Do judges still need all summer off, asks Shatter
Minister targets traditional break taken over August and September
Justice Minister Alan Shatter has ramped up the pressure on the judiciary by questioning why the courts take two months off during the summer as well as enjoying a spring vacation which closes the courts for eight working days after Easter.
In what will be seen as a landmark address to the Law Society's annual conference, the Justice Minister strongly defended the right of the Government to demand the courts work efficiently and offer value for money. He said that this should not be interpreted as an attack on the independence of the judiciary.
Mr Shatter told delegates in Killarney that his comments should not be seen as a criticism of judges as the practice has been on-going for nearly two centuries.
"I hope I will not be misunderstood and there will not be a suggestion of some new controversy if I merely raise the question of the appropriateness in this day and age of a court vacation period which at least formally incorporates the entirety of August and September and of the additional Whit vacation period that interrupts court sittings for eight working days between the Easter and the long vacation," he told the conference yesterday.
"As these vacation arrangements have existed since at least the 19th Century, my reference to them should not be seen in any way as a criticism of our judiciary but I do believe it is legitimate to ask questions in today's world," he said.
Mr Shatter, who clashed with judges last month over pay, added that he thought it was reasonable to reflect on the question of vacations .
But Mr Shatter added that he was aware of the fact that during court vacation periods members of the High Court remained on duty to deal with emergency matters and that the Supreme Court has sat on several occasions during holiday periods in recent years.
"It is, and has to be, a concern of government and of parliament that courts operate in a cost-effective manner; that substantial delay does not occur in the hearing of court proceedings and that courts sit annually for a minimum number of days.
"I have an obligation to do what is possible within my remit to ensure that we have an efficient and cost-effective court system that facilitates the determination of cases without undue delay, in the interests of all of those who find themselves before our courts. This should not be misinterpreted to suggest that Government or parliament is in any way entitled to interfere in the hearing and determination of cases before our courts," he added.
The speech is further sign of the strained relations between the judiciary and the Fine Gael/Labour Coalition.
Last month there was a public spat between the judiciary and the Government over pay, with the Association of Judges in Ireland accusing the Government of cutting judges' pay and pensions without introducing appropriate safeguards to ensure their continued independence.
Mr Shatter hit back, denying there was political interference in the courts and saying it was "unfortunate" if constitutionally sanctioned pay reductions that have affected the judiciary were presented as an attack on judicial independence.
"We had a referendum on the issue," he declared.
"The overwhelming majority of people were of the view that whilst judges undertake vitally important and onerous duties, this shouldn't render the judiciary immune from the consequences of the State's enormous fiscal difficulties," Mr Shatter added.