Judicial reform plan a ‘deliberate kick in the teeth’ for Chief Justice

Ex-Supreme Court judge says not having Chief Justice as chair says ‘you’re not good enough’

The former Supreme Court judge and president of the Law Reform Commission Catherine McGuinness said not appointing the Chief Justice as chair of the Judicial Appointments Board is a “deliberate kick in the teeth” that says “you’re not good enough”.

The controversial proposal to change how judges are appointed was discussed by the Cabinet this morning ahead of a debate on the matter in the Dáil this afternoon.

The Judicial Appointments Commission Bill 2017 has been championed by Independent Alliance Transport Minister Shane Ross, who secured a commitment from Fine Gael to set up a new judicial appointments body with a lay majority.

This body will have with a majority of non-legal members, and will be 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, however.


Senior members of the judiciary have written to Taoiseach Leo Varadkar this week outlining their concerns over the Government's proposals to change the way judicial appointments are made.

Concerns of judges

Ms McGuinness said if the Chief Justice were to chair the board it “would go a long way” towards addressing the concerns of judges.

She said it was a “poor idea” to have a lay majority on the Board and not have the chief justice as chair and added that she was sad to a “reasonable Government led by the nose into this kind of decision”.

She added she did not think the Bill was “really Fine Gael policy”.

“I think it is purely the idea of Shane Ross who wanted to have another triumph for himself. Presumably he would like to have banners up in Stepaside as he did with the Garda station, saying ‘I won against the judiciary’ or whatever.”

"Charlie Flanagan says it's all about modernisation. . . that's not the way I would have interpreted his article in The Irish Times.

"I felt his article was trying to paper over the cracks, trying to say it's all about modernisation rather than say 'we have to do this because Shane will leave the Government if we don't'," she told RTÉ's News at One radio programme.

Ms McGuinness added: “This is a moment where perhaps the people involved should reach a compromise like one sometimes does in mediation.

Judges have united in their opposition to the proposed reforms.

In an unprecedented letter to the Taoiseach voicing concern about the plan, some of the most senior judges in the State have said that in their view the proposals will weakening of the Chief Justice’s role in appointments was one of their main concerns.

Does not make sense

They also argue that it simply does not make sense to have a lay majority on the judicial appointments body, noting that in no other professional sphere are appointments made by people with no experience of the sector.

Similar views to those expressed by the senior judges were contained in an earlier statement yesterday from the Association of Judges of Ireland.

It said the plan is 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.

Mr Ross has defended the legislation. In a letter to The Irish Times, Mr Ross said the "radical" Bill would retain the "generally" high calibre of our judges, "while ensuring that service to a political party no longer allows applicants to jump the queue for the bench".

Fianna Fáil will vote against the Bill this week, but Sinn Fein support is expected to support Fine Gael and will help it pass before the summer recess.

Minister for Health Simon Harris, speaking on his way into the Cabinet meeting, said the legislation was a key commitment in the programme for partnership government "and we will progress it through the Dail".

Mary Minihan

Mary Minihan

Mary Minihan is Features Editor of The Irish Times