Fianna Fáil warns new Judicial Appointments Bill will have "significant consequences for democracy"

The party's justice spokesperson said they will look to repeal the proposed legislation should they come to power

Fianna Fáil warns new Judicial Appointments Bill will have "significant consequences for democracy"

File photo: Fianna Fáil Spokesperson on Justice Jim O’Callaghan, 11-04-2017. Image: Leah Farrell/RollingNews

Fianna Fáil has warned that plans to overhaul the system for appointing judges in Ireland will have significant consequences for democracy.

Speaking on Newstalk Breakfast this morning, the party’s justice spokesperson Jim O’Callaghan warned that should Fianna Fáil come to power, they will look to repeal the new legislation.

The long-awaited Judicial Appointments Commission Bill is due to make its debut in the Dáil this evening when it will be introduced by Justice Minister Charlie Flanagan.

The legislation is being pushed forward by the Independent Alliance, and particularly by the Transport Minister Shane Ross, who has called the current system “rotten.”

Minister Flanagan on the other hand is known to have reservations about certain aspects of the legislation – and is reportedly unhappy with some of Mr Ross’s comments on the matter.

He has even gone as far as encouraging Fine Gael backbenchers to speak against the bill.

Significant consequences

Mr O’Callaghan told Newstalk that, in its current form, the bill simply does not make any sense:

“People need to carefully consider this,” he said. “It will have significant consequences for our democracy, I believe, so it shouldn’t be rushed through and I think that is something that we just need to take account of.”

“If Fianna Fáil does come to power, we have given a commitment that we think it is wrong, we think it is going to damage the system and if we are proven right, we will repeal it.”

Under the legislation, the new Judicial Appointments Commission will have a majority of lay-members taken from outside the legal profession as well as a lay-chairperson.

Mr O’Callaghan said the independence of the Irish judiciary is one of the “success stories of this country” adding that the proposed legislation will do nothing to address the core of the current difficulty with how judges are appointed – namely that there is currently a potential for individuals with party-political associations to be given preference.

“What nobody has ever done is explained to the public is what is the public benefit in transferring the power on this commission – taking power away from judges and giving it inordinately to lay-people who won’t have any experience of what is required to be a judge,” he said.

“I think we are losing something if we diminish the role of judges on this body since they are the people who know what the characteristics; what the requirements are to be a good judge - and what the job involves.”

He said the final responsibility for appointing judges still lies with politicians adding that the recent controversy over the appointment of former Attorney General Máire Whelan to the Court of Appeal illustrated that the problem lies with Cabinet rather than with the judiciary. 

He said it makes no sense to exclude former judges from the commission adding that is “completely disrespectful to the judiciary” to ask the chief justice to sit on the board while blocking her from chairing it.

“You would have thought that if there is going to be a reform of the manner by which judges are appointed that they would consult and that they would listen to the concerns of judges – they have completely ignored them,” he said.

Legal experience

Meanwhile the former Tánaiste, Michael McDowell, has also voiced concern over the legislation.

Speaking to Jonathan Healy on The Pat Kenny Show Mr McDowell said it is absolutely necessary that anyone involved in recommending a judge has experience of the legal system:

“If you are going to consider the suitability of a person to be a judge, surely you have to have people in the advisory process – and it is purely advisory, making recommendations to the government – who have some considerable knowledge of the process of adjudication, the judicial system and the way it works,” he said.

Unprecedented step

Yesterday leading judges took the unprecedented step of writing directly to the Taoiseach to outline their concerns over the bill.

The letter, signed by the president’s of Ireland’s five courts as well as the Chief Justice Susan Denham is the first intervention of its kind since the formation of the State.

It follows a press release from the Association of Judges of Ireland (AJI) warning that the proposed changes to the system for judicial appointments are “seriously flawed.”

The bill is being discussed at Cabinet this morning – with Minister Ross adamant that is be passed in its current form.

The Dáil will begin debating the legislation this evening.

The bill will likely be passed despite the opposition from leading legal figures and Fianna Fáil – as Sinn Féin is set to join the government in voting in favour.

You can listen back to Mr O'Callaghan's appearance on Newstalk Breakfast here: