Alan Shatter: a polarising reformer who leaves a long legacy on the statute books

Analysis: Former minister for justice Alan Shatter’s social-liberal instincts underpinned key pieces of legislation


Alan Shatter: had 

a strained relationship with the judiciary

Alan Shatter: had a strained relationship with the judiciary

Thu, May 8, 2014, 01:01

Alan Shatter leaves a significant legacy on the statute books after his three years in the Department of Justice.

One of the centrepieces of his programme was the Personal Insolvency Act. The jury is still out on its impact, but this huge and complex piece of legislation was an attempt to overhaul the State’s antiquated, unforgiving bankruptcy process and offer a fresh start to people facing genuine difficulties in meeting their mortgage repayments after the economic crash.

Under Shatter’s watch, a new cadre of specialist Circuit Court judges were appointed to speed up insolvency cases. Bills were published to introduce a DNA database, regulate the gambling sector and further protect children from sexual abuse and exploitation. Under his watch, the Oireachtas passed laws to criminalise trafficking for criminal activities and to update criminal law provisions on money laundering.

Supreme Court delays
In order to remedy the four-year delays at the Supreme Court – a long-standing issue that had been ignored for years – Shatter proposed the establishment of a new Court of Appeal and led the Government’s successful campaign to have it approved by referendum. The new court, which is expected to be up and running in the autumn, represents one of the biggest changes to the courts system in a century.

In the family law area, in which he had practised as a solicitor for most of his career, Shatter proposed to create a new Family Courts structure, and eased courtroom reporting restrictions so the media could cover family and childcare cases for the first time.

A social liberal, Shatter was a strong advocate for the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Bill as it made its way through the Oireachtas, and stated publicly that he believed it should go further, to include cases of fatal foetal abnormality. He supported plans for a referendum on same-sex marriage, which is expected to take place next year, and recently produced one of the most significant pieces of social legislation published in many years, the Children and Family Relationships Bill, which will introduce changes in the areas of surrogacy and adoption.

Not every legislative campaign went Shatter’s way, however. Some remain far from completion. His Legal Services Regulation Bill, which promised an overhaul of the profession, grew into a long attritional saga as it stalled in the Oireachtas and was chipped away at by lawyers’ interest groups.

Some far-reaching features have survived intact, including ones that Shatter believes will reduce costs and improve access to justice, but a proposal to allow barristers and solicitors to set up one-stop shops with other professionals – an idea resisted by the Law Library – was deferred. Almost three years after the Bill was first published, it remains to be enacted.

One of the recurring themes of Shatter’s time in office was his strained relationship with the judiciary. In 2011, he took a lead role in the successful referendum campaign to amend the Constitution to allow judges’ salaries to be reduced, a move that proved popular with the public and set the tone for an awkward relationship with the judiciary.

One of his latest projects was a reform of the anachronistic system by which judges are appointed. Like his proposed Judicial Council Bill and many of the other unfinished dossiers still circulating in the department of Justice, the question now is whether the next minister will take it up or let it rest quietly in the bottom drawer.