Twenty years after it was first proposed, landmark legislation to deal with judicial misconduct and sentencing guidelines was passed in the Dáil after less than two hours of debate.
The Judicial Council Bill is set to be approved next week in the Seanad where it originated, after a number of amendments from the lower House.
The Bill deals with judicial discipline, allegations of misconduct and ongoing training for judges. It also provides for the establishment of guidelines for sentencing in criminal cases.
Its short Dáil debate is because of the urgency over reform of awards in personal injuries cases. The Bill establishes a committee to advise the council and redraw guidelines on levels of personal injury pay-outs, to ensure consistency in awards. Those guidelines will be reviewed every three years.
Introducing the legislation Minister for Justice Charlie Flanagan stressed that the Bill "affirms the independence of the proposed judicial council and provides that one of its key functions will be to promote and maintain excellence in the exercise by judges of their judicial functions".
The Minister said that formal guidelines on sentencing would enhance confidence in the criminal judicial system and the Bill provides for eight judges and five lay members on the committee advising the council.
Mr Flanagan stressed that the “most critical element” is that a court would have regard to the sentencing guidelines.
Fianna Fáil justice spokesman Jim O’Callaghan said it was unfortunate the legislation was being dealt with in one session but it was urgent because of the need to reform the area of personal injuries.
He said the only current provision to deal with judicial misbehaviour was through the Constitution which allows the Oireachtas to impeach a judge, an option never used.
Mr O’Callaghan described the judiciary as the Cinderella of the three arms of Government which also includes the Executive and the Legislature and called for more resources and support for judges.
Sinn Féin justice spokesman Donnchadh Ó Laoghaire said training was an issue because certain judges have shown a lack of understanding or poor understanding of particular areas or “displayed attitudes that have dated poorly”.
There had often been cases of inconsistent, inappropriate and inadequate sentences and that undermined overall public confidence in sentencing.
Mr O Laoghaire added that “serious concern has been expressed at the sentences handed down in the District Courts for crimes involving rape and sexual offences. “That indicates a failure to understand the gravity of the violence against the victim,” an issue that had been identified by judges themselves.
Independent TD Tommy Broughan said the changes in the Bill were valuable but he called for "more fundamental reform" and questioned why the Law Society and King's Inns have a fundamental role in and control over education and apprenticeship into the legal system.
He asked why universities were not at the centre of legal education as with other professions. He said “there tends to be a self-perpetuating legal elite. It can be seen with some families down through the decades. We need a broader base.”
Mr Broughan expressed support for the proposal by Minister for Transport Shane Ross that judges should provide declarations of interest.
He hit out at the filibuster in the Seanad on the Judicial Appointments Commission Bill, on the process of appointing judges.
“That reflects all the worst elements of an elite legal class determined to prevent encroachment on its sacred turf.”