High Court president told government 12 staff needed immediately

State Papers 1986: Alan Dukes memo said arrears in judgments ‘due entirely’ to staff shortage

Mr Justice Liam Hamilton, president of the High Court in 1986, told the then government he needed 12 staff immediately if the High Court was "to fulfil its constitutional and statutory obligations", according to the State Papers. The staff shortage resulted in delays, including in the registration of judgments.

Mr Justice Hamilton's predecessor had written two years earlier also highlighting staffing concerns, documents on the attorney general's file show. However there was no action from the government until a High Court ruling, in March 1986, directed that the minister for justice, then Alan Dukes, should provide "sufficient clerks or servants" to enable a particular judgment to be entered and registered "with reasonable expedition".

Mr Dukes brought an emergency memorandum to government on March 19th, five days after the ruling. It said arrears in judgments were "due entirely to the staffing situation in the High Court" caused by an embargo on recruitment. He asked that special provision be made to fill the "critical vacancies". He told the cabinet that Mr Justice Hamilton had said, due to the separation of powers under the Constitution, "the servicing of the courts" was excluded from employment embargoes. The judge also said that under a 1961 law, there was an obligation that "various staff shall be employed in the High Court" after consultation with the president of the High Court. This precluded the government from taking a "unilateral decision to embargo posts" previously determined as necessary.

The memo said Mr Justice Hamilton wanted the restoration of staff to 1982 levels. One assistant principal officer and one assistant registrar was required, as well as two court clerks, two junior clerks, four clerical assistants, one paperkeeper and one messenger at a cost of £290,000.


It said the minister was “impressed with the force of the points made” by the high court president. “If the issue became a matter of public debate, he is satisfied that it would be extremely difficult to counter the arguments. Serious damage could be done if a perception grew that the government were interfering with the effectiveness of the court system by restricting its resources.”

The memo also said the minister would be unable to offset savings from within his own budget. “The operations of the Circuit and District Courts are already being severely hampered for lack of staff in many important areas of work.”

Attorney general John Rodgers agreed that the posts were needed. A note on the file, brought to government along with Mr Dukes's memo, said if a case arose "in which a citizen could demonstrate" he had been denied access to or remedies of the courts because of the embargo, there was a likelihood the government "would be found to be in breach of constitutional obligations".

The cabinet agreed to fill the posts.

Fiona Gartland

Fiona Gartland

Fiona Gartland is a crime writer and former Irish Times journalist