Coalition has scope to alter key parts of judiciary

Many questions remain over how new Court of Appeal will operate

The Four Courts in Dublin. The High Court has lost a number of prominent judges recently and will be further depleted within months. Photograph: Bryan O’Brien

The Four Courts in Dublin. The High Court has lost a number of prominent judges recently and will be further depleted within months. Photograph: Bryan O’Brien

Thu, Jan 9, 2014, 01:00

More than 15 vacancies are expected to arise on the superior courts in the coming months, giving the Government a rare opportunity to reshape key parts of the judiciary.

The changes will be felt first in the High Court, which has lost a number of prominent judges recently and will be further depleted within months, when Mr Justice Eamon de Valera and Ms Justice Maureen Clark reach retirement age. Later in the year, they will be followed by two more long-serving figures, Mr Justice Barry White and Mr Justice Daniel Herbert, who are also due to retire.

They are the ones we know about; speculation is rife that a number of other high-profile judges may step down before August 31st, which would allow them to benefit from a “grace period” open to public servants who wish to avoid a super-tax on their pensions above €115,000.

That would present real problems for the busy High Court, which has already had to absorb significant losses of late with the retirement of Mr Justice John Cooke, the sudden death of Mr Justice Kevin Feeney and the elevation to the Supreme Court of Ms Justice Mary Laffoy and Ms Justice Elizabeth Dunne.

Yesterday, President Michael D Higgins formally appointed Marie Baker SC and Bronagh O’Hanlon SC and solicitor Max Barrett to fill three of those vacancies.


Staying put
One person who is staying put, however, is the president of the High Court, Mr Justice Nicholas Kearns, who has told colleagues he intends to remain in his position until his retirement in 2016 so as to provide continuity during a period of major upheaval for the court.

That would appear to rule him out as a candidate for the post of president of the Court of Appeal, the new institution that will sit between the Supreme Court and High Court and is expected to begin hearing appeals in the autumn.

The senior judge on the new court will become an ex-officio member of the Council of State and will be the person to substitute for the Chief Justice on the Presidential Commission, the body that takes over the functions of the office of President of Ireland when the office is vacant or the head of State is unavailable.


Mystery
In key respects, the plans for the new court remain something of a mystery. It is not known how much its judges will earn, how long they will remain in their posts, where the court will sit, or precisely how it will interact with the Supreme Court, which – the thinking goes – will gradually be allowed to develop into a constitutional court.

Neither is it clear who will sit on the new court.

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