The Chief Justice, Mr Justice Frank Clarke, has sharply rejected comments by a Fine Gael Minister Michael D'Arcy which were seen by judges as an attempt to interfere with their approach to personal injury claims.
Mr Justice Clarke made the remarks on Thursday as he announced the membership of the forthcoming Personal Injuries Committee which will examine payout levels and issue guidelines for such cases in the face of rising insurance costs for businesses and individuals.
The committee, which will operate under the Judicial Council, will be headed by Ms Justice Mary Irvine, a judge who developed a reputation for significantly lowering payouts in personal injury cases while she was on the Court of Appeal.
Along with several other members of the new committee, Ms Justice Irvine is seen as a “reformer” when it comes to payouts.
The Chief Justice said in “light of some recent publicity” he felt it was incumbent on him to “emphasise the total independence” of the committee.
The committee will be completely independent, including from him, and will only take directions from the judicial council, Mr Justice Clarke said.
Sources confirmed the remarks are a direct response to comments by Minister of State at the Department of Finance Michael D'Arcy which were published in the Business Post at the weekend.
Mr D’Arcy said guidelines for payouts in the five most common types of personal injury cases will be significantly reduced early next year, which would quickly result in lower insurance costs.
Guidelines for the most common injuries that result in cases would be dealt with by the end of March, he said and the categories will be selected based on research from the Personal Injuries Assessment Board (PIAB) and Insurance Ireland.
The Minister suggested the reductions would be in excess of 15 or 20 per cent.
Citing the independence of the committee and the fact that it has not yet met, Mr Justice Clarke said “there could be no basis in fact for suggestions that the Committee will necessarily pick the five most common injuries for initial consideration” or “use any particular research in the course of its work.”
Furthermore, assertions that it will complete such work by March are without foundation as are comments that compensation rates would reduce by more than 15 or 20 per cent, he said.
“It will be for the committee, in the exercise of its independent statutory function, to decide on all of those matters,” the Chief Justice said, without mentioning Mr D’Arcy by name.
“I have felt it incumbent on me to make these additional comments so as to avoid any wrong impressions about the full independence of the Judicial Council and the Committee itself.”
The comments from Mr D’Arcy caused considerable frustration among senior members of the judiciary, legal sources said.
Mr Justice Clarke is particularly eager to emphasis the independence of the Judicial Council both to the public and to his colleagues.
Mr D’Arcy later told The Irish Times his comments were not an attempt to “trample” judicial independence. He said he was merely outlining what approach he would prefer to see taken by the committee rather than issuing any instructions.
“The approach they take is a matter for the seven judges. I am not one of the seven judges.”
Mr D’Arcy’s comments were seen as frustrating those efforts and appeared to some judges as an attempt to steer the work of the committee from the outside.
The Personal Injuries Committee will sit for the first time early next week as a “committee designate” ahead of its formal commencement following the establishment of the judicial council in 2020.
The committee designate will carry out preliminary planning work which will allow it to “hit the ground running”, Mr Justice Clarke said.
The Chief Justice said he has appointed the members of the committee but beyond that he will have no role in its operations.
The other members of the committee are Mr Justice Seamus Noonan of the Court of Appeal, Mr Justice Donald Binchy and Mr Justice Senan Allen of the High Court; Judge Jacqueline Linnane and Judge Seán O Donnabháin of the Circuit Court; and Judge Brian O'Shea of the District Court.