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Court reform

Referendum will allow radical reform of courts system

The Cabinet has approved plans for a major reform to the courts service – including the possibility of a secular oath for judges.

THE CABINET has approved a series of proposed reforms to Ireland’s courts system – including measures which will require a referendum to amend the Constitution.

Ministers this morning approved proposals to amend Article 34 of the Constitution – a move which would allow the Oireachtas to set up new courts such as a Civil Court of Appeal or a specialised Family Court structure.

The Cabinet also agreed to consider whether the amendment could also amend the oath of offices taken by judges – allowing them to take a secular oath “in the presence of Almighty God” and seeking the guidance of God to “direct and sustain” them.

The agreement comes after the Chief Justice, Susan Denham, said the current workload being faced by the Supreme Court was unworkable – and lent her support to the creation of a new superior court to deal with appeals in civil cases.

Justice Denham had chaired a 2009 review group which recommended the creation of a new Court of Appeal which would hear civil appeals from the High Court as well as subsuming the Court of Criminal Appeal.

Announcing the Cabinet’s decision, Shatter said the proposals would also allow the Oireachtas to create specialist superior courts, as needed, to deal with unique circumstances as they arose.

Other changes to be considered by the government include amending the procedures under which draft Bills are referred to the Supreme Court for a test of their constitutionality.

Shatter said he believed this procedure needed to be reviewed so that the justices of the Supreme Court would be able to issue dissenting minority judgments – as the current system, where only the majority verdict is published, “may create an artificial appearance of unanimity”.

“Consideration is being given to whether there should be greater transparency and whether it is in the public interest that individual members of the court should be enabled to deliver individual judgments,” Shatter said.

Challenging the unchallengable

In what may be a major move, the government will also consider amendments which could allow subsequent constitutional challenges against legislation which has already been tested by the Supreme Court in such a manner.

This could mean that legislation which has already been ruled upon by the Supreme Court could be open to challenge after a certain period, for example five years, or could be contested based on legal questions other than those raised at the time of the original ruling.

Other amendments being considered are whether the Supreme Court can dismiss any referral from a President, if there was no “proper factual or evidential basis” on which the Bill actually needed to be examined.

The minister said he hoped the announcement would kick-start a public debate on the measures, “as the time has come to explore the much needed reform of the current Constitutional framework”.

A decision on when to hold the referendum will be made at a later date – though it is not likely to be held for at least a year, given the time it would take to draft the wording of any replacement proposals.

The government has also pledged a standalone referendum this autumn on giving Constitutional standing to the rights of the child, as well as committing to a referendum on the abolition of the Seanad in 2013.

Read: Irish courts heard 80 rape, 39 murder cases last year

Column: Susan Denham: ‘The current situation of the Supreme Court is unsustainable’

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