Concern expressed over quality of people applying to be judges

Letter reminds public service pay body of view expressed previously about judicial recruitment

In the letter, Mr Justice George Birmingham of the Court of Appeal wrote: ‘Our concern was not necessarily with the number of applicants but with the quality of applicants.’ Photograph: Collins Courts.

The Association of Judges of Ireland expressed concern about the quality of the people applying to be judges in a letter to the Public Service Pay Commission two years ago.

The letter has been published on the commission’s website along with other submissions received in the run-up to a major report on public service pay published on Tuesday.

In the letter, the association's president, Mr Justice George Birmingham of the Court of Appeal, reminded the commission of the view expressed at an earlier meeting about judicial recruitment.

“Our concern was not necessarily with the number of applicants but with the quality of applicants.”


He was referring to a meeting he and two colleagues, Supreme Court judge Mr Justice Donal O'Donnell and Judge Catherine Murphy of the Circuit Court, had earlier had with the commission.

The cumulative effect of a series of decisions affecting judge's pay was having a "significant adverse impact" on recruitment, Mr Justice Birmingham told the commission chairman, Kevin Duffy, in the letter.

The judge said “fewer applications are coming forward from really highly qualified candidates” and that this might be attributable to the cumulative effect of decisions that have affected judges’ pay.

When considered in isolation, it was difficult to quarrel with any one of the changes, but cumulative the effect of the changes was “very severe indeed”.

The 2011 referendum on judges’ pay was followed by “very significant” cuts to their salary, he wrote.

Changes also made at about this time meant judges paid PRSI at 4 per cent, but did not receive any direct benefits in return, dental, optical or “anything else”.

Dramatic impact

Whereas in the past judges in the Circuit, High and Supreme Court became eligible for a pension after 15 years’ service, this had been changed to 20 years.

However the most dramatic impact, Mr Justice Birmingham wrote, was to the rules affecting pension thresholds.

The notional value of a High Court judge’s pension was equal to or exceeded the threshold limit governing the special taxation treatment that applied to pensions, he wrote.

“If the judge has a private pension fund from his or her time as a solicitor or barrister in private practice, that private fund is aggregated along with the judicial pension fund and the excess is subject to very high taxes indeed.

“The effect of this is to make a judicial appointment less attractive for a practitioner who has been responsible and has sought to make a provision for their pension fund from their early days in practice.”


On the other hand, Mr Justice Birmingham wrote, judicial appointment was relatively more attractive for someone who chose not to, “or was not in a position to”, make provision for their retirement when in private practice.

The judge said he had raised one issue with the Chief Justice, Frank Clarke, who was also the chairman of the Judicial Appointments Advisory Board, as he would have up-to-date information about "the number of applications that are being received and the background and calibre of the applicants. I understand that he is likely to be in touch with you in that regard in the near future."

There is no document in the material published on the commission’s website from the Chief Justice.

Colm Keena

Colm Keena

Colm Keena is an Irish Times journalist. He was previously legal-affairs correspondent and public-affairs correspondent

Martin Wall

Martin Wall

Martin Wall is the former Washington Correspondent of The Irish Times. He was previously industry correspondent