Chief Justice cites ‘neglect of judiciary’ at final sitting

Successive governments have failed to set up Judicial Council, Susan Denham notes

 Susan Denham who had last formal sitting in the Supreme Court on Friday as Chief Justice. Photographer: Dara Mac Donaill

Susan Denham who had last formal sitting in the Supreme Court on Friday as Chief Justice. Photographer: Dara Mac Donaill

 

The judiciary has been the “Cinderella” of the three organs of the State and there is still no Judicial Council despite 20 years of talking about it with successive governments, the outgoing Chief Justice Susan Denham has said.

The failure to act means Ireland lacks an institution which is the norm in other democratic states and also illustrates “a neglect of the judiciary, the third branch of government”.

She made the remarks in an address marking her last formal sitting in the Supreme Court today as Chief Justice.

“The judiciary has been the Cinderella of the three sisters — the three great organs of State: the legislature, executive and judiciary,” she said.

Many judges had spoken about this for 20 years and she first discussed it in 1997 with then minister for justice Nora Owen. There had been “many discussions since” and former chief justice Ronan Keane had chaired a committee that in 2000 recommended a Judicial Council be established.

“We have been talking about it for the last 20 years, and conferencing on draft bills since 2000. I do hope that it will come to fruition.”

The situation has been recognised by the Council of Europe (COE) which in 2014 made five recommendations to Ireland to relation to the judiciary. These were that a Judicial Council be established, the system for appointing judges be reviewed, a special pay and conditions body, a code of conduct and a dedicated training unit for judges be established.

“The Government failed to act on any of these recommendations.”

A 2017 compliance report had found, because of the low level of compliance with the COE recommendations, Ireland is “globally unsatisfactory”, she noted.

Court building

This neglect of a judicial infrastructure contrasted with the “immense programme” of court building since 1999, including the Criminal Courts of Justice.

She hoped the proposed new Supreme Court building, to also include 19 family courts and two Children’s Courts, would proceed to fruition because the existing Supreme Court building is not suitable for the court, she said.

The Chief Justice also observed Ireland’s 163 judges represents the lowest number of judges per head of population of the 47 Council of Europe states who consequently carry a “very heavy workload” which was a factor in delays within the system.

However, the Irish judiciary is regarded very highly at international level and recognised for its integrity and independence, she added.

The Chief Justice said she was glad she joined the judiciary when she had in 1991 as there was a sense then it had remained unchanged for centuries and “gossamer glinted through the buildings, procedures and structures”.

She felt “a stepping back in time” but there was thus the opportunity to bring about change.

Constitution

It had been a “great honour” and privilege to have been a judge and Chief Justice and she very much appreciated the support and warm friendship of her colleagues. It was a great honour to uphold and interpret the Constitution, a “prescient” document ahead of its time, with five of 50 Articles devoted to the protection of fundamental rights.

She noted a “great change” in the place of women in the courts since she joined an almost exclusively male Bar in 1971. When she first sat at the Supreme Court conference table in 1992, she was very conscious no woman had sat there before.

She said she felt she had with her two women: Gwyneth Bebb whose application to be a solicitor was refused by the courts here in 1913 on grounds she was not a “person” under the Solicitors Act 1843, and Weir Johnson who in 1901 was told by the Kings Inns it was “not competent for a lady” to join the Irish Bar.

There has been an “immense change” and now some 37 per cent of Irish judges are women, she noted.

On becoming Chief Justice in 2011, she got many letters of congratulation, not just on being the first woman to hold the office but also the first person from the Protestant faith.

She thanked her colleagues, secretaries and staff and also commended journalists for “excellent reporting” of the complex matters before the Supreme Court. For the rule of law to flourish in a democracy, an understanding and knowledge of what happens in our court is required, she said.

She particularly thanked her family, especially her husband Brian, “for their loving support and for putting up with my long hours of work”.