Judges warn proposed new judicial appointments system "seriously flawed"

The Chief Justice and the heads of the other courts have also written to the Taoiseach outlining their concerns

Judges warn proposed new judicial appointments system "seriously flawed"

Transport Minister Shane Ross. Photo: Sam Boal/Rollingnews.ie

The Chief Justice and the heads of the other courts have written to the Taoiseach outlining concern about plans to overhaul how judges are chosen.

The five judges have written directly to Leo Varadkar in what is understood to be the first such intervention of its kind in history.

It comes after the association representing judges in Ireland warned that proposed changes to the system for judicial appointments are “seriously flawed.”

The intervention of the Association of Judges of Ireland (AJI) will significantly escalate the ongoing dispute between the judiciary and the Oireachtas.

The new Judicial Appointments Bill – due for debate in the Daíl over three days this week – will introduce a new Judicial Appointments Commission with a lay-chairperson and a majority of lay-members.

The Government appears set to go ahead with its bill - and Transport Minister Shane Ross says he is keen for an overhaul.

He argued he understood the "resistance to reform from the very strong legal lobby", but added he was looking forward to a group of independent citizens working with judges to select candidates.

Judicial Appointments Bill

On Sunday the Taoiseach Leo Varadkar warned that both judges and politicians need to respect the separation of powers between the two government branches and ensure a "decent distance” is maintained between them.

His comments came after a number of politicians took the controversial step of naming sitting judges during a Dáil debate over the appointment of former Attorney General Máire Whelan to the Court of Appeal.

Separately, on Friday, the President of the High Court, Mr Justice Peter Kelly criticised the proposed changes to the appointment system – describing the changes as “ill-advised” and “ill-conceived.”

Both moves are seen as a potentially dangerous blurring of the lines between the two bodies – with the judiciary expected to refrain from commenting on matters of political controversy and members of the Dáil traditionally prevented from discussing individual judge’s appointments.

The bill has been one of the core demands of Shane Ross; however it has been cause for concern among a number of high ranking legal figures.

The debate has also caused controversy at Cabinet level, with the new Minister for Justice Charlie Flanagan suggesting that there has been an “attempt to introduce uncertainty in the public mind” about the independence of the judiciary in recent times.

Minister Flanagan is known to have reservations about the proposals and his comments have been interpreted as a thinly veiled response to Minister Ross’s stance.

Seriously flawed

In a press release this afternoon, the AJI said it felt it necessary to publicly express its concern at “a number of measures” contained in the new legislation – despite its “reluctance to ever comment publicly on issues of controversy.”

It said it had decided to issue the statement on this occasion only because of the depth of its concerns.

The association insisted it is not opposed to changing the system of appointments, adding that it had accepted as far back as January 2014 that the system was “unsatisfactory and that there was a need for change.”

“However, the proposals that will shortly go before the Oireachtas are seriously flawed,” it said.

“The proposals do not accord with international standards and will not serve to depoliticise the system of judicial appointments.”

It said the rationale behind the need for a lay-majority and a lay-chairperson has not been explained adding that it is “hard to imagine any other walk of life” where the majority of those involved in an appointment process should come from outside the profession the appointment is begin made to.

The judges association also warned that the proposals will see no District Court or Circuit Court judges on the appointments panel – despite the fact that they hear the “overwhelming majority of cases to come before the courts.”

It also claimed the proposals would diminish the office of the Chief Justice by requiring he or she to be an ordinary member of the commission while being precluded from begin its chairperson.

“The AJI is concerned that the present proposals may damage the judiciary as an institution,” reads the statement.

“One effect of a flawed appointments system is that it may discourage suitable applicants from coming forward.

“If that happens, that is damaging to the judiciary as an institution and to the State as a whole.”

The bill is due for debate in the Dáil for three days starting from tomorrow.

Additional reporting by Gavan Reilly and Stephen McNeice