Report finds Ireland ‘unsatisfactory’ in judicial independence

Only three out of 11 anti-corruption recommendations met

The Minister for Justice, Charlie Flanagan, who called the findings “obviously disappointing”.  Photograph: Niall Carson/PA Wire

The Minister for Justice, Charlie Flanagan, who called the findings “obviously disappointing”. Photograph: Niall Carson/PA Wire

 

A European anti-corruption body has found Ireland to be “globally unsatisfactory”, particularly in the areas of judicial appointments and independence.

The report by the Group of States against Corruption (GRECO), a Council of Europe body, will put further pressure on the Government to pass the Judicial Appointments Bill being debated by the Dáil.

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar has attempted to fast-track the Bill in the wake of the controversy surrounding the appointment of former attorney general Máire Whelan to the Court of Appeal. The appointment led to accusations of cronyism when it emerged that Ms Whelan did not go through the official application process and was appointed during a Cabinet meeting at which she was present.

However it is not clear if the Bill will pass before the summer recess despite the Dáil sitting for an extra week to debate it.

The Judicial Appointments Bill, which is being championed by Minister for Transport Shane Ross, would establish a new commission to appoint judges. It would have a lay majority and a lay chairperson. A separate Bill will provide for a judicial council to deal with the education and conduct of judges.

Unfortunate time

The group’s report comes at an unfortunate time for the Government which faces increased opposition from the judiciary to its appointments Bill. Senior judges, including the Chief Justice, have made a series of criticisms of the Bill in recent weeks including that it is rushed and “ill-conceived”.

The report found Ireland fully complied with just three out of eleven recommendations made by the Group in 2014.

Minister for Justice Charlie Flanagan called it “obviously disappointing”.

“While much work is underway in relation to all of the recommendations, we fell short of achieving a good report as the legislation in train is hugely complex.”

In 2014 GRECO recommended that the current system for judicial appointments, promotions and transfers be reformed to ensure the most suitable candidates are selected “in a transparent way, with proper influence from the executive/political powers.”

The Government told the group that the legislation was pending. However the group said that it has seen not details or draft texts of the Bill and therefore had to conclude that its recommendation was not complied with.

It said the Government should “pursue their reform efforts in close consultation with the judiciary to the extent feasible.”

GRECO said Ireland was also not in compliance with its recommendation that a structure be established to deal with judges’ pay in a way that would safeguard the “integrity and professional quality” of the bench.

Rejected

The group rejected the Government’s response that the new Public Service Pay Commission would deal with these issues. It said it could not see how the commission would protect judges’ independence when it came to setting their pay and pension conditions.

It also noted that there is no formal code of conduct for Irish judges. Work to establish a code of conduct was started in 2011 by the then government but has yet to be completed, the group noted.

“Moreover, in the current situation, including the fact that a judicial council has not yet been established, there is no accountability mechanism in place,” it added.

Earlier this week another European report found that nearly a third of Irish judges believed judges were appointment by government for reasons other than merit. The European Network of Councils for the Judiciary, which canvassed 60 of Ireland’s 168 judges, also found 25 per cent feel changes to their pensions and pay in recent years have had an effect on their independence as judges.