Bill would have ‘serious implications’ for Irish justice, judges say

Chief Justice and court presidents write to Leo Varadkar over planned changes to appointment system

Minister for Transport Shane Ross who has proposed legislation on the reform of judicial appointments.  Photograph: Cyril Byrne/The Irish Times

Minister for Transport Shane Ross who has proposed legislation on the reform of judicial appointments. Photograph: Cyril Byrne/The Irish Times

 

The row between the judiciary and Government over plans to change how judges are appointed continued on Monday with the Chief Justice and the presidents of a number of courts jointly writing to the Taoiseach to express concern about the proposed move.

A statement, attributed to Chief Justice Mrs Susan Denham by the Courts Service, said: “In view of the serious implications for the administration of justice, the Chief Justice, the President of the Court of Appeal, the President of the High Court, the President of the Circuit Court, and the President of the District Court, have written a joint letter to the Taoiseach concerning the Judicial Appointments Commission Bill.”

Their letter followed an earlier intervention from the Association of Judges in Ireland, which said the legislation on changing the rules for the appointment of judges was “seriously flawed” and did not meet international standards.

The comments could significantly escalate the row between the Government and the judiciary, especially following Taoiseach Leo Varadkar’s call for politicians and judges to respect each other’s constitutional roles.

The Judicial Appointments Commission Bill, which has been the core demand of Independent TD and Minister for Transport Shane Ross, will go before the Dáil on Tuesday for three days of debate this week, followed by a Committee Stage hearing next week. The proposed commission would have a lay majority and lay chairperson.

Deep dislike

However, it is deeply disliked by legal figures because future appointments to the bench will be made by a commission with a majority of lay members.

On the issue of Mr Ross’s Bill, a Government spokesman said Ministers are committed to passing it in its present form.

“The Government is committed to enacting this legislation as sign off by Cabinet,” the spokesman said. The spokesman added that the letter from the Chief Justice and other senior members of the judiciary had been received by the Department of the Taoiseach, the Department of Justice and the Office of the Attorney General.

The Government is declining to release the letter sent by Mrs Justice Denham and the court presidents.

Saying that it was reluctant to become involved in controversy, the Association of Judges, which represents most of those sitting on all courts , said it had “decided to do so on this occasion only because of the depth of its concerns”. “The judiciary is not opposed to the introduction of changes in the system of appointments to the bench,” said the Association, adding that it had said three years ago that existing appointment rules were “unsatisfactory”.

However, it went on: “The proposals that will shortly go before the Oireachtas are seriously flawed. The proposals do not accord with international standards and will not serve to depoliticise the system of judicial appointments.

“The rationale for a lay majority and a lay chairman has not been explained. It is hard to imagine any other walk of life in which the majority of those involved in an appointment process would be required to come from outside the ranks of those serving in the area,” it said.

No representation

In addition, the judges’ association complained that there will be no representative of judges from the District Court and the Circuit Court on the Ross-proposed Commission, even though “the overwhelming majority of cases to come before the courts” are heard before both of them.

Meanwhile, the office of the Chief Justice “is diminished by the requirement that he or she should be an ordinary member of the Commission but should be statutorily precluded from being its chairman,” the association said.

On Friday, the President of the High Court, Mr Justice Peter Kelly told the Dublin Solicitors’ Bar Association dinner in Dublin that the legislation was “ill-conceived” and had been prepared with “undue haste”.

However, Mr Varadkar quickly replied over the weekend, saying pointedly that both politicians and judges needed to respect and understand the need for the separation of powers between the judiciary and the Oireachtas.

Defending the judiciary, the Minister for Justice, Charlie Flanagan criticised those who are “seeking to place the judiciary in the dock”, adding that the legislation “is wrongly seen by some as righting a wrong rather than modernising an aspect of Government administration”.