The State’s judges have called for a radical overhaul of the judicial appointments process, saying a merit-based system that limits Governments’ scope to reward political allies is vital to retain public confidence in the justice system.
In a rare intervention, the judges - through a committee chaired by Chief Justice Susan Denham and including representatives of all court jurisdictions - are sharply critical of the "demonstrably deficient" system and say wide-ranging changes are needed to attract high calibre applicants. They say political allegiance should have no bearing on appointments to judicial office.
“It is increasingly clear that the relative success of the administration of justice in Ireland has been achieved in spite of, rather than because of the appointment system,” the judges argue.
Stressing the importance of attracting strong, experienced candidates to the bench, the judges say recent changes to public and private pension provisions for entrants to the judiciary “may have little fiscal benefit to the State, yet create a wholly disproportionate disincentive to applicants for judicial posts and deter high quality applicants from seeking appointment.”
These changes should be “immediately reviewed” to assess their benefit to the State and their impact on the quality of applicants.
The views of the State's 154 judges are contained in a joint submission to the Department of Justice, which is carrying out a public consultation on ways to reform the appointments process. The judges are critical of that "flawed and deficient" consultation, initiated by Minister for Justice Alan Shatter last month.
They say it is regrettable that there was no prior consultation with the judiciary on the methodology and structure of the process and point out that no proposals have been put forward by Government for discussion purposes.
“Most fundamentally of all, however, the process itself is being initiated by a member of the Executive, and will apparently be decided upon by the Executive without further discussion. This is not consistent with the principles of the European Network of Councils for the Judiciary, Council of Europe, or international best practice.”
The judges say a high-level body should be appointed to carry out research, receive submissions and develop detailed proposals in a “structured, principled and transparent way to make a radical improvement in the judicial appointments process in Ireland.”
Making preliminary recommendations for reform, the submission states that as a matter of principle, political allegiance should have no bearing on appointment to judicial office. “The merit principle should be established in legislation,” it states.
The judges say a properly resourced judicial education system should be established without delay with a mandate to provide education to members of the judiciary on all matters bearing on the administration of justice.
A Judicial Council - a “much-needed reform” - should be created, with responsibility for representation of the judiciary, an independent disciplinary process, judicial education and judicial involvement in the appointment process.
The submission calls for far-reaching changes to the Judicial Appointments Advisory Board, which receives applications and sends Government a list of all candidates who meet minimum criteria. Under the current system, the board cannot rank applicants and the Government is not required to select from its list.
“The number of candidates for a single judicial post submitted by the Judicial Appointments Board for Governmental decision should be reduced to three. Where there are multiple vacancies in a Court, the number of candidates should be increased by no more than the number of additional vacancies,” the judges suggest.
The committee that drew up the submission comprised Chief Justice Susan Denham; the President of the High Court, Mr Justice Nicholas Kearns; the President of the Circuit Court, Mr Justice Raymond Groarke and the President of the District Court, Judge Rosemary Horgan.
It also included Mr Justice Donal O'Donnell of the Supreme Court; Mr Justice Peter Kelly of the High Court, who is also president of the Association of Judges of Ireland; Mr Justice Paul Gilligan of the High Court, Judge Jacqueline Linnane of the Circuit Court; and Judge Cormac Dunne of the District Court.