judges who are knowledgeable and expert in the field,” he said.
Minister for Justice Helen McEntee said the move is an “important milestone” that fulfils aims of the Programme for Government and Housing for All strategy.
She said it is “so important our courts operate in a way where planning and environmental judicial review cases can be heard efficiently and effectively”.