Judicial Bill championed by Shane Ross in peril

Sinn Féin support likely to depend on introduction of sentencing guidelines for judges

Charlie Flanagan: he said he was not opposed to the principle outlined by Sinn Féin

Charlie Flanagan: he said he was not opposed to the principle outlined by Sinn Féin

 

Legislation championed by Minister for Transport Shane Ross to reform the way judges are appointed is in peril after Sinn Féin threatened to pull its support for the proposals.

The party’s spokesman on justice, Donnchadh Ó Laoghaire, has informed Minister for Justice Charlie Flanagan that the Government cannot rely on its votes for the passage of the Judicial Appointments Bill.

Mr Ó Laoghaire indicated the party’s support depended on the introduction of sentencing guidelines for judges.

The Sinn Féin TD told The Irish Times he did not believe reforming the way judges were appointed should proceed unless there were changes to the manner in which they worked.

“Our message to the Minister was that our support should not be taken as a given. We want to see progress, and changes to the way judges are appointed, but judicial reform should also include the introduction of sentencing guidelines.

“That needs to be addressed. We have brought forward proposals, and it is our belief that both need to be brought forward in tandem with the Judicial Appointment Bill.”

The Bill is a key programme for government commitment for Mr Ross, and he insisted on its inclusion in the agreement with Fine Gael.

The legislation sets up a new process for appointing judges, with a new body given responsibility for recommending candidates to the government for appointment.

Non-legal chair

Mr Ross has insisted on a non-legal majority and a non-legal chair for the new body. He has previously stated his participation in the Government is dependent on the passage of the Bill.

Fianna Fáil is opposed to the measure, as is the Labour Party, meaning Sinn Féin’s withdrawal of support would make it extremely unlikely for the Bill to pass.

Mr Ó Laoghaire met with Mr Flanagan on Thursday to consider proposed changes to the legislation, and informed the Minister of the shift in his party’s position. The Sinn Féin TD said the Minister seemed open to the proposal but would be guided by his Department of Justice officials and the office of the Attorney General.

He said if sentencing guidelines were not progressed by the final vote for the Judicial Appointments Bill in the Dáil, Sinn Féin would not support the Bill.

Speaking to The Irish Times, Mr Flanagan declined to be drawn on the impact of the party’s decision on the passage of the Bill, but said he was not opposed to the principle outlined by Sinn Féin.

He said the Government was bringing forward a sentencing information committee in the Judicial Council Bill, and was “open to strengthening that during the Dáil debate”.

“I will consult with the Attorney General, but I am conscious to maintain and preserve independence of the judges in accordance with current constitutional law.”

Appointments body

The Bill has been opposed since its introduction by members of the judiciary and Opposition politicians, who say they believe the Chief Justice should chair any proposed appointments body.

A series of amendments were made to the legislation at Committee Stage by Opposition TDs, leading the Attorney General Séamus Woulfe to describe the Bill as a “dog’s dinner”.

At an event last month Mr Woulfe said: “A whole myriad of amendments that they made now make the Bill a complete dog’s dinner at the moment because a number of amendments were contradictory and inconsistent and unconstitutional.”

The Cabinet this week approved 50 amendments to the legislation. As well as the Attorney General, it is proposed that the presidents of the Circuit and District Courts be put on the commission.

A further lay member will be added, bringing the membership of the commission up to 17 from the previously planned 13, while retaining a lay majority.