The row between the Government and the judiciary escalated last night when judges expressed concern that their independence was being eroded and that lines of contact with the executive had collapsed.
The judges' association gave its "full support" to comments by Mr Justice Peter Kelly, who told business leaders in Dublin last week that judicial independence was being destroyed.
“All structures both formal and informal which existed for communication between those two branches of government have ceased,” the judges said.
Their position put them directly at odds with Minister for Justice Alan Shatter, who had insisted on Sunday that no question mark hung over the independence of the judiciary and that lines of communication remained open. The statement from the Association of Judges of Ireland (AJI) was followed within hours by an intervention by Mr Justice Adrian Hardiman of the Supreme Court, who gave a strongly worded defence of the judges' position.
He said it was “absolutely untrue” they had resisted the Government’s attempt to remove the constitutional guarantee that protected their pay from being reduced. Rather they had suggested that, with this protection being removed, the appointment of judges and the fixing of their pay should be “removed from the political arm of Government” and placed in the hands of an independent commission, as other countries had done.
“The notion that judicial appointments should continue to be entirely political while there is a zero protection, from a financial point of view, for the judges, against the executive, is one not consistent with the maintenance of an independent judiciary as it’s understood in the common law world,” Mr Justice Hardiman said at an event in Dublin. “It is plainly unacceptable and interferes with the perception as well as the reality of judicial independence that government or parliament be in a position directly to control the judges’ remuneration and appointment.”
In its statement, the AJI said judges had at all stages accepted they had “to bear their fair share” of salary cuts. However, their request for an independent body to set their pay was “dismissed out of hand”.
The highly unusual intervention last night followed a report on comments by Mr Justice Kelly, the president of the AJI, at a private business dinner last week. “His comments have the full support of this association,” the statement said.
Setting out further points of dispute, the judges referred to recent legislation on pension provisions for new judges, which was passed "without notice or consultation". They also highlighted concerns over how proposed specialist insolvency judges will be appointed and said the judiciary had received "no information" about planned specialist family courts.
With a referendum to abolish the Seanad expected in the autumn, they noted that this would render the removal of judges subject only to a simple majority resolution in the Dáil .
“All of these matters have implications for judicial independence,” they said. “An independent judiciary and the perception of an independent judiciary is a vital element in a properly functioning constitutional democracy.”
Mr Shatter’s office responded last night with a statement saying he reiterated the Government’s view that an independent judiciary and courts system was “a cornerstone of our constitutional democracy”.