Public get right to complain about judges
MEMBERS of the public will be able to make complaints about judges' conduct for the first time under new laws planned by the Government.
But judges will still have a major say into who makes complaints about them and what sanctions should apply when a judge is deemed to have engaged in misconduct.
And judges will still only be removed from office in the event of a joint resolution by both Houses of the Oireachtas.
A new Judicial Conduct Committee (JCC), composed of eight judges, including the chief justice and three lay people appointed by the Government, will make rules in relation to the procedures for making complaints, the way they are investigated, and the sanctions to be imposed against judges.
Only those directly affected by alleged judicial misconduct or those who witnessed it may make a complaint.
However, representative bodies such as the Bar Council and Law Society may also make a complaint about a judge.
The full range of sanctions has not been detailed but they include the issuing of advice or a reprimand to the judge concerned, a recommendation that the judge should follow a specific course of action, or the recommendation of procedural or organisational change.
Justice Minister Dermot Ahern said the proposed establishment of a Judicial Council, combined with a new complaints mechanism, would "ensure public confidence in judicial integrity".
He was speaking following cabinet approval for the long-awaited Judicial Council Bill.
It has been under consideration since the 1999 Sheedy affair which resulted in the resignation of both a Supreme and High Court judge following the early release from prison of a convicted drink driver who had caused the death of a mother from Dublin.
Two new bodies will be created under the planned Judicial Council Bill 2010, the general scheme of which was published yesterday.
The Judicial Council (JC), an independent body composed of all members of the judiciary, will adopt guidelines on judicial conduct and ethics and have responsibility for continuing education among judges and promotion of the independence of the judiciary.
The second part of the planned law would see the establishment of the JCC to investigate complaints against and penalise judges. The JCC will probe the actions of a judge when a complaint of misconduct is not serious enough to call for their impeachment.
Under the Constitution, a judge can only be removed from office for "stated misbehaviour or incapacity" and only then if a joint resolution is adopted by both houses of the Oireachtas.
The merits of a judicial decision will be outside the scope of the JCC and the new body will not receive complaints about judicial decisions or conduct by a judge where the decision can be appealed. Complaints that the committee deems to be "manifestly unfounded, frivolous or vexatious" will also be inadmissible.
Any investigation of a judge's alleged misconduct will be conducted in private and the JCC will be exempt from Freedom of Information and Data Protection laws.
Fine Gael justice spokesman Alan Shatter last night said the delay in bringing the Judicial Council Bill before the Dail was "inexcusable".
He said he would ask the chairman of the Joint Oireachtas Justice Committee to hold hearings in October so that amendments could be made before the bill was presented.
The Labour party said the bill would need very careful scrutiny as the Irish Council for Civil Liberties (ICCL) gave a cautious welcome to the scheme.
"Judicial independence should not mean that judges cannot be held to account on those rare occasions when their conduct falls short of the highest standards," said Mark Kelly, executive director of the ICCL.
"The proposed procedures for initiating and conducting investigations remain sketchy."
The Attorney General will now be asked to arrange a formal drafting of the bill.