Ethical guidelines for judges to be considered in bid to close ‘accountability gap’

Framework for judicial conduct to pave way for new disciplinary regime for judges

Chief Justice Frank Clarke. Photograph: Nick Bradshaw

Chief Justice Frank Clarke. Photograph: Nick Bradshaw

 

Long-awaited ethical guidelines on the conduct and behaviour of judges are to be considered by the board of the Judicial Council this week.

The council, chaired by Chief Justice Frank Clarke, has been operational since December 2019, but the parts of the legislation giving it powers to hold disciplinary hearings, or receive complaints against a judge, have yet to commence.

The absence of any such legal provision was the reason a non-statutory review was conducted on the controversy arising from Mr Justice Séamus Woulfe’s attendance at the Oireachtas Golf Society dinner in Co Galway last August.

There were calls for Mr Justice Woulfe’s resignation because of his attendance at the so-called golfgate dinner in Clifden. However, he resisted the calls, including the suggestion by Mr Justice Clarke that he should resign.

The council’s judicial conduct committee, also chaired by Mr Justice Clarke, was established in June last year and had a maximum of 12 months to produce guidelines concerning judicial conduct and ethics.

The judicial complaint and disciplinary procedures cannot start until the judicial conduct and ethics guidelines are finalised and adopted by the council, and until the Minister for Justice then commences the relevant sections of the Act.

Speaking on the publication of the council’s first annual report on Tuesday, Mr Justice Clarke said the committee had now drafted the guidelines. “The board is due to consider those guidelines at a meeting on Thursday morning and it is hoped that it will be possible to progress towards the final adoption of guidelines and the setting-up of the complaints and investigation process thereafter.”

Transparency gap

In addition to covering the ethical standards expected of judges, the guidelines will give direction as to when a judge should consider recusing himself or herself from presiding over legal proceedings.

In his introduction to the report Mr Justice Clarke said the absence of a system for making and dealing with a complaint in relation to the conduct of a judge “and for promoting judicial conduct generally” has “long been identified as a gap in judicial accountability and transparency”.

He said: “Public trust and respect is hard earned and once achieved must be maintained. Delivering a successful Judicial Council will promote and maintain public confidence in the judiciary and in the administration of justice in Ireland.”

He also made reference to the importance of training for judges.

“I have always personally considered that perhaps the most important function of the Judicial Council is to enhance judicial training and skills.”

In his view a judge needed a “significant courtroom experience” to be effective, but he said “while judges come with a wealth of experience in that regard, it would be a mistake to think that that leaves even the most experienced practitioner fully ready to do a proper job as a judge without further training.”

According to the annual report, a survey of the judiciary found “most judges” would be willing to be trained and also to facilitate and develop the training of others.