When a new judge is appointed, he or she receives an office and little else. There is no training, no induction course and no formal guidance on how to approach one of the State’s most important roles. Administrative support is minimal. And because there is no system for disciplining judges who misbehave, an office-holder cannot be reprimanded unless their behaviour is so serious as to warrant impeachment.
This lack of both support and accountability structures has long been a glaring problem. It was acknowledged 25 years ago, when the first proposal for a Judicial Council emerged. Successive governments put it on the long finger. For a time, judges themselves slow-walked the process. So the formal establishment of the council in December 2019 was an essential if belated step in improving the functioning of the judiciary and buttressing public confidence in it. As the council's first annual report shows, useful early progress has been made on the production of draft guidelines for personal injury cases and the establishment of a sentencing guidelines committee.
One of the most closely-watched strands of the council's work will be that of the Judicial Conduct Committee, which must agree a regime for handling complaints about judges. This lacuna came into sharp relief last year during the fiasco over the attendance at a golf dinner – and his subsequent handling of the fallout – by Seamus Woulfe, a Fine Gael activist who had just been appointed to the Supreme Court. That saga culminated in Chief Justice Frank Clarke urging Woulfe to step down. With the Oireachtas baulking at the idea of impeachment, there was no way to deal with the controversy that would ensure natural justice while addressing the damage to the judiciary as a result of public anger it generated.
The new guidelines are to be considered by the board of the council this week. They cannot come soon enough. And, when they are agreed, there should be no delay in formally activating the parts of the legislation empowering the new conduct and disciplinary structures to begin their work.