Judges unhappy with assistants’ support and want ushers back
Recruitment, training and supervision among issues, says Mr Justice Charleton
Last year the Courts Service Board established a group, chaired by Supreme Court judge Mr Justice Peter Charleton to review the Judicial Assistant Programme. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill
Some judges are unhappy with the quality of their assistants and are seeking the return of the old usher system, which was abolished during the recession.
Until 2011, every judge above District Court level was assigned an usher, sometimes known as a tipstaff or crier. These were generally retired soldiers or gardaí who would help keep order in the court.
Their duties included getting the judge’s lunch and acting as the judge’s driver and announcing “all rise” when the judge entered court.
They also fulfilled a semi-official protective role for judges, with ushers of the superior courts carrying a large wooden staff, hence the title tipstaff.
Following the recession, newly appointed judges lost their entitlement to an usher. Instead new judges are now assigned a judicial assistant – usually a young person who has completed a law degree but has not yet fully qualified as a barrister or solicitor.
Assistants are expected to help judges in their legal research as well as fulfilling the duties previously undertaken by ushers, such as ferrying litigants into court and keeping the judge’s diary.
The review was commissioned “in view of the difficulties in relation to the ongoing recruitment of judicial assistants (JAs) and the need to ensure that judges have the appropriate support available to them”.
The review group interviewed judges about their assistants and examined systems used in other countries. A subsequent report, seen by The Irish Times, stated assistants are not “necessarily always producing the level and quality of research work required”.
The problems include the recruitment, training and supervision of the assistants, Mr Justice Charleton wrote.
Some Circuit Court judges, whose work takes them around the country, are unhappy with the level of assistance they receive from assistants in their travel. A driving licence is not part of the job specification for the assistant role.
Judges are also unhappy with the qualification levels of assistants which “are not as high as for other jurisdictions”, the report states. It notes assistants in other countries are often fully qualified lawyers.
Most judges favoured retaining the assistant system instead of replacing them with civil servants, but suggested that ushers who have not yet reached retirement age and do not have a judge assigned to them in the High Court could be distributed among Circuit Court judges “wishing to avail of the traditional model”.
Usher vs assistant
According to judicial sources, at least four judges have requested they be assigned an usher rather than a judicial assistant.
JAs are currently paid €27,651 a year and are hired for a three-year contract. The review group urged the Courts Service to pursue proposals to raise this salary to make the position more attractive.
The report stated that some of the problems relate to assistants having no supervisor other than the judge they are assigned to. It stated that supervisors are required but they should not interfere with the judge’s role “in assigning or prioritising” the assistants’ duties.
The review group also stated that once JAs are hired, judges should be able to pick the one who best suits their research needs.