Advisory committee to help with appointment of chief justice

Helen McEntee proposal will assist in selecting successor for Frank Clarke

 Supreme Court judge Mr Justice Donal O’Donnell:  the “clear and obvious favourite” to replace Mr Justice Frank Clarke, according to senior legal sources.   Photograph:  Collins Courts

Supreme Court judge Mr Justice Donal O’Donnell: the “clear and obvious favourite” to replace Mr Justice Frank Clarke, according to senior legal sources. Photograph: Collins Courts

 

A new advisory committee will be set up to help identify eligible and qualified candidates interested in the post of chief justice under plans brought to Cabinet by Minister for Justice Helen McEntee.

The memo presented to Ministers outlines the nomination process following the retirement of Mr Justice Frank Clarke this October when he reaches the age of 70.

Ms McEntee told Cabinet on Tuesday that it is proposed a similar process be used as that for the appointment of Mr Justice Clarke as chief justice in 2017.

A non-statutory advisory committee will be established to help find interested candidates including among serving judges. The committee will examine their suitability and make recommendations to the Minister for Justice on preferred candidates.

The committee will be made up of a senior member of the judiciary, the Attorney General and a lay member. It would be required to establish its own procedures for inviting and assessing expressions of interest from applicants, including serving judges.

‘Obvious favourite’

A similar process was also used in the appointment of the President of the Court of Appeal in 2018, the Presidents of the Circuit Court and the District Court in 2019, the President of the High Court in 2020, and the President of the District Court this year.

The Supreme Court judge Donal O’Donnell (63) is the “clear and obvious favourite” to replace Mr Justice Clarke, according to senior legal sources.

Other possible contenders being mentioned include the President of the High Court, Ms Justice Mary Irvine (64); Supreme Court judges Elizabeth Dunne (65) and Iseult O’Malley (56); and the President of the Court of Appeal, George Birmingham (66).

However, no source was of the view that such an appointment was more likely than that of Mr Justice O’Donnell.

The likelihood of Ms Justice Irvine, were she interested in the job, being favoured by the Government, is viewed as having been improved due to her role in chairing the committee that drafted new guidelines on personal injury awards, recently adopted by the Judicial Council.

When Mr Justice Clarke was appointed, it was reported by The Irish Times that Mr Justice O’Donnell was among those on a three-judge shortlist.

Mr Justice O’Donnell was appointed directly to the Supreme Court from practising as a barrister in 2010.

No controversy

It is a measure of the stature of Mr Justice O’Donnell within the legal world that his appointment directly to the State’s top court did not create controversy, said one senior barrister.

“I’d be surprised if it wasn’t him,” the barrister said, when asked who might be the next chief justice. “But there’s always politics.”

Mr Justice O’Donnell, who is from Belfast and whose father was a senior judge in Northern Ireland, is not known for any strong party political affiliations.

“He’d be a pretty heavy constitutional law expert,” the barrister said. “He’s great to appear before. He’s organised, polite, courteous.”

“I think there is really only one name, I honestly do,” said another senior counsel.

Ms Justice Irvine is a former member of the Supreme Court who was appointed President of the High Court in 2020, just a year after being elevated from the Court of Appeal to the Supreme Court.

Ms Justice Dunne was appointed to the Supreme Court in 2013 and Ms Justice O’Malley was appointed in 2015.

Mr Justice Birmingham was appointed President of the Court of Appeal in 2018. He is a former Fine Gael politician and minister of state, a fact that some believe might stand against him if the Government was anxious to avoid being accused of letting party politics influence its decision.