Saturday 16 December 2017

Varadkar faces down senior judges in row over reforms

Chief Justice Susan Denham. Photo: Damien Eagers
Chief Justice Susan Denham. Photo: Damien Eagers
Court of Appeal President Seán Ryan. Photo: Collins Courts
High Court President Peter Kelly. Photo: Shane O'Neill Photography
Circuit Court President Raymond Groarke. Photo: Collins Courts
District Court President Rosemary Horgan. Photo: PA
Shane Phelan

Shane Phelan

Last-ditch efforts by the country's most senior judges to halt controversial judicial appointment reforms seem doomed to fail, despite a direct appeal to Taoiseach Leo Varadkar.

In an unprecedented move, the heads of the five courts warned Mr Varadkar that proposals contained in the Judicial Appointments Bill would have "serious implications for the administration of justice".

The letter was signed by Chief Justice Susan Denham, Court of Appeal President Seán Ryan, High Court President Peter Kelly, Circuit Court President Raymond Groarke and District Court President Rosemary Horgan.

Copies were also sent to Justice Minister Charlie Flanagan and Attorney General Séamus Woulfe yesterday afternoon, just hours after a statement had been issued by the Association of Judges in Ireland (AJI), warning that the reforms were "seriously flawed" and out of line with international standards.

Although Mr Flanagan has indicated that he will listen to their concerns, there is little prospect at this stage of the bill being significantly revised.

Government sources indicated that the judiciary was fighting a losing battle as the legislation has been given priority status.

"The Cabinet has signed off on it. It is Government policy and the Government intends to implement it before the summer recess on July 14," said one senior source.

The bill is set to be pushed through despite tensions between Mr Flanagan and Transport Minister Shane Ross, at whose behest it is being introduced.

Read more - Taoiseach tells judges: 'the separation of powers affects you too', as row simmers

Mr Flanagan sent a text message to a number of Fine Gael TDs at the weekend, saying he was "disappointed at some comments" Mr Ross had made about the judiciary.

He encouraged the TDs to speak when the bill is debated in the Dáil and to emphasise the absolute independence of judges and the courts under the Constitution.

The current Judicial Appointments Advisory Board has a majority of members who are either judges or come from a legal background. It is also chaired by the Chief Justice. Under what is proposed, a new advisory commission will have a lay majority and a lay chairperson.

In its statement, the AJI said: "The proposals do not accord with international standards and will not serve to depoliticise the system of judicial appointments."

The statement said the rationale for a lay majority and a lay chairman had not been explained.

"It is hard to imagine any other walk of life in which the majority of those involved in an appointment process would be required to come from outside the ranks of those serving in the area to which the appointments are being made," it said. The statement also said the office of Chief Justice would be "diminished by the requirement that he or she should be an ordinary member of the commission but should be statutorily precluded from being its chairman".

Previous attempts by the judiciary to influence the bill failed. Ms Justice Denham met then Taoiseach Enda Kenny late last year, while a delegation led by her Supreme Court colleague Donal O'Donnell had discussions with Mr Ross and then Justice Minister Frances Fitzgerald last November.

Irish Independent

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