Complaints against judges to be addressed in far-reaching Bill

 

MINISTER for Justice Dermot Ahern will unveil far-reaching changes to how the judiciary operates with the publication today of the long-awaited Judicial Council Bill.

The Bill will provide for the establishment of two new bodies – a Judicial Council, to promote education and the independence of the judiciary, and a Judicial Conduct Committee, which will include a mechanism for dealing with complaints against judges.

Until now there has been no procedure, short of a resolution of both Houses of the Oireachtas to remove a judge from office, to deal with allegations of judicial misconduct.

A number of controversies, including the “Sheedy affair”, where a young man convicted of drunk driving was released early, and the case of Judge Brian Curtin – who was acquitted without the case going to hearing of child pornography charges due to a warrant defect – highlighted the lack of a mechanism for dealing with such allegations.

The proposed Bill will establish a Judicial Council composed of all members of the judiciary, to promote high standards, provide continuing education and promote the independence of the judiciary. It will be an independent legal entity, with a nine-member board. The board will appoint a secretary who will be the accounting officer reporting to the Committee on Public Accounts and the council will have its own staff, subject to agreement with the Ministers for Justice and Finance.

The Judicial Studies Institute, which at the moment organises conferences for members of the judiciary, will become a committee of the council, with an extended remit for continuing judicial education.

Judicial support committees will also be established to service the judges of the different jurisdictions.

The Bill will also establish a Judicial Conduct Committee, with lay participation, which will examine allegations against judges in relation to their conduct both on and off the bench and provide for a range of sanctions. Under the Constitution the dismissal of a judge remains the prerogative of the Oireachtas.

The Judicial Conduct Committee will be made up of eight judges and three lay members appointed by the Government. It will draw up draft guidelines for judicial ethics and conduct and make regulations setting procedures for the investigation of complaints. These will be laid before both Houses of the Oireachtas.

The committee will either refer a complaint for informal investigation or establish a panel of inquiry to conduct a formal investigation. If this finds the complaint justified the panel will have a number of recommendations open to it.

One of the matters provided for in the Bill is the investigation of the mental or physical health of a judge.

The Judicial Conduct Committee will have the powers of the High Court in compelling witnesses and ensuring the production of documents. All investigations will be carried out in private, and neither the identity of the complainant or the judge may be made public.

The Bill follows 11 years of deliberation and discussion by both the judiciary and politicians, on foot of a proposal from the Working Group on a Courts Commission in 1999.