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Shatter row: Judges' group outlines concerns for judiciary independence

The Association of Judges of Ireland says there are a number of current matters that have implications for judicial independence.

Justice Kelly
Justice Kelly
Image: Photocall Ireland!

A REPRESENTATIVE BODY for Ireland’s judges has backed Justice Peter Kelly in a row with Minister Alan Shatter over judiciary independence and perceived government interference.

The Association of Judges of Ireland (AJI) issued a statement in response to yesterday’s Sunday Business Post report on Justice Kelly’s speech at a private dinner hosted by PWC for business leaders.

During his address, which has been described as wide-ranging, he discussed judicial independence. The association said it fully supported the comments made.

“The report, whilst broadly accurate, contains a number of inaccuracies,” said the AJI, which also noted that there were no journalists present at the event.

“The judge pointed out that for almost 90 years of the State’s existence there had been no need for an association of judges given the mutual respect demonstrated by the executive and judicial branches of government, one for the other.  All structures both formal and informal which existed for communication between those two branches of government have ceased,” the statement continued.

Earlier today, Shatter criticised Justice Kelly for his comments, stating it was “unfortunate” if pay reductions for judges – which were brought in by a referendum – were seen as an attack on an organ of the State.

According to the Sunday Business Post, the judge said the judiciary was being demolished “brick by brick” by the government. He is reported to have cited the coalition’s handling of judges’ pay and pensions and the establishment of new courts as evidence.

In its rebuke, the AJI said:

At all stages judges accepted that they had to bear their fair share of salary cuts. However, as the constitutional guarantee concerning judicial remuneration was removed, they asked that an independent body be established to fix such remuneration so as to ensure judicial independence.  This request was dismissed out of hand.
Subsequently, legislation was passed in respect of pension provisions for new judges without notice or consultation.  These provisions extend by one third the length of time which superior court judges have to serve in order to obtain a pension which in any event is unlikely to amount to half final salary.  This has major consequences for judicial recruitment in the future.

The group also highlighted the personal insolvency act, claiming it was implemented without any notice or debate. It said the recruited judges “from the ranks of county registrars” will “unlike all others” be subject to ministerial direction concerning sitting.

Finally, the 10-point statement referenced upcoming referendums.

“No wording concerning these has been forthcoming although they all have huge implications for the judiciary,” it said. “The AJI accepts the need for a court of appeal but is concerned as to the form of amendment to the Constitution which may be proposed.

“The AJI has no information as to what the proposal is concerning specialist family courts.

“The abolition of the Senate renders the removal of judges subject only to a simple majority resolution in the Dáil. At present a resolution of both Houses is required.

“All of these matters have implications for judicial independence. An independent judiciary and the perception of an independent judiciary is a vital element in a properly functioning constitutional democracy,” concluded the body.

The Justice Minister said today that he was “surprised” at Justice Kelly’s comments and warned that they could affect how Ireland is seen internationally.

“The present government has not nor will it ever interfere in any way with the inviolable constitutional duty of the judiciary to independently hear and determine court proceedings,” he said in a statement.

In additional comments on RTE Radio One’s Morning Ireland this morning, Alan Shatter said he was “sure it was not [his] intention” to suggest that the government interferes with the courts.

He said that some people are “uncomfortable” with the government’s “reform agenda”, including plans to bring in a new civil court of appeal as the High Court is overburdened.

Mr Justice Peter Kelly was appointed to the High Court in 1996. He has been in charge of the Commercial Court since it began in 2004 and has presided over a number of high profile cases involving property developers and the recession.

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