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Judges 'losing grip on power'

THE Government is seriously undermining the independence of the judiciary by interfering in the courts, according to a new report.

The report by the Irish Council of Civil Liberties (ICCL) - the first of its kind - assesses the independence and impartiality of our judges.

It accuses the Government of deliberately shifting power away from judges, and calls for a new code of ethics to prevent politicians from undermining the judiciary's independence.

The report also says a special committee should be established "as a matter of urgency" to examine the separation of powers and to strengthen judges' accountability and independence.

It says politicians should be banned from attempting to influence judges' decisions and from making adverse comments outside the Oireachtas that undermine the independence of the judiciary.

These curbs, which were proposed by a leading human rights watchdog, follow a recent warning by Supreme Court Judge Adrian Hardiman that some Irish politicians were engaged in "Blairite meddling" with Ireland's criminal justice system.

The report criticises the Government for "slowly chipping away" at the judiciary's role in determining criminal matters by shifting power to the gardai and executive.

Interviews

The ICCL conducted interviews with senior judges on condition of anonymity before producing the report.

"It is vital that we have an independent judiciary to prevent the Government from riding roughshod over people's rights," said Tanya Ward, author of 'Justice Matters', which will be published by the ICCL today.

"The judiciary exist to keep the Government in check, and they must be willing to stand firm on important matters that affect people's human rights."

The call for limits on political interference with judicial independence comes months after an unprecedented row between the Government and the judiciary, which followed allegations by former justice minister Michael McDowell that judges were too soft on criminals in granting bail and applying minimum sentences.

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This was widely perceived as an attack on the judiciary, and retired and serving judges retaliated. The standoff included a judges' boycott of a ministerial drinks party hosted by the former Attorney General last December.

The report also raises serious concerns about the judicial appointments process. It claims this is tainted by allegations of political bias and intense private lobbying of senior politicians, including cabinet ministers, for promotion to the bench.

The ICCL notes that the personal independence of Irish judges is very well protected.

Appointments

But it says the Government needs to overhaul the judicial appointments process to make it more transparent and to include the publication of reports indicating why it has recommended a person for appointment or elevation.

It also warns that the judiciary - some of whom have made racist and sexist comments from the bench - is not reflective of Irish society and lacks diversity.

It confirms that the vast majority of judges come from a small but affluent section of the population. Almost all of them are white, male, Catholic, and graduates of UCD.

The Government is also criticised for its failure to handle complaints and sanctions on judges, including their removal.

Significantly, the report criticises chronic underfunding of the legal system and the recent explosion of quangos, some 450 in all, whose activities are not subject to judicial and public scrutiny.

It warns that the Government has "hived off" various areas of law to secretive bodies such as the Refugees Appeal Tribunal, which the ICCL says has been "plagued by allegations of non-transparency, unfairness and bias".

The ICCL says that the proliferation of stand-alone ruling bodies with quasi-judicial functions, and strict restraints placed on the High Court in relation to immigration-related decisions, have not been a positive development for human rights.


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