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Wednesday 13 December 2017

Lawyers split over reform of judge selection process

Law Society makes U-turn to back lay majority and chairperson on advisory commission
'At present eight of the 12 members of the Judicial Appointments Advisory Board (JAAB) are either judges, solicitors or barristers and it is chaired by Chief Justice Susan Denham' Photo: Getty Images/iStockphoto
'At present eight of the 12 members of the Judicial Appointments Advisory Board (JAAB) are either judges, solicitors or barristers and it is chaired by Chief Justice Susan Denham' Photo: Getty Images/iStockphoto
Shane Phelan

Shane Phelan

A major division has emerged between solicitors and barristers over plans to reform how judges are selected.

The Law Society of Ireland, which represents and regulates the solicitors' profession, is now backing plans for a non-legal majority on a commission which will advise the Government on judicial appointments.

Until recently the society had shared concerns voiced by senior judges and the Council of The Bar of Ireland about radical plans expected to significantly weaken the influence the legal professions have in relation to the selection of candidates.

At present eight of the 12 members of the Judicial Appointments Advisory Board (JAAB) are either judges, solicitors or barristers and it is chaired by Chief Justice Susan Denham.

The three groupings expressed concerns about proposals, insisted upon by Transport Minister Shane Ross, that there be a lay majority and a lay chair on a new commission that will replace the JAAB.

But in a surprise move the Law Society has now changed its position and is backing plans for a lay majority and a lay chairperson.

The Department of Justice was informed of the change of heart last Thursday when it received a submission from the society in relation to the scheme of the Judicial Appointments Commission Bill.

It is understood the U-turn was motivated in part by a wish to promote more diversity on the bench, where the vast majority of appointees tend to be barristers rather than solicitors. But the move is unlikely to be well received by senior judges, a number of whom pressed for the commission to have a majority of people from a legal background when they met with Ross and Tanaiste Frances Fitzgerald last November.

A similar stance was taken by the Bar Council in a submission to the Oireachtas Justice Committee in January.

The Law Society's submission is expected to be publicly released early next week.

The society's president Stuart Gilhooly declined to comment on its contents when contacted yesterday. However, in a speech at the society's charity Spring Gala dinner last Friday, he heavily hinted at the new approach being taken.

"The submission we sent, which you will all see next week, is fairly radical," he said.

"It is radical because we think the situation needs to be changed. Not because we don't have great judges, we do. We are very lucky to have them, excellent judges. But that doesn't mean the system can't be improved and it doesn't mean we can't get better judges.

"Better judges sometimes is us. It is the solicitors' profession. For some reason in the course of the last 15 years, since solicitors have been eligible to be appointed judges to the superior courts, we haven't had as many appointments as we should.

"There have been some very, very good appointments. But we haven't had enough."

Mr Gilhooly said this was partly down to solicitors not applying due to "an inferiority complex".

"We have a new system coming, I am pretty sure. That system will give us the belief to apply," he said.

As part of the planned reforms, the number of judges advising on appointments will be slashed from five to two.

The chair of the advisory commission will be picked by the Public Appointments Service from candidates drawn from victims' rights, human rights and minority groups.

Sunday Independent

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