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Judges say new appointments bill is 'seriously flawed'

Senior judges have written to Leo Varadkar over the “serious implications” the legislative changes could have.

Chief Justice Susan Denham pictured last year
Chief Justice Susan Denham pictured last year
Image: RollingNews.ie

A NUMBER OF senior judges have written to Taoiseach Leo Varadkar to express their concerns over the Judicial Appointments Commission Bill.

Chief Justice Susan Denham and the presidents of the Court of Appeal, the High Court, the Circuit Court and the District Court have written a joint letter to Varadkar about “the serious implications for the administration of justice” that the Bill could have.

In an unusual move, the Association of Judges in Ireland also released a statement about the proposed legislative changes, describing them as “seriously flawed”.

It noted: “The Association is issuing this statement notwithstanding its reluctance to ever comment publicly on issues of controversy. It has decided to do so on this occasion only because of the depth of its concerns.

“The Judiciary is not opposed to the introduction of changes in the system of appointments to the bench.

“In January 2014, as part of the public consultation process on the subject of judicial appointments initiated by the then Minister, Alan Shatter, the judiciary made a detailed submission which took as its starting point that the present system of judicial appointments was unsatisfactory and that there was a need for change.

However, the proposals that will shortly go before the Oireachtas are seriously flawed. The proposals do not accord with international standards and will not serve to depoliticise the system of judicial appointments.

“The rationale for a lay majority and a lay chairman has not been explained. It is hard to imagine any other walk of life in which the majority of those involved in an appointment process would be required to come from outside the ranks of those serving in the area to which the appointments are being made.

In addition, although the Bill as initiated provides that three members of the Commission will be judges, no member of either the District Court or the Circuit Court, which together deal with the overwhelming majority of cases to come before the courts, is to be a member of the Commission.

The statement continued by saying the Office of Chief Justice is “diminished by the requirement that he or she should be an Ordinary Member of the Commission but should be statutorily precluded from being its Chairman”.

The association said it is “concerned that the present proposals may damage the judiciary as an institution”.

“One effect of a flawed appointments system is that it may discourage suitable applicants from coming forward. If that happens, that is damaging to the judiciary as an institution and to the State as a whole.

“Having regard to its reluctance to become involved in public controversy, other than issuing this statement, neither the AJI nor its officers will be commenting further,” the statement concluded.

Máire Whelan 

The Judicial Appointments Commission Bill, backed by Transport Minister Shane Ross among others, will be debated in the Dáil this week.

Ross told RTÉ News he understands the resistance to reform from a strong legal lobby.

How judges are appointed has been a major sticking point recently, with Fianna Fáil and other members of the opposition calling on Attorney General Máire Whelan to not accept her seat on the Court of Appeal after it emerged she never applied for the position.

Anyone interested in a judicial vacancy is supposed to apply to the Judicial Appointments Advisory Board (JAAB) – of which Whelan as AG is a member – which in turn provides a list of candidates to Cabinet. It’s believed no one with the required level of experience, 12 years, applied.

The Cabinet approved Whelan’s appointment last week. The government has insisted all the correct procedures were followed.

Read: Fine Gael warned a general election is ‘inevitable’ if it clashes with Fianna Fáil again

Read: How did the appointment of a judge threaten to bring the government down?

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