TD says courts, Department of Justice must stop using ’separation of powers’ excuse

John McGuinness claims c ourts failed to account for up to €500,000 losses in wards-of-court funds

John McGuinness: Called on Minister for Justice  to insist the courts speak directly to the families of wards of courts. Photograph: Eric Luke / The Irish Times

John McGuinness: Called on Minister for Justice to insist the courts speak directly to the families of wards of courts. Photograph: Eric Luke / The Irish Times

 

The courts and the Department of Justice have to stop using the separation of powers as an excuse not to be accountable for legal issues such as the handling of funds for wards of court, the Dáil has heard.

Fianna Fáil TD John McGuinness called on Minister for Justice Charlie Flanagan to insist the courts speak directly to the families of wards of courts and deal with every family trying to get answers.

Mr McGuinness claimed funding of up to half a million euro had in some cases been drastically reduced and the courts were not accountable to the Department of Justice for their actions and the State had to pick up the tab for losses.

He asked Mr Flanagan to “undertake to challenge the audit for the wards of court”.

He also asked the Minister if he would insist that families “get a complete report on how the money was invested and the reason as to why huge how huge amounts of money, up to half a million euro, a quarter of a million euro are now down to €20,000 or €60,000”.

Mr McGuinness, who is chairman of the Oireachtas finance committee, asked: “Is the State going to pick up the tab for the balance.”

He referred to a debate in 2001 at the Public Accounts Committee about the wards of court.

“Everybody walked on eggshells to ensure they did not upset the judges because they were being asked to account for the millions of euro that are being looked after by the court system.”

The committee found the court system did not have an accountant reporting to the secretary general at that time and every year since.

“And the secretary general of the department said the State would have to pick up the losses in those funds,” he said.

The Carlow-Kilkenny TD said he agreed fully with the separation of powers but that there was no reason why they could not have a debate about the judicial system without being accused in the courts of doing something wrong, and he said over the years judges had no problem commenting on politicians.

Mr McGuinness said the Minister might ask what this had to do with the legislation. “It has everything to do with the Bill because they were told in 2001 at the Public Accounts Committee that they couldn’t ask any questions about it because it was the courts, and that’s just smoke and mirrors. It’s a fig leaf.”

“If that is a fact then the question has to be answered: What are you going to do about those losses?” he asked the Minister.

“It is simply a question of the political will in the Department of Justice and you as Minister to get to the truth”.

Earlier Mr McGuinness read from a document dating from 2000 in which former Fine Gael minister Jim Mitchell described the legal profession as the “most entrenched and unaccountable power block in modern society”.

He said: “17 years later we’re repeating the same argument put forward by Jim Mitchell.”

He also complimented Minister for Transport Shane Ross on the position he had taken on the reform of the judiciary and in championing the legislation.

Mr McGuinness also dissociated himself from personal comments made about the stance Mr Ross had taken, in an apparent reference to comments by his party leader Micheál Martin who suggested the Minister had a “vendetta” against the judiciary.

The Fianna Fáil TD added: “I firmly believe Fine Gael have no interest in this Bill and we are rushing as a parliament into this legislation without thinking it out fully.

“We will do irreparable damage to our judicial system if we continue the way we are going.”