Monday Interview: Minister must realise that delays in appointing judges will cause an even worse backlog in our courts
Law Society president warns of crisis hitting legal system, writes Shane Phelan
The insistence by the Independent Alliance that no new judges be appointed until the selection process is reformed is causing "a crisis" in the courts, according to the newly installed president of the Law Society.
Stuart Gilhooly (45), who took up the position earlier this month, said Transport Minister Shane Ross was being "unrealistic" if he believed delaying the filling of vacancies would not create significant backlogs in the courts.
Mr Ross has been steadfast in his insistence that vacancies will not be filled under the current system, which he believes to be an outlet for political patronage.
But his stance is threatening to cause a major flashpoint in Government, with Fine Gael ministers fearing the necessary legislation may not be enacted until next summer, by which point several judges will have retired.
"We are already into a crisis," said Mr Gilhooly, a partner at Dublin law firm HJ Ward & Co and solicitor for the Professional Footballers' Association of Ireland.
Three vacancies exist at Circuit Court level and while there are no vacancies in the Court of Appeal, there is considerable consensus it requires several additional judges to cope with its workload.
"The Court of Appeal is the biggest problem, because there is a huge backlog there. As I understand it, there are 800 cases waiting to be heard," said Mr Gilhooly in an interview with the Irish Independent.
"The difficulty with having to wait for judges to be appointed is if this takes a long period of time, we could have a situation where there are up to five vacancies in the Circuit Court, further vacancies in other courts and the Court of Appeal problem only getting worse and worse."
Legislation planned by the Government will recast the current 12-person board advising the Cabinet on judicial candidates. It will be slimmed down, giving a lay majority, and be limited to suggesting just three candidates per vacancy. The reforms are intended to limit the discretion politicians have in choosing a successful candidate.
Mr Gilhooly said the Law Society had "no problem" with what is proposed, but couldn't understand why vacancies would not be filled under the old system before the legislation is ready.
The society, which represents 16,000 solicitors, also wants to see more members of its own profession appointed to the bench, which has been traditionally dominated by former barristers.
"Bear in mind we are 80pc of the legal profession, yet we only seem to get, of the High Court appointments just three of the last 20 were solicitors," he said.
Asked why more solicitors haven't been appointed in the past, he said: "That is a very good question, and nobody knows the answer to it.
"We are told that not enough solicitors apply, but that is not what I am hearing. Anecdotally, I am told they are applying.
"There has to be a suspicion that because barristers are traditionally appointed, that is what is still happening."
Mr Gilhooly's one-year term as president coincides with the introduction of the Legal Services Regulatory Authority, an independent body which will take over the handling of complaints against solicitors and require solicitors to be more transparent about legal costs.
He admits the profession is entering "uncharted waters", but believe solicitors are ready for the changes.
Mr Gilhooly said the new costs system being introduced by the authority would "be a lot more onerous on solicitors", but would benefit consumers.
"It certainly will make things clearer. Will it drive down costs? Yes, I think it probably will. Anything that provides more transparency has to help the consumer in terms of shopping around and in terms of determining whether they are happy with the cost of the product that they purchasing."
On the subject of legal costs, Mr Gilhooly believes lawyers have been portrayed unfairly in the ongoing row over motor premiums.
While the insurance industry contends the massive hikes in recent years have been partly fuelled by high awards and legal fees, this is rejected by the Law Society president.
"None of the criticism of solicitors is justified," he said.
"I think there is no evidence whatsoever that the legal profession have a role in this. Claims costs have not gone up. Legal costs have in fact gone down. Damages have not gone up. I think this is a purely cyclical insurance issue.
"The legal profession is basically being blamed for doing their job, which is to get fair and just compensation for their clients.
"I have to say, it really bugs me. I really wish the insurance industry would stop lying about this, because that is what it is. It is lies."
Motor insurance premiums fell in October for the first time since January 2014 and Mr Gilhooly said he believed this could be related to the ongoing probe into suspected cartel activity in the industry.
"My theory is that it is not unrelated to the Competition and Consumer Protection Commission investigation.
"They are obviously concerned there may be some sort of price signalling and perhaps a cartel in operation. Obviously, we don't know if that is true or not. But the fact that they have all gone down this month is fairly coincidental, isn't it?"