Government moves on judicial appointments ‘ill advised’

Justice Peter Kelly tells private dinner Government is moving with ‘undue haste’

Mr Justice Peter Kelly pictured in his chambers

Mr Justice Peter Kelly pictured in his chambers

 

The President of the High Court has strongly criticised the Government over its moves to reform how judges are appointed, describing the proposals as “ill conceived” and “ill advised”.

Mr Justice Peter Kelly told a private dinner on Friday evening that the Government is moving with “undue haste” in its attempts to change the rules governing the appointment of judges.

Speaking to the Dublin Solicitors’ Bar Association, the senior judge contrasted the speed of the Government’s action on this legislation, compared with delays in the handling of other legislation, such as the payment of compensation in personal injury cases.

In language that took many of the dinner’s audience by surprise, he was severely critical of the reforms being championed by Minister for Transport Shane Ross, saying that he frequently sees matters before him in court that would warrant higher priority.

Numerous sources at the dinner in the Conrad Hotel, Dublin, told the The Irish Times that Mr Justice Kelly said Mr Ross’s proposals were “ill conceived” and “ill advised” and were being rushed through like emergency legislation.

One source present said Mr Justice Kelly was “pretty scathing” about the Judicial Appointments Bill, adding: “My jaw hit the floor. He didn’t mince his words,” The Irish Times was told.

He said that he had seen media coverage of how the Government intended to pass the Judicial Appointments Bill through the Dáil soon.

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar made the commitment that the Bill will be passed before the summer recess to Mr Ross and his colleagues in the Independent Alliance in an effort to quell the controversy over the appointment of former Attorney General Máire Whelan to the Court of Appeal.

The intervention by Mr Justice Kelly could complicate efforts to have the Bill passed and is the strongest signal yet of the judiciary’s Opposition to the proposal.

The Bill will create a new body with a majority of non-legal members, headed by a non-legal chair. It will select a ranked shortlist of candidates for the bench. The government will retain the final vote in the selection process.

Mr Justice Kelly is understood to have made his off-the-cuff remarks in the context of an award for law books of the year, which featured work on judicial appointments and medical negligence.

The award was won by Rúadhán Mac Cormaic of The Irish Times for ‘The Supreme Court’. Also nominated was Jennifer Carroll MacNeill for ‘The Politics of Judicial Selection in Ireland’.

Dr Geoffrey Shannon, the Government’s special rapporteur for children protection, was recognised for his outstanding contribution to legal scholarship and legal practices over his career in the main presentation of the evening.

Sources said Mr Justice Kelly said some of the books may need revising or need additional chapters, which those present took to be a reference to recent controversy over Ms Whelan’s appointment.

Mr Kelly compared the priority with which the Government was dealing with Mr Ross’s Bill and the cases he hears in the High Court on a regular basis.

It is understood that Mr Kelly, by way of comparison, spoke of legislation that to assist children at risk and who could be wards of court.

Last week, Mr Kelly said that legislators should witness the “procession of misery” in the courts resulting from their continuing failure over years to enact laws necessary to address the lifetime care needs of the catastrophically injured. He said that if they could see such cases, they might enact legislation as a matter of urgency.

He made the court comments after approving a further interim payment of some €1m to meet care needs of a severely disabled boy, bringing to some €5m the payments received to date under a settlement of his case.

Sources at the dinner on Friday expressed surprise at the tone and content of Mr Justice Kelly’s comments.

It came days after Chief Justice Susan Denham rebuked Mr Varadkar and Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin over Dáil comments about former attorney general Máire Whelan and senior members of the judiciary.

Ms Justice Denham gave a pointed reminder on the separation of powers between the branches of government as the controversy over Ms Whelan’s appointment to the Court of Appeal continued.

“The separation of powers in the State means that each great organ of State has its own specific powers,” she said. “It is a system of checks and balances and inevitably the courts make decisions on the actions of other branches of government. Consequently, it is necessary that there be some distance between the branches.”