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Ireland's top judge 'surprised' by Shane Ross comments that judiciary will fight change

Judicial appointments has become a hot topic of late.

Image: PA Wire

IN WHAT CAN be read as a gentle reproach for recent remarks made by Minister Shane Ross about her colleagues, the Chief Justice has emphasised Ireland’s judges’ wish for the reform of judicial appointments.

In a statement issued following the National Judges Conference, Susan Denham highlighted the “five years of efforts by the judiciary to have the process of judicial appointments reformed and made more transparent”.

The issue has been brought into sharp focus recently as Ross has sought to change the system, with Fianna Fáil accusing him of blocking appointments which could lead to delays in court cases.

Speaking on Morning Ireland last week, the Independent Alliance TD said that judges lived a ‘charmed life’, claiming there has “always been massive resistance to change from the judiciary”.

Denham has taken issue with his words, stating:

“In our democracy the three great pillars of State – the legislature, the executive and the judiciary – derive their powers from the people. It is a fundamental principle, that each of the great organs of State owes respect to the other. Inaccurate discussion and misrepresentation of the position of the judiciary has been a feature of recent public discourse.

Amongst other factors, it is surprising that it has been stated that the Judiciary are fighting change – when the opposite is the case – the Judiciary have been advocating change, but it has not yet been advanced.

She claimed the judiciary has led the movement for change in a number of important areas, namely the Judicial Council and the appointments of judges.

“The judiciary have been requesting a change in the judicial appointments system for years,” she added.

She concluded her speech and statement by noting three international reports which praised Irish judges.

“We see that the standing of the Judiciary of Ireland is recognised internationally for what it is – excellent,” she said.

Taoiseach Enda Kenny distanced himself from Ross’s comments, keen to avoid any public disagreement with Denham and her judges.

He said that he had the utmost respect for the judiciary and that he disassociated himself with the remarks made by his Cabinet colleague that judges could forget their oath to administer justice without fear or favour.

“I do not accept that members of the judiciary would forget their judicial oath in respect of decisions that they make,” Kenny told the Dáil.

Denham has previously outlined her concerns about a lack of a Judicial Council in Ireland.

Today she added it is ”essential for the wellbeing of judges, the administration of justice, and for the benefit of society – which flourishes under the equitable rule of law.

“I am committed to continuing to press the Government on the issue… I remain optimistic, despite the complexities of working with the government.”

The council would facilitate interaction between the judiciary and government; provide support to the independence of the judiciary; provide for continued education of judges; establish a committee to study and publish sentencing principles; establish ethical guidelines; and establish a complaints procedure in the event of an unethical behaviour being alleged against a judge.

What Ross wants

Ross wants judges to make an annual declaration of interests. He also wants to see a non-legal and non-political majority appoint judges.

He has welcomed a bill published by Fianna Fáil’s Jim O’Callaghan but does not want “legal insiders appointing their friends”.

O’Callaghan’s bill would see a committee with a legal majority recommend a shortlist of possible appointees to the government. If the government fails to appoint one of these names, it would be required to explain why in public.

A declaration by European judges and supported by Irish judges says that any system of recruitment should be “independent of political influence, fair in its selection procedure, open to all suitably qualified candidates and transparent in terms of public scrutiny”.

In 2014 a written submission was given to the government. The Chief Justice said that “put simply, in a very thoughtful submission change was advocated by the judiciary”.

“A merit-based appointment system was sought. A proposal was made that a limited number of persons should be recommended to the government for any appointment.”

Denham revealed in her speech to colleagues over the weekend that Ross sat in on a recent meeting three judges (nominated by her) held with the Justice Minister Frances Fitzgerald last week.

“At this meeting, ministers and officials were reminded of the long and ongoing efforts of the judiciary on the need for reform in the areas of judicial appointments and a Judicial Council. The meeting heard that it was the judiciary that had taken and maintained a proactive stance in relation to reform and change.”

Read: Ireland’s top judge is worried about the country’s reputation

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