Yes vote in ‘the other referendum’ brings relief for court’s champions
Questions remain over new institution
Voters have backed the proposal to create a Court of Appeal, a new institution that will sit between the Supreme Court and the High Court.
It elicited scant debate and in the end it drew a predictably low turnout, but by saying Yes in the referendum best known as “the other one”, the people have approved a constitutional change that will bring about the biggest shake-up of the courts system since 1937.
The court is ostensibly designed to solve a pressing problem: the bottleneck at the Supreme Court, where a four-year backlog has developed as a result of an increase in the volume and complexity of cases being appealed from the expanding High Court. But it’s also aimed at effecting a deeper overhaul of how business is done at the apex of the system. The Supreme Court will no longer be the final court of appeals for all types of cases; from now on it will focus on appeals that are of special public importance and will presumably evolve in time into a type of constitutional court that Ireland has never had. For the first time, it will have a filtering mechanism; it can pick and choose what cases it will hear, and take more time in deciding them.
The Government hopes to have the Court of Appeal in place by October 2014. In the meantime, efforts to reduce the backlog have been strengthened with the appointment of two new Supreme Court judges, whose swearing-in later this month will bring the court from eight to 10 judges. The long-term plan is that, provided the backlog clears, the next five retirees from the Supreme Court will not be replaced and the court will in future comprise only five judges.
Of more immediate importance are the unanswered questions about the Court of Appeal. Minister for Justice Alan Shatter envisages appointing 10 judges to the new court, but their salaries and other conditions haven’t yet been set out. Neither is it clear where the judges will come from (will they be High Court judges, practicing lawyers or a mix of both?) or whether there will be much interest among serving members of the judiciary in applying for the posts. A High Court judge who enjoys life in the “front-line” as a trial judge may be reluctant to join an appeals court that could have its most interesting cases plucked from its hands by the Supreme Court. “If it’s regarded as a dumping ground for very boring cases like personal injuries quantums, you’re not going to get top-calibre people applying for it. They’d be bored out of their minds,” one senior counsel told The Irish Times.
One of the big winners is Chief Justice Susan Denham, who chaired the working group that first recommended establishing a new appeals court in 2009 and then championed the idea from concept to ballot paper. She didn’t explicitly call for a Yes vote, but her views are hardly a secret; the case for a new appellate court has been a theme of her speeches since she became Ireland’s most senior judge two years ago. Mr Shatter was persuaded of that case, and shepherded the proposal over the finishing line in the face of an uninterested media. He emerges with credit, as do the small number of politicians who campaigned for the court.