Q&A: Why is there a row over the appointment of judges?

Judges are opposed to the idea that a lay majority body should appoint judges

Members of the judiciary are strongly opposed to planned reforms to how judges are appointed from Shane Ross.

Members of the judiciary are strongly opposed to planned reforms to how judges are appointed from Shane Ross.

 

A proposal to change the way judges are appointed has been widely criticised and prompted unprecedented expressions of concern from the judges. Below we set out the main points in the controversy.

What is this judicial appointments row about?

Independent Alliance TD and Minister for Transport Shane Ross believes the current system for appointing judges is too political and he has proposed legislation to change the system. The judges are not happy but the government is going ahead with the reform.

What will this new law do?

The Judicial Appointments Bill will create a new commission with a majority of non-legal members, headed by a non-legal chair. It will select a ranked shortlist of candidates for the bench. The government will retain the final vote in the selection process.

What do the judges think?

They are not impressed. At all. They oppose the reform plan for a number of reasons. In their view it diminishes the role of the Chief Justice and say the rationale for a lay majority and a lay chairman has not been explained.

In a statement the Association of Judges of Ireland said: “It is hard to imagine any other walk of life in which the majority of those involved in an appointment process would be required to come from outside the ranks of those serving in the area”.

Anything else?

Yep. The former president of the High Court Nicholas Kearns compared the proposed lay majority as being like asking a group of judges to select an Irish football team. “If a group of judges were given the power to select an Irish football team, be it soccer or rugby, all hell would break loose”.

So this is serious?

Yes. In an unprecedented intervention, the State’s most senior judges, including the State Chief Justice Susan Denham and the presidents of the Court of Appeal; the High Court; the Circuit Court; and of the District Court, have written to the Taoiseach to express their concern. Mr Justice Peter Kelly’s has called the Bill “ill advised” and “ill-conceived”.

What do Fine Gael backbenchers think?

They are mostly ambivalent on the proposals themselves but many are amazed that judicial reform is taking legislative priority ahead of the many other issues confronting the Government.

So why is the Government pushing this issue now?

Well, following the controversy surrounding the appointment of former attorney general Máire Whelan to the Court of Appeal, the Government has a new found appetite to get the Bill passed as soon as possible.

What does Fianna Fáil think?

They don’t like it one bit. Fianna Fail’s justice spokesman Jim O’Callaghan said the proposed changes will have “significant consequences for democracy” and he was mystified about why a lay majority was required. Fianna Fáil are likely to vote against it.

Sure it will never happen so?

Wrong. Sinn Féin is likely to support the legislation. The Bill is being discussed in the Dáil this week (June 26th) and is expected to become law before the summer recess.

So we will hear more about this?

Yes.