Friday 26 December 2014

Judgment day beckons for our well-paid, elitist beaks

The battle over judges' pay only highlights the disconnect between the judiciary and the public, writes John Drennan

Published 10/07/2011 | 05:00

So are we, amidst all our troubles, now about to experience the great mutiny of the judiciary?

The response of the beaks last week to the Government's proposed constitutional crusade on judicial pay certainly suggests we are veering towards the most serious constitutional crisis since the former Fine Gael Minister for Defence, Paddy Donegan, provoked the resignation of Cearbhall O Dalaigh after calling the then President "a thundering disgrace".

It was rumoured that a stronger adjective was used at the time and, sadly, plenty of ministers and TDs were using similar language about the current judiciary last week.

The escalating war between the politicians and the beaks is all the more intriguing because such battles are so rare. One reason why there have been so few wars is the principle of mutually assured destruction, for no State can thrive if the judiciary and the legislature are at loggerheads.

However, an even more critical factor in the long peace is the unhealthy deference TDs have for a judiciary that often appear to think they hold their positions by some form of divine right.

There is, however, scant room for deference in a recession whilst relations with the current regime have also not been helped by the belt of the legal quill Brendan Howlin and Alan Shatter experienced when the Abbeylara judgment rubbished the investigative powers of Dail committees.

Their lordships are discovering the hard way now that, even for judges, what goes around comes around.

Ultimately the key factor behind the current spat is the belief among the political classes that the courts have become over-mighty.

Even before their grubby response to the pressing need to curb their perks 'n' privileges the suspicion was growing that judges, like our senior civil servants, were prioritising their vested interests above the national interest.

Sadly, it's unlikely the mood music will be enhanced by the decision of the wigs to come out fighting for their pay courtesy of last week's 'leaked' memo to the ethical poodles of The Irish Times.

The well-used knee-pads of the Tara Street set were swiftly donned -- the poor Times is incapable of not bowing when it sees a barrister let alone a judge -- as we were told this modern Magna Carta for oppressed judges had warned that treating the beaks like mere ordinary citizens would "compromise the substance of judicial independence".

The best was yet to come as our beaks cited asylum cases they had dealt with from countries where "judges have limited institutional independence'' and warned that the current "unwitting'' changes meant foreign judges might believe we were in a similar pickle.

Ultimately, however, the claim that any such finding would have huge "reputational implications for Ireland'' resembled nothing more than a sour spoon of specious supposition that had been sugar- coated by a thin sprinkle of sophistry.

If there were not a free press -- and it is no thanks to the courts that have been notoriously hostile to this concept -- or if Ireland was not a democracy with a freely elected parliament there might have been some validity attached to the arguments.

But seeing as we have all of these things there wasn't.

Ireland is not Zimbabwe, Mr Kenny is not a new Mugabe and the only damage being done to our international reputation on the judicial pay front is the gargantuan scale of the current rate.

Of course, if the beaks wish to raise the template set by foreign jurisdictions, it is worth taking a look at the Supreme Court of New York where the chief justice earns $156,000 (€108,800) and the rest of the judges earn $136,700 (€94,770).

Oddly enough, while New York judges earn half as much as ours, the city's economy and international 'reputation' has not collapsed.

In fairness to the wigs we will admit that their advocacy of the creation of an independent commission to examine their pay has some merit -- if its remit is expanded.

It would be excellent should the commission, which if it is to be 'independent' must be free of any legal presence, evolved into the sort of judicial council our progressive, democratic judicial friends are so enthusiastic about.

This might not be the end of the tasks such a commission engages in for they could also be put in charge of compiling a register of members' interests for our judiciary.

After all, parity of esteem suggests it is desirable that in a modern state our judges experience the same levels of transparency deemed appropriate for our politicians.

And such a register would have the added benefit of ending the unfortunate speculation about judges being caught up in the collapse of the boutique end of the property boom.

In fairness The Irish Times was right when it noted the escalating conflict between the beaks and the ministers was about more than salary scales.

The folly of the judges in rushing their fences on this is actually symptomatic of the startling disconnect between the judiciary and the people.

In spite of current appearances, unlike medieval monarchs, judges are the servants of the citizens and, to some extent, derive their powers from the consent of the voters.

It is a problem therefore when the current beaks now attract similar levels of contempt compared with other 'pillars' of our society such as our child-abuse facilitating bishops and the rest of the rotten self-interested cabal who have turned us into a principality of the ECB.

Those who know little about the law will claim it is not the task of judges to be politicians manques or philosopher kings.

However, all law, and public faith in the legal system itself, is founded upon the sort of moral philosophy about the rights of the citizen and the responsibilities of the powerful.

Sadly, the courts now appear, to the people, to be dominated by technocratic jobsworths who when it comes to the moral abyss the Irish State has fallen into, walk away from this spectre with the insouciance of a camp guard in Auschwitz sauntering over for his tea past the smoking chimneys.

In fairness we should not be too harsh, for those who take the determinist side of the great nature/nurture debate understand we are defined by the milieu we are raised in.

In the case of our judges, they are for the most part creatures of an elitist, dynastic, restrictive, class-obsessed, privately schooled, closed shop.

They are in short, poor lambs, the biggest victims of Ireland's hidden class war.

The problem they face, when it comes to their current war, is when the public believe politicians are needed to guard them from the excesses of the beaks, our wigs have already lost the battle for the hearts and minds of the people. And that, ultimately, is a loss that will do far more damage to the 'reputation' of our self-obsessed judges than any pay cut.

Sunday Independent

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