None of 34 complaints made about judges last year under a new system were admissible, according to the Judicial Council’s 2022 annual report.
Complaints must concern alleged judicial misconduct. But many of those filing them appear to mistakenly view the system “as an opportunity to express dissatisfaction with the outcome of their cases”, the report notes.
Given the statutory system only became operational last October, and the low number of complaints considered by year-end, it is too early to identify trends or give an overview, the report states.
Range of sanctions
The formal complaints system, the first ever in the State, came into operation as part of a judicial ethics and conduct regime provided for under the Judicial Council Act 2019. It provides for a range of sanctions, including the removal of a judge from office.
The first stage of the procedure involves the secretary of the council, also the registrar of its Judicial Conduct Committee (JCC), Kevin O’Neill, deciding if a complaint is admissible having regard to various criteria set out in the Act.
A complainant can seek an internal review if their complaint is deemed inadmissible. Complaints must relate to alleged misconduct from October 3rd last onwards and involve serving judges. The identity of complainants, the judge involved and the nature of the complaint are subject to confidentiality.
Complaints upheld by the JCC may be addressed in various ways, including by advice, training, admonishment, a combination of those, or via an informal resolution process if the complainant consents.
Even if there is no complaint, the JCC can decide a matter relating to judicial misconduct or capacity is so serious that it must be referred to the Minister for Justice under the Government’s constitutional power to remove a judge from office.
In his introduction to the annual report, Mr O’Neill said the experience during the first three months of operation of the complaints regime was that complainants “mistakenly perceived the new complaints system as an opportunity to express dissatisfaction with the outcome of cases”.
Other complaints fell “far short” of the threshold for admissibility set out in the Act, he stated.
Stressing the complaints system is a statutory one created by the Act, he pointed out that an admissible complaint must disclose conduct that could, among other criteria, bring the administration of justice into disrepute.
Of the 34 complaints received, half were deemed not to come within the scope of the 2019 Act — suggesting they related to conduct prior to last October — and could not be considered admissible.
The Act, it was decided, did apply to the remaining 17 with the effect they could be considered for admissibility. Of those, 10 were deemed inadmissible and one was withdrawn. Consideration of the remaining six, all received last December, was not finalised by the end of that month and thus did not fall within the scope of the annual report.
Two complainants have requested a review of the registrar’s determination that their complaints were not admissible. The Complaints Review Committee had not completed those reviews by year-end.
In his foreword to the annual report, Chief Justice Mr Donal O’Donnell described as a “hugely important step” the approval by judges early last year of guidelines, drafted by the JCC, relating to judicial conduct and ethics as part of the development of the conduct regime.
“The standards which we have set for ourselves are high and are willingly accepted by all who are, and who become, judges in Ireland,” he said. “The public is entitled to expect that judges will adhere to those standards.”
The Chief Justice also noted a review by the council’s Personal Injuries Guidelines Committee of guidelines adopted by the council in March 2021, which slashed awards for mainly minor personal injuries, is due to be completed by next March.
Noting the importance of judicial training, he expressed the hope that the appointment of additional judges, in line with recommendations of the Judicial Planning Working Group, would free up judges for training.
He said there is a need for a “much greater focus” on creating a judicial welfare structure, saying a key part of effectively promoting judicial duties “depends on resilience and well-being”. The importance of this in promoting and maintaining public confidence in the judiciary “cannot be underestimated”, he said.
The annual report also highlights concerns, previously expressed by the judiciary and others, about the impact of court data deficits, including for the council’s Sentencing Guidelines and Information Committee in preparing sentencing guidelines for judges in line with the requirements of the 2019 Act.