New Law Reform body to be appointed shortly


A NEW Law Reform Commission will be appointed very shortly, according to a Government spokesman.

No Law Reform Commission has been in operation since the end of last year, as the four ordinary members of the commission ended their five-year term then and were not reappointed. The Attorney General will appoint the new commissioners, based on discussions with the Government.

The president of the Law Reform Commission, Mr Anthony Hederman, a former Supreme Court judge, is still in office, as his term does not expire until next October. The full-time employees of the commission, its research counsellor and research assistants are still working.

The four other members of the commission were all informed just before Christmas that their appointments would not be renewed at the end of the year. They had served two terms of five years.

They are Mr John Buckley, solicitor, just appointed a Circuit Court judge, Prof William Duncan from Trinity College, Ms Maureen Gaffney, psychologist, and Mr Simon O'Leary, barrister.

During that 10 years the commission produced 28 reports (apart from annual reports), 13 of them preceded by consultation papers.

Its work included an almost total overhaul of criminal law; an extensive study, ending in reports, of the law on defamation, libel and contempt of court; a review of the law on rape and child sexual abuse; and substantial reform of conveyancing law.

"We were all politically non-aligned," said Ms Gaffney. "That was critical. We were not political appointees. We all had expertise in different areas.".

Ms Gaffney was the only non-lawyer, and the only woman, on the commission. Mr Buckley had a background in conveyancing law, Prof Duncan in family law, and Mr O'Leary, who had worked in the Director of Public Prosecutions' Office, in criminal law.

The commission had three presidents, Mr Justice Ronan Keane, Mr Justice Rory O'Hanlon (briefly) and Mr Justice Hederman.

"That business of having a non-lawyer was absolutely critical," said Ms Gaffney. "Any profession is clubby. They get so used to a particular view. It was important to have someone who could have an independent stance on how the social world was developing outside the law.".

Mr O'Leary agreed. "It was very useful, very valuable, depending on the topic. Maureen did a lot to stake the pomposity out of what we were saying. We fought like cats and dogs a lot of the time, but we always walked out friends.".

One of the contentious areas within the commission was the law concerning rape. "The lawyers did not see there was a need to reform the law on rape," said Ms Gaffney. Nonetheless, when they embarked on this work they did so through an elaborate process of consultation, and came up with a report which was widely praised, as was the report on child sex abuse.

They visited women's centres and rape crisis centres, spoke to victims and lobby groups, seeking their experience and asking them bow they wanted to see the problems with the law solved, and what answers they had to the new problems this could create.

The commission also organised private seminars, to which it invited judges from all levels of the judiciary, along with experts and members of lobby groups. "It would often be the first time that such lobby groups would have had access to judges, and the first time the judges had the opportunity to hear the views of people directly affected by their decisions," said Ms Gaffney.

"People discussed things realty openly. We learned a huge amount. It's terribly important this method of work continues."

"It had a consultation facility denied to the public service generally," said Mr O'Leary. "Everyone got involved in everything. There was stuff I went back to I hadn't studied since I was a student."

Expert groups were also set up, with legal experts called on to assist members of the commission tease out problems. For example, to help prepare the report on family courts there was an expert group of judges with specific experience of family law from the different courts, a solicitor, a barrister and family law specialist from the Free Legal Aid Board.

A similar group was set up by Mr Buckley on conveyancing, according to Mr O'Leary. "They sat with us for a year for nothing except a glass of wine at the end of their year's work," said Ms Gaffney.

The commission had almost completed its work on the law of homicide when the term of office of its members came to an end. Work had also begun on the method and style of drafting legislation, and the interpretation of it then by the courts. "I'd love to have finished that," said Mr O'Leary.

The Government has not yet made up its mind about the new commission, or the programme of work it will have. Mr Gaffney stressed the importance of it being independent and based on expertise in different areas rather than on political affiliation. "It should keep that open way of working, and also carry out research. And it should go back and see how our recommendations are working out in practice."