Séamus Woulfe row: Judicial appointments for review over public trust concerns

Oireachtas committee to produce recommendations on how to improve system

The political controversy over Mr Justice Woulfe’s appointment continues, with the Opposition trying to force the Government into a full question-and-answer session with Minister for Justice Helen McEntee on the issue. Photograph: Nick Bradshaw

The political controversy over Mr Justice Woulfe’s appointment continues, with the Opposition trying to force the Government into a full question-and-answer session with Minister for Justice Helen McEntee on the issue. Photograph: Nick Bradshaw

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The Oireachtas Committee on Justice is set to review the way in which judges are appointed, amid concerns over “public confidence” in the system in the wake of the Séamus Woulfe controversy, its chairman has said.

James Lawless, the Fianna Fáil TD for Kildare North, who chairs the committee, said that he intended to include judicial selection on the committee’s work programme for 2021, and intended to produce recommendations on how it could be improved.

“It’s essential that the system holds public confidence, and greater clarity over how judicial appointments are made would be helpful in that regard,” Mr Lawless told The Irish Times, adding that it was important to do so “given recent events which have posed pertinent questions” about the process.

Mr Lawless, who is a qualified barrister, said the committee is currently working on its programme for next year, and he will propose the inclusion of a module on judicial selection to “consider whether current practices are fit for purpose”.

He said he wanted to examine, in particular, the role of the Judicial Appointments Advisory Board (JAAB), which reviews applications from non-judges interested in judicial positions.

“There have been prolonged debates on the subject for over 20 years and it’s time we grasped the nettle,” he said. “The role of JAAB remains uncertain. Does it perform an assessment process which selects the best candidates or is it merely a clearing house for initial vetting? What are the parallel tracks and how are conflicts of interest managed?” he asked.

Oral questions

It comes as the political controversy over Mr Justice Woulfe’s appointment continues, with the Opposition trying to force the Government into a full question-and-answer session with Minister for Justice Helen McEntee on the issue. Ms McEntee has committed to addressing the issue during oral questions in the coming weeks, a move which has been rejected by the Opposition as inadequate. The Meath East TD gave a statement on her handling of the Woulfe controversy, defending it and saying she followed a “clear process” when recommending the former attorney general for a position on the Supreme Court.

Mr Justice Woulfe’s attendance at the Oireachtas Golf Society dinner in August, and a subsequent interview he gave during a review of his actions, have attracted widespread political criticism. Earlier this month, Chief Justice Frank Clarke said it was his personal view that Mr Justice Woulfe should resign.

Pádraig Mac Lochlann, the Sinn Féin whip, tweeted on Monday evening that all seven Opposition parties and groups have requested a meeting of the Dáil’s business committee on the matter, but that it was still being resisted by the Government.

Meanwhile, a draft motion due to go before the Dáil this week will state that “Mr Woulfe’s attendance at an event which was inconsonant with both the public health regulations in force and those which had been announced the day previously had the effect of undermining the public health effort”.

The motion is due to be tabled by Rise TD Paul Murphy and People Before Profit TD Bríd Smith.

It will argue that Mr Woulfe’s “stated misbehaviour” is his “conduct in and in relation to attending the Oireachtas golf society dinner in Clifden on 19 August 2020”.

The motion will also say that Mr Justice Woulfe’s “subsequent response to the public controversy... further undermined the public effort”.