Tuesday 20 February 2018

Ross got agreement on radical reforms of judicial appointments, but has now gone back for more

Transport Minister Shane Ross Photo: Tom Burke
Transport Minister Shane Ross Photo: Tom Burke
Shane Phelan

Shane Phelan

Transport Minister Shane Ross may not realise it, but there was much common ground between him and the judiciary at one stage.

While they would not have shared his view that they are "unaccountable" and "living a charmed life", it is true to say that judges have been advocating changes to the way they are appointed for several years.

Their views were neatly summed up in a report forwarded by a judicial committee to the Department of Justice in 2014.

This 97-page document called for the introduction of a "merit-based" system of appointments, ensuring political considerations play no part in the process.

The guiding principle was that the most able and qualified person should be appointed.

The document also advocated that any committee advising the Government on appointees should recommend only three candidates for each position.

These passages ought to have been music to the ears of Mr Ross, a long time critic of the existing appointments system, which he believed to be an outlet for political patronage.

In the Government formation negotiations between Fine Gael and Mr Ross's Independent Alliance, judicial appointment reform became a red line issue.

It was, he says, one of the hardest fought aspects of the negotiations.

What emerged was a pledge to introduce legislation for a new selection process, which would ensure appointments were made on merit from a shortlist of just three candidates.

This would seem to be where the consensus between Mr Ross and the judges ended. Senior judges favoured a committee where the majority of members had a legal background, to ensure suitable vetting of candidates. But Mr Ross wanted to dispense with this and was successful in negotiating a lay majority with Fine Gael.

Work began on a bill, with Department of Justice officials estimating the reforms would be in place by next summer.

The game was essentially over and Mr Ross had won.

But instead of taking his foot off the gas, the Transport Minister went on the offensive again.

During the summer he sought and received an agreement at Cabinet that no new appointments would be made until the new system was in place, despite private misgivings from a number of Fine Gael ministers that this could lead to significant backlogs in the courts.

Last week he opened up a new front in his war on the judiciary, saying he would be seeking for judges to have to declare their interests, because "they might forget their oath" of office to administer justice without fear or favour.

He also claimed there would be resistance from judges to his bill.

Having already secured so much, the comments seemed to be completely unnecessary and ended up blowing up in his face. Taoiseach Enda Kenny disowned the remarks in the Dáil, saying he did not accept that judges would forget their oaths.

The Chief Justice, Susan Denham, had also had enough and used a judicial conference at the weekend to hit out at "inaccurate discussion and misrepresentation of the position of the judiciary".

Judges had been advocating change for years, but it had never been advanced by politicians, she argued.

Unmoved, Mr Ross doubled down on his criticism of the judiciary yesterday, ensuring the row will run and run.

Irish Independent

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