Cabinet to nominate new chief justice before summer recess

Concern that Susan Denham’s successor would not be in place before retirement

Chief Justice: Ms Justice Susan Denham is retiring after six years in the role. Photograph: Aidan Crawley

Chief Justice: Ms Justice Susan Denham is retiring after six years in the role. Photograph: Aidan Crawley

 

The Cabinet is expected to nominate the next chief justice at its final planned meeting before the summer recess on Wednesday.

There had been concern that a successor to Ms Justice Susan Denham would not be in place by the time she retires next month, after six years in the role and 25 years as a judge of the Supreme Court. Taoiseach Leo Varadkar has confirmed that the Government will be in a position to appoint the new chief justice before the end of July. The issue was not on the formal Cabinet agenda as of Monday night.

However, Minister for Justice Charlie Flanagan said “there’s every likelihood that the matter of the new chief justice will be on the agenda”.

Speaking at the launch of the Courts Service annual report on Tuesday, Mr Flanagan said: “In that regard can I pay a particular tribute to the outgoing and retiring chief justice Susan Denham who has been an inspiration in terms of her pioneering work as a judge as a member of the legal profession for many decades.”

Mr Flanagan said the outgoing chief justice was a “leading role model for women entering the legal profession”.

Among the names being connected with the position in legal and political circles are those of the Supreme Court judges Mr Justice Frank Clarke, Mr Justice Donal O’Donnell and Ms Justice Elizabeth Dunne.

Ms Justice Mary Finlay Geoghegan, of the Court of Appeal, and Mr Justice Peter Kelly, the president of the High Court, have also been mentioned. Up to 15 applications are understood to have been received.

After pressure from Minister for Transport Shane Ross the Cabinet agreed earlier this month that an ad-hoc committee would consider suitable candidates before the Government made its choice. The committee consisted of Jane Williams, chairwoman of the Top Level Appointments Committee; Mr Justice Sean Ryan, the president of the Court of Appeal; and Attorney General Seamus Woulfe.

The secretary general to the Government, Martin Fraser, wrote to the director general of the Law Society, Ken Murphy, on July 17th, asking him to bring the new system to the attention of eligible members. Expressions of interest were to set out the applicant’s education, professional qualifications and experience relevant to the position of chief justice, and to be accompanied by a 500-word statement setting out the reasons for the person’s interest in and suitability for the office.

500-word personal statement

Mr Murphy expressed scepticism about the requirement for the statement. “It’s hard to believe that a 500-word personal statement for a position of this seniority, with the most likely candidates so well known and their records so capable of being scrutinised, serves any real purpose other than public relations,” he said on Monday. “It seems to be there for the optics rather than anything that will alter the outcome in some way.” He stressed that the Law Society supported the reform of judicial appointments but said the position of chief justice was “slightly different”.

Fianna Fáil’s justice spokesman, Jim O’Callaghan, meanwhile urged the Government to act quickly. “It is the job of Government to nominate a successor to Ms Justice Denham, who retires at the end of July. The office of chief justice should not be left vacant when there is no good reason for the Government not to fill the post,” he said.

A legal source said it would be very unwise of the Government to “go off on a long summer break and not to have nominated a new chief justice”.

Applications opened for applications on July 12th and closed on July 20th. Expressions of interest were invited from serving judges and eligible barristers and solicitors.

New legislation governing judicial appointments, which has been promoted by Mr Ross, passed its second stage in the Dáil before the summer recess but will not become law until the autumn at the earliest.

The selection process was agreed after Mr Ross expressed his disappointment that the new legislation would not be in place before Ms Justice Denham retired.