The new Chief Justice has said most people cannot afford to pursue litigation in the higher courts.
In his first major speech since being appointed in July, Frank Clarke said the costs involved were acting as a practical barrier against access to justice, in a system which otherwise has few formal obstacles.
“It has increasingly become the case that many types of litigation are moving beyond the resources of all but a few,” he said.
Mr Justice Clarke said “high priority” must be given to questions about practical access to justice.
“There is little point in having a good court system, likely to produce fair results in accordance with law, if a great many people find it difficult or even impossible to access that system for practical reasons,” he said.
Mr Justice Clarke said there had been systems which worked well in the past where legal practitioners took cases on the understanding they would not be paid unless they won and secured an order for costs.
But he said this was only an effective means of litigating in certain types of case, such as personal injury claims and some forms of judicial review.
He made the remarks in an address at the Four Courts yesterday attended by Justice Minister Charlie Flanagan, senior judges, lawyers and Attorney General Séamus Woulfe, in which he set out his priorities for the coming legal year, which starts next week.
Although access to justice was an issue raised by his predecessor Susan Denham, Mr Justice Clarke’s remarks were particularly forceful.
They came as the board of the Legal Services Regulatory Authority continues work behind the scenes to roll out the provisions of the Legal Services Act, part of which aims to drive down the cost of litigation.
Under the act, a new Office of Legal Costs Adjudicators is set to open in the first quarter of 2018, replacing the current Office of the Taxing Master.
It will deal with disputes over legal costs and will also publish a register of its decisions, a move which is expected to put downward pressure on legal fees.
Mr Justice Clarke said one area where the judiciary could improve access to justice was in terms of procedures.
He said a review of the civil courts, being led by High Court president Peter Kelly, would examine procedures that were “beyond their sell-by dates”.