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Monday 16 December 2019

Shatter on collision course with judges over cuts to holidays

Judiciary holds emergency meeting over bid to hike court hours, end two-month vacation

Dearbhail McDonald Legal Editor

JUSTICE Minister Alan Shatter is on a collision course with judges as he presses them to cut their holidays and work longer hours.

The Irish Independent has learned that Mr Shatter has written to the country's judiciary looking for a series of potential reforms -- including changes to the length of law terms and the "long vacation", which lasts through August and September.

He has also suggested revised court hours as the Government seeks to push through savings of more than ¿1bn across the public sector pay bill by 2015 without cutting basic pay rates.

Judges, whose pay and pensions were cut following a contentious referendum, have been engaged in a series of bruising encounters with the Fine Gael/ Labour Coalition since it came into office amid fears that proposals by the Government could undermine judicial independence.

A special meeting of High Court judges was held this week to discuss the contents of Mr Shatter's letter, which was circulated to judges by Chief Justice Mrs Justice Susan Denham on the eve of the Croke Park extension talks.

Measures such as extending court sittings by an extra hour a day as well as shortening legal holidays were considered by some of the country's most senior judges.

One of the core issues for some 26 unions who attended the plenary Croke Park talks is the level of cuts that could be applied to public sector staff earning above €65,000 or €70,000 a year.

But judges fear that if the proposal to reduce pay for those earning more than €65,000 is accepted, it would be applied to judges.

It is understood that many on the bench fear the new "adjustments" could lead to them working extra hours with reduced pay and encroach on their independence.

One senior judge said it would be "particularly unfair" if judges were asked to work longer hours and take a fresh pay cut.

The Association of Judges of Ireland (AJI), the representative body set up last year following the controversy over judicial pay and independence, did not respond to queries last night.

The allocation of the business of the courts, scheduling of court cases and the management of court lists are the exclusive preserve of the judiciary.

But Mr Shatter wants to introduce reforms to tackle chronic court delays, which include a 37-month backlog for cases to be heard at the Supreme Court.

Excluded

In his letter to the judiciary, Mr Shatter acknowledged the positive co-operation to date of the judiciary and the significant role played by judges in creating efficiencies throughout the court system.

But he said he believed that the judiciary should not be excluded from the outcome of the current talks.

Shortly before Christmas, Mr Shatter wrote to Mrs Justice Denham in the context of the current discussions on the extension of the Croke Park deal. Last night Mr Shatter confirmed that he asked her to consider what measures might be brought forward by the judiciary "in relation to their role".

Mr Shatter also confirmed that a referendum will he held in the autumn to facilitate the establishment of a Court of Appeal and a new separate Family Court structure designed to relieve pressure on the Supreme Court and reduce delays.

At the opening round of talks on the proposed extension to the Croke Park Agreement, public service management proposed increasing hours of work and reducing pay rates for higher grades.

Cutting premium pay rates, eliminating incremental pay scales and putting in place new rostering arrangements are also part of the Government's plans to save €300m this year and €1bn over the next three years.

analysis

Irish Independent

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