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McEntee says new process for appointing judges will be 'streamlined and transparent'

A nine-person panel to select judges has been proposed by the Justice Minister.

Minister for Justice Helen McEntee
Minister for Justice Helen McEntee
Image: Sam Boal/Rollingnews.ie

NEW LEGISLATION THAT would reform how judges are appointed in Ireland has been approved for drafting by the government. 

The Judicial Appointments Commission Bill would establish a new commission to replace the Judicial Appointments Advisory Board. 

Minister for Justice Helen McEntee said that the process of judicial appointments “needs to be reformed” and that this new commission would provide a “substantially more streamlined and transparent process”. 

The proposal to reform the system comes after the controversy surrounding Seamus Woulfe and the Golfgate event. The government has faced questions over how he came to be appointed to the Supreme Court last summer.

Opposition parties have raised concerns about the selection process after it emerged in November that Cabinet was not told in July that a number of other judges had expressed interest in the vacancy on the Supreme Court before Woulfe was selected.

A recent report from European anti-corruption watchdog Greco also found that Ireland hadn’t implemented a recommendation for the system for appointing a promoting judge to be done “in a transparent way, without improper influence from the executive/political powers.”

Speaking today, Minister McEntee said: “It is important that we have a very clear process for judicial appointments, that people understand it and have confidence in it.”

The commission will have nine members, including the chief justice as chair, four lay members and the Attorney General. That compares to 17 members, as previously proposed by former minister Shane Ross.

The commission will have to nominate five persons to the minister for each vacancy. 

The current process only concerns first-time judicial appointments, with no statutory advisory role in place for appointments from the ranks of serving judges. Under the new proposed system, both serving judges and non-judges will have to apply through the same commission. 

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Referencing the difference between these new proposals and a 2017 bill that also proposed reform, McEntee said: “A significant difference… is that the proposed Judicial Appointments Commission will be headed by the Chief Justice rather than a lay Chair. The Chief Justice of the day has chaired the JAAB for over 20 years and retaining this ensures that the selection process is absolutely rigorous and meets the need to have a strong and independent judiciary. 

I am also of the view that a nine-person membership will be more cohesive and effective than the 17 members envisaged under the 2017 Bill. Instead of a lay majority there will also now be an equal number of lay persons and judges and the Attorney General will serve as an ex-officio, non-voting member of the Commission.
This balance has been settled on with reference to international standards and best practice models in other common law jurisdictions.

The draft reforms, including provisions relating to the composition of the commission, will be published subject to government approval. 

Sinn Féin’s justice spokesperson Martin Kenny TD has said that the bill “doesn’t go far enough” and “reinforces the public perception that the legal profession is a closed shop”. 

“Some of the measures proposed in the 2017 Bill, such as having a lay chairperson of the Judicial Appointments Commission, have been changed in this new legislation; which provides for the Chief Justice to chair the Commission,” he said.

“We see that the Minister for Justice will receive five unranked recommendations for each vacancy in the judiciary and while the procedure for application will include sitting judges as well as first-time applicants, there is still one nomination made to Cabinet by the Minister without any provision for discovery of the reasons why this recommendation will be made.”

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Sean Murray

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