Sinn Féin deal to allow Dáil to pass Judicial Appointments Bill

Government agrees to introduce sentencing guidelines as part of reform package

The bill ‘will remove the risk of political patronage’, says Shane Ross. Photograph: Alan Betson

The bill ‘will remove the risk of political patronage’, says Shane Ross. Photograph: Alan Betson

 

Minister for Transport Shane Ross’s long stalled proposals to reform the way judges are appointed are set to be finally passed through the Dáil following a deal between the Government and Sinn Féin.

Sinn Féin committed to voting for the Judicial Appointments Commission Bill after the Government agreed to introduce sentencing guidelines as part of an accompanying package.

The guidelines, which will not be binding on judges, will be contained in the Judicial Council Bill. Taken together, it means that Mr Ross’s initiative will pass through the Dáil, most likely by the end of the week.

It comes after years of rowing over the Bill, including fraught Cabinet discussions and unprecedented criticism from the judiciary itself.

The Bill sets up a new process for appointing judges, with a new body given responsibility for recommending candidates to the government. Mr Ross, the Minister for Transport, has insisted on a non-legal majority and a non-legal chair for the new body.

Welcoming the development, Mr Ross said he has always advocated for “clarity and consistency in judicial sentencing”.

“This proposal will ensure that victims of crime have some certainty and peace of mind in how those who’ve offended will be treated.

“This bill is so important as it will remove the risk of political patronage and ensure transparency in the appointment of judges,” he said.

“I am delighted that Sinn Féin are in a position to support its passage.”

Given the Government’s extreme minority position in the Dáil, it needed the support of a significant number of Opposition deputies for it to pass. Along with Sinn Féin, the Social Democrats and a number of Independents are expected to support the Bill.

Donnchadh Ó’Laoghaire, the Sinn Féin justice spokesman, met Minister for Justice Charlie Flanagan on a number of occasions in recent days in an attempt to reach a deal.

Mr O’ Ó’Laoghaire, a Cork South Central TD, said he made it clear to Mr Flanagan that the measures on sentencing guidelines should be included in the Judicial Council Bill.

Government sources, however, insist that Mr Flanagan was always “very supportive” of such guidelines but first wanted to consult Attorney General Séamus Woulfe on the issue.

While a sentencing information committee was initially envisaged, this will now be upgraded to a sentencing guidelines committee.

Its members will include the Chief Justice; the presidents of the Court of Appeal, the High Court, the Circuit Court and the District Court; and five lay members.

Mr O’ Ó’Laoghaire has said they will draft guidelines for particular offences, particular categories of offences or a particular category of offender to ensure greater consistency of sentences.

The Attorney General is understood to have said that mandatory guidelines were not possible due to the separation of powers.

Mr O’Laoghaire said Sinn Féin was already aware of this. “What is currently in the Judicial Council Bill is just a committee that collects information,” he said.

“What we have proposed to the Minister is that the committee would be put together with devising guidelines for all ranges of offences and that subsequent to that that all courts would have to have regard to those guidelines in devising sentences.

“Ultimately there is the separation of powers, and we need to be mindful of that. Victims of crime deserve to know that sentencing will be fair and appropriate.”

He said any judges who repeatedly strayed from the guidelines set down by the new committee could be sanctioned under judicial conduct rules.

“I am pleased to say he was in a position to give me a clear commitment that the Judicial Council Bill would see provision for sentencing guidelines and it is on that basis that we will be happy to support the Judicial Appointments Commission Bill,” Mr O’Laoghaire said of his meetings with Mr Flanagan.

The Judicial Appointments Commission Bill is scheduled to pass all stages in the Dáil this week, and it is hoped that the Judicial Council Bill will have passed committee stage by the summer.