Sunday 26 May 2019

Judges reject claim there was 'in-depth consultation' on Ross appointments bill

Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport Shane Ross Photo: James Connolly
Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport Shane Ross Photo: James Connolly
Shane Phelan

Shane Phelan

The row between the judiciary and the Government over controversial plans to reform the way judges are appointed has spilled over into Europe.

The presidents of the five courts have directly contradicted assurances given to an influential European anti-corruption monitoring body about the process leading up to the legislation.

In a letter, they took issue with assurances given to the Council of Europe that "in-depth formal consultation" had occurred with senior judges on the draft legislation, saying this was not the case.

A copy of the letter was released, on request, to the Irish Independent. It was sent to the council on May 15 and signed by Chief Justice Frank Clarke, Court of Appeal president George Birmingham, High Court president Peter Kelly, Circuit Court president Raymond Groarke and District Court president Rosemary Horgan.

Following the correspondence, a council body, the Group of States Against Corruption (GRECO), issued a draft report to the Government criticising the proposed changes to the appointments system.

The report has yet to be published and it is unclear when it will be.

The row is the latest flashpoint linked to the controversial Judicial Appointments Commission Bill, which has been championed by Transport Minister Shane Ross.

Mr Ross claims the bill is necessary to end what he has described as cronyism in the appointment of judges.

The bill has been significantly delayed, but is now coming close to passing through the Oireachtas. It has already passed through the Dáil. Senators will have the opportunity to propose amendments next week. It commits to the introduction of a new commission to advise the Government on appointments, chaired by a non-lawyer and with a non-legal majority. It will be able to propose a maximum of three names to the Government for each judicial vacancy.

Under the current system, a Judicial Appointments Advisory Board, with a legal majority and chaired by the Chief Justice, recommends at least seven candidates per vacancy.

In the letter, the judges disputed claims by the Government there had been in-depth formal consultation with senior members of the judiciary.

"This may suggest there has been a process of discussion and/or consultation, and that the senior judiciary, and/or the judiciary more generally, are in agreement with the proposals contained in the bill," it said.

"Regrettably this is not the case."

The letter said replacing the Chief Justice as chairperson, reducing the number of judges on the commission, creating a lay majority and having a lay chairperson accountable to parliament were components that had never been the subject of independent review, scrutiny or expert report.

"They have been consistently opposed by the judiciary which considers them in principle inconsistent with European standards," the letter said.

The unpublished GRECO report said it had "significant concerns about the composition of the appointments commission as proposed" and that "this move is not in line with European standards".

Department of Justice sources stood over the accuracy of information provided to the Council of Europe.

The sources insisted there had been extensive consultation with the judiciary.

Speaking in the Seanad last week, Justice Minister Charlie Flanagan defended the proposed composition of the advisory committee, saying there was "no single international binding standard in this area".

Irish Independent

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