Minister for Transport Shane Ross has said that a number of judicial appointments made by the Government last week were necessary because the courts system was "clogged up" due to a lack of judges.
However, Mr Ross acknowledged that three of the appointments – including a former Fine Gael councillor in Castlebar who has been appointed to the Circuit Court – were to fill vacancies that have not yet arisen.
Two of these appointments will not be made until the autumn.
Mr Ross was speaking to journalists after the Cabinet approved the publication of the Judicial Appointments Bill, which will reform the way judges are chosen. Mr Ross has been pushing for the Bill since last year, and at one stage refused to agree to the appointment of any new judges.
“It virtually removes completely the appointment of judges from the political arena,” Mr Ross said. “One of the great flaws in the appointment of judges in the past has been that politicians have been far too involved in it.”
However, the Cabinet will continue to nominate judges for appointment by the President, as is required by the Constitution. The reforms – which have been championed by Mr Ross, though drawn up in the Department of Justice – will ensure that the shortlist that goes to Cabinet will be selected by a board that has a majority of non-lawyers and also a lay chair. However, the judiciary will have a greater role in the process than previously envisaged.
Mr Ross stressed the importance of the lay majority and said that the new structures would bring “transparency” to the appointment of judges.
“It’s very important that for the first time there will be transparency in the appointment of judges. It’s very important that we see that people are appointed for the first time on merit and absolutely unquestionably on merit,” he said.
“This Bill is going to have an enormous impact on the confidence that people have in the system of appointing judges in this country.”
Mr Ross seemed to distance himself from the recent judicial appointments, which included two people with links to Fine Gael, though he also said they were necessary to avoid difficulties in the administration of justice.
“I made it clear all along that I do not like the way they are appointing judges at the moment. I don’t like the fact that they have been appointing judges under the old system and I made it a condition at one stage that they didn’t appoint any more,” Mr Ross said.
“We then came to an agreement that they could appoint more judges because there was a case being made by many that the system was clogged up and we didn’t want to see justice denied to anybody. Last week’s appointments were just part of that pattern. I don’t want to hold up the work of the courts. And I’m not going to be accused of that. This is very, very important,” he said.
Mr Ross declined to say how an appointment could be needed to allow the work of the courts to proceed when the vacancy was not going to arise until next autumn.
“If there wasn’t a danger of the work of the courts being held up I wouldn’t have allowed it [the appointment] to happen, but there was,” he said.
“Did I ask whether they were non-politicial? I, ah, I looked at them myself, I looked at the names, I looked at the names and I saw them, and they went through.”
The Cabinet yesterday also approved the Judicial Council Bill, which will set up a new body to oversee the conduct and representation of judges. The legislation has been sought by judges for several years and will provide a means for disciplining judges, as well as promoting training and ongoing education for judges.