Judicial holidays under scrutiny from Shatter

Minister for Justice broaches possibility of shortening court holidays

 Minister for Justice Alan Shatter: “As these vacation arrangements have existed since at least the 19th century, my reference to them should not be seen in any way as a criticism of our judiciary but I do believe it is legitimate to ask questions in today’s world.” Photograph: Don MacMonagle

Minister for Justice Alan Shatter: “As these vacation arrangements have existed since at least the 19th century, my reference to them should not be seen in any way as a criticism of our judiciary but I do believe it is legitimate to ask questions in today’s world.” Photograph: Don MacMonagle

 

Minister for Justice Alan Shatter has broached the possibility of shortening court vacations, asking whether “in this day and age” it is appropriate to take a two-month summer holiday.

Just weeks after tensions between the Government and the judiciary spilled over into a public row, Mr Shatter said it was legitimate to ask questions about a court holiday that, at least formally, incorporated August and September as well as an eight-day break between Easter and summer.

“As these vacation arrangements have existed since at least the 19th century, my reference to them should not be seen in any way as a criticism of our judiciary but I do believe it is legitimate to ask questions in today’s world,” he said in an address on Saturday to the Law Society’s annual conference in Killarney, Co Kerry.

Last month, the president of the High Court announced that it would hold extra sittings during the traditional summer holiday this year.


Impeachment
In a move aimed at assuaging judicial concerns about the impact of the abolition of the Seanad on their independence, Mr Shatter outlined planned constitutional changes on the impeachment of judges.

At present, judges can only be removed by a majority vote in both houses of the Oireachtas. Judges have complained that if the referendum to abolish the upper house passes in the autumn, it will be easier for a government to remove a judge.

Mr Shatter said the Cabinet had agreed that a requirement should be added to the Constitution for a two-thirds majority vote in the Dáil to remove a judge “so as to maintain a balanced approach” to the impeachment process.

He also floated the idea of overhauling the system of judicial appointments, which has often been criticised for being too political and opaque.

He said the Judicial Appointments Advisory Board, which receives applications and submits a list of names to Government for each vacancy, was “very much of its time” and that a better process could be devised.

“There is certainly scope for a much more transparent and accountable system which would promote more diversity in our judiciary and serve to uphold the very high opinion in which the Irish people hold the judiciary.”

Any new system would need to retain accountability to parliament and the selection of judges could not become the exclusive domain of an unaccountable body. Moreover, it should remain the constitutional position that members of the judiciary are appointed by Government.

However, Mr Shatter said he believed a “better architecture” could be put in place and hoped a debate could take place involving lawyers and the wider public.

“In this discussion, I believe we should think outside the box,” he said. “For example, should legal academics be rendered eligible for judicial appointments or should they not? Some of the most influential members of the US Supreme Court have come from academia.”

Mr Shatter said he “noted with interest” the recent comments of Mr Justice Frank Clarke, who said it could be worth considering a form of judicial commission, which would be written into the Constitution, to take responsibility for judges’ appointments, their terms and conditions and discipline. The judge said such a body could include representatives from politics, the law and civil society.


“Exaggerated claims”
Referring to the recent row with judges, Mr Shatter said there was nothing new in there being issues in dispute between the executive and the judiciary.

He added, however, that care should be taken not to make “exaggerated claims” which could cause damage to the State’s reputation and undermine confidence in the independence of the courts and the integrity of the judiciary.