Judicial appointments: the farce goes on

If the Government was serious about fixing serious problems in the legal sector, it would be looking elsewhere

The Government’s judicial appointments Bill, which was driven by Minister for Transport Shane Ross,  is not the result of serious research or analysis. Photograph: Alan Betson

The Government’s judicial appointments Bill, which was driven by Minister for Transport Shane Ross, is not the result of serious research or analysis. Photograph: Alan Betson

 

If the farce that is the Government’s handling of judicial appointments reform is in any way representative of how the current administration operates, we should worry.

The Bill starts with a proposition for which there is little hard evidence and that has few adherents either in politics or the law: that the system by which we choose judges is rotten to the core by cronyism, and that the reason for this is that the lawyers who dominate the selection board are choosing their friends and others without merit. One of the few people to believe this is Minister for Transport Shane Ross, a populist Independent whose support the Fine Gael-led administration needs to survive.

The Bill is not the result of any serious research or analysis. It is a chaotic hodge-podge, as if a polemical column of the kind that Ross excelled at writing were translated into the arid prose of the parliamentary draftsman. Fine Gael despises it. Minister for Justice Charlie Flanagan proposed it in the Dáil with the enthusiasm of a man reading a forced confession. The Attorney General has called it “a dog’s dinner”. And yet still it proceeds.

The legal system is crying out for reform. If the Government was serious about fixing the many chronic problems in the sector, it would be examining new ways to cut legal fees, to improve access to information in the courts or to end the monopolies in solicitors’ and barristers’ education. The appointments system needs an upgrade, but this could be achieved by giving the Judicial Appointments Advisory Board (JAAB) more resources and amending the current legislation so as to limit the number of names it sends to government.

It would be naive to think that political patronage never plays a role in judicial selection. It does, particularly in the lower courts. But that’s the fault of politicians, not the JAAB. Ross’s Bill will not remove politicians from the equation, because to do so would require a constitutional amendment. Ironically, a Bill ostensibly designed to diminish the role of politics in the process is driven purely by the oldest political need of all: keeping the Government’s weakest link intact.

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