The Court of Appeal is due to be established today, setting off a round of judicial appointments and a major shake-up of the courts system. The signing of a Government order will formally activate the constitutional amendment, approved by 65 per cent of voters in a referendum last year, that establishes the new appeals court and sets out how it will interact with existing courts.
The new institution, which will sit between the High Court and Supreme Court, is designed to ease a four-year backlog of cases at the Supreme Court and allow that court to focus on cases of major importance.
The Chief Justice Ms Justice Susan Denham has described its creation as the most important change in the structure of the courts since Independence.
With the new court formally in existence, nine judges who have been selected by the Government for promotion to it will tomorrow evening be appointed by President Michael D Higgins at Áras an Uachtaráin.
They are High Court judges Seán Ryan (the president-designate of the new court), Peter Kelly, Mary Finlay Geoghegan, Michael Peart, George Birmingham, Mary Irvine, Garrett Sheehan and Gerard Hogan, and Judge Alan Mahon of the Circuit Court. They will make their declarations before the Supreme Court later in the week. The change means Mr Justice Ryan will become the second most senior member of the judiciary after the Chief Justice.
He will be an ex-officio member of the Council of State and will be the person to substitute for the Chief Justice on the Presidential Commission, the body that takes over the functions of the President when the office is vacant or the head of State is unavailable. He will be paid a salary of €200,000, while ordinary judges on the court will earn €177,803.
Mr Justice Ryan has been a High Court judge since 2003. He chaired the child abuse commission from 2003, and more recently chaired the expert group set up to examine options for the implementation of the European Court of Human Rights judgment in A, B and C v Ireland. The group's report fed into the process that culminated in the passing of the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Act last year.
As soon as the court is established, the automatic right of appeal from the High Court to the Supreme Court will disappear. Two types of cases will go to the Supreme Court: an ordinary appeal of a decision of the Court of Appeal and a so-called “leapfrog” appeal that bypasses the Court of Appeal. In both categories, the Supreme Court will have the power to decide which cases it hears.
Decisions of the new court will be final unless the Supreme Court certifies that the case involves a matter of general public importance or it is necessary in the interests of justice that there should be an appeal to the Supreme Court.
The promotions to the new court will leave about a quarter of positions on the High Court vacant, so on Thursday morning, President Higgins will appoint eight new members to that court. They are current Circuit Court judges Carroll Moran, Mary Faherty, Tony Hunt, Ray Fullam and Carmel Stewart, solicitors Donald Binchy and Robert Eager and barrister Robert Haughton SC. They will make their declarations before the Supreme Court on Friday morning. The salary for High Court judges appointed since January 2012 is €172,710.
While the new appeals court will be formally up and running this week, it is not expected to hear substantive cases until the new year. Building work on its courtroom and judges’ chambers is ongoing at the Four Courts complex in Dublin.