SF helps FG to defeat objection to new judicial ‘quango’

Fianna Fáil opposed the Office of Judicial Appointments which will cost €700,000

Fianna Fáil Dublin West TD Jack Chambers said the Government was proposing a 200-fold funding increase for yet another “bureaucratic quango”. Photograph: Alan Betson

Fianna Fáil Dublin West TD Jack Chambers said the Government was proposing a 200-fold funding increase for yet another “bureaucratic quango”. Photograph: Alan Betson

 

The Government has had to rely on the support of Sinn Féin to narrowly defeat an Opposition effort to remove a highly contentious provision in its new judicial appointments legislation.

The Judicial Appointments Commission Bill has proposed for a new Office of Judicial Appointments to be created with its own director at a cost of €1 million per annum.

This change has been opposed by Fianna Fáil, which argue it is an unnecessary and costly “quango”.

When a vote was called in the eight-member committee on Wednesday on removing this office from the Bill, it divided four-to-four. Fine Gael and Sinn Féin opposed the amendment, while Fianna Fáil and Independent TDs supported it. On a split vote, it was deemed the Opposition amendment was lost.

A total of 191 amendments were tabled ahead of the meeting, which was adjourned at noon. The Committee is not now likely to continue its examination of the legislation until early November. Given the slow pace of its deliberations, it looks increasingly unlikely that the Bill can be enacted by the end of the year.

During the debate at committee stage of the legislation, Fianna Fáil justice spokesman Jim O’Callaghan portrayed the creation of the office as a folly, given the relatively light work-load involved.

Appointments

He said 10 judicial appointments were made each year on average, meaning the recruitment cost for each new judge would be €100,000.

Fianna Fáil Dublin West TD Jack Chambers said the annual budget of the present arrangement, the Judicial Appointments Advisory Board, is only €5,000. He said the Government was proposing a 200-fold funding increase for yet another “bureaucratic quango”.

The stance was supported by Independents for Change TDs Clare Daly and Mick Wallace. Ms Daly said that since 2002, the average annual number of appointments has been six.

Minister for Justice Charlie Flanagan told the committee he would not be accepting the amendments. He said he would be very surprised if the cost of the current board “came within an envelope of €5,000”, adding that its costs were subsumed into the Courts Service.

He said the office would involve a director plus a “handful of staff” and the annual expenditure would be €700,000 per annum, with related expenditure. He said he was very conscious of the need to provide value for money.

Key requirement

Minister for Transport Shane Ross and his colleagues in the Independent Alliance have made this Bill a key requirement for their continued support of Government. Fine Gael has acceded to Mr Ross’s insistence that there be a lay majority and a lay chair of the Commission. This has been strongly opposed by the judiciary and by the legal profession.

Mr Flanagan said he would not agree with any amendments “that don’t agree with the tenets as laid out in the Programme for Government.

“Having said that I am not coming (to the committee) with a closed mind,” he said.

The Opposition has tabled amendments looking for changes in the make-up of the Commission. Fianna Fáil has sought a change that would allow for either a lay or judicial chairman. It has tabled an amendment that would allow a former judge of the High Court or the Supreme Court to become chair, or alternatively, a suitably qualified lay person.

Some amendments were ruled out of order on the ground they caused a charge on the revenue of the State. They included amendments by Fianna Fáil asking for the Presidents of the Circuit Court, and District Court, to be added to the Commission, and similar amendments from Ms Daly and Mr Wallace to add people nominated by the Free Legal Advice Centre and by the Irish Council of Civil Liberties.