Judicial appointments Bill hits Oireachtas roadblock
Shane Ross denies having ‘vendetta’ against judiciary
Legislation being sought by Minister for Transport Shane Ross to overhaul judicial appointments is unlikely to be passed for the summer due to a new procedural delay.
The Oireachtas Committee on Justice has voted against considering the Judicial Appointments Commission Bill next week, which means the legislation is highly unlikely to be passed before the summer recess.
Members of the committee expressed concern on Wednesday that the bill was being railroaded through the Oireachtas.
Fine Gael TD Alan Farrell said he would support the Bill but would like to see a number of amendments.
The decision came as Minister for Transport Shane Ross rejected claims in the Dáil he had a “vendetta” against the judiciary or the legal profession in promoting controversial legislation to change the system of selecting judges.
“Nothing could be further from the truth,” he said. “I certainly don’t have any grudge or axe to bear against these people or this institution at all,” he said, adding that his father had been managing director of a firm of solicitors.
Just five other TDs including Minister of State David Stanton, Fianna Fáil’s Mary Butler and Willie O’Dea, and Sinn Féin justice spokesman Jonathan O’Brien and his party colleague Peadar Tóibín were present in the Dáil for Mr Ross’s speech.
Debate resumed on Wednesday morning on the bill which replaces the Judicial Appointments Advisory Board (JAAB), creates a new commission with a lay majority and a lay chairperson. It also limits the number of nominees for a position to three to be put before government.
Mr Ross said it was “absolutely untrue” that it was a “kick in the teeth” not to have the Chief Justice as chairperson, one of the main criticisms of the Bill.
The chair is the most powerful position, he said and “it shouldn’t be an insider who’s in the chair in any position of that sort in any walk of life. It’s an institutional decision and not a personal one about any of them at all.”
The Minister said the Bill was “not radical enough” but said compromise was required in coalition government.
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Mr Ross said he would have preferred just one name being given to the Minister for Justice rather than three to give less choice to politicians: “I would have liked to have seen a smaller commission rather than a larger one of 13.”
Presidents of District and Circuit Courts are included on the committees for appointments to those courts, he said. That was not an amendment, as some had stated, but was included in the Bill.
But, he said “it is a huge start in addressing the scourge of political patronage”.
“The record of the judiciary in this country is something of which we can generally be proud. That is not in dispute.”
But, he said, “they’re not infallible. They don’t have some papal right to speak ex cathedra (with papal authority or infallibility). We should be allowed to criticise them, of course and we do so, sometimes at our peril in this House.”
Mr Ross said: “We should probably be allowed to poke fun at them from time to time as we do at other people. That doesn’t indicate a lack of support.”
He said he had a political agenda which was that political interference on judicial appointments and in the appointment to State bodies should be reduced to a minimum.
The objective of the Bill was to reduce political interference in the selection of the judiciary.
It also aims to allow “ordinary citizens to have a pivotal role in the selection of judges”. He said that many people did not want to see people with skills but who are ordinary citizens being involved in a meaningful way. And politicians should not be involved.
“We shouldn’t be frightened of ordinary people with particular skills.”
He said people from Fianna Fáil were admitting “perfectly openly” that the system was promoting people on the basis of their political colour and it was also depriving good barristers or lawyers from reaching their political ambition and talents because they were the wrong political colour.
Mr He said the JAAB had three lay people who were appointed by the Minister. He did not know the current membership, but under the Fianna Fáil-PD government of 2002, he said of the three lay people appointed one was a former Fianna Fáil director of elections for Dun Laoghaire. The second was a former Fianna Fáil candidate for the European Parliament and the third was a PD supporter.
JAAB has not “held a single interview in 22 years for a judicial appointment but it has managed to throw up to as many as 40 candidates who were acceptable as candidates for the district court”, he said.
JAAB has done a good job for some because the politicians have always got their people through, he said.
But, he said, the input of the judiciary would be “massive” and the place would be “bursting with legal advice” with the Chief Justice, and the presidents of the High Court and Court of Appeal along with the Attorney General and a barrister and solicitor on the board.
“We want to see a fair system with enough legal advice and not something that is totally and utterly dominated by judges and lawyers,” said Mr Ross.
He said ordinary citizens are trusted as jurors to make really important decisions in deciding guilt or innocence; nobody questions the jury system.
“Why can’t we trust ordinary citizens to take important decisions about the selection of judges with the benefit of at least six lawyers?” he asked.