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Charles Lysaght: Chief Justice's matter of tact helps to defuse row

There could be no better person than our first female Chief Justice, Susan Denham, to defuse the row that broke out when Mr Justice Peter Kelly – the chairman of the association of judges – criticised rather stridently the Gov-ernment over the latest cut-backs in judicial remuneration and pensions.

She has, throughout her career, been much admired for qualities of tact, good temper and level-headedness as well as her dedication and hard work.

She has moved adroitly, setting up a liaison group with government in line with the long-established practice that the Attorney General rather than the Minister for Justice is the conduit for negotiations between the judiciary and government. Attorneys general, being barristers, are invariably more sympathetic to the judiciary than ministers and often have a better ear of the Taoiseach. By including Mr Justice Kelly in the group, she is heading off further public confrontations.

Chief Justice Denham has always had the savvy to realise that in these lean times public opinion is unimpressed, if not positively hostile, when judges stray from their own sacred maxim that nobody shall be a judge in their own case and whinge about their own remuneration.

On her appointment as chief justice in 2011 she announced that the judges did not oppose pay cuts and distanced herself from the objections that had been made by the judiciary under her predecessor to the constitutional amendment allowing judicial remuneration to be reduced in line with that of comparable public servants. Impressively, she declined the extra salary over and above other supreme court judges to which she was entitled as chief justice.

She has made clear her opinion that the reputation of the judiciary for independence and impartiality can suffer if members engage in public controversy, especially if it is self-serving, and has concentrated her own rhetoric on proposals that improve the the legal system.

She has a formidable record in this regard. Almost from the time of her appointment to the Supreme Court in 1992 she took an active interest in the organisation and administration of the courts, which had long languished under the parsimonious management of the Department of Justice. The reports of working groups she chaired led to the establishment of a Courts Service controlled by the judiciary and managed by a high-powered chief executive. For the first time in the history of the State the court system was properly funded, a change that found its public expression in the refurbishment of decaying old courthouses and the erection of some fine new ones.

She was, perhaps, unlucky not to have been appointed chief justice on the retirement of Ronan Keane in 2004. Never politically aligned, she paid for her lack of political clout when passed over in favour of John Murray, a Fianna Fail supporter who had been Charles Haughey's Attorney General.

Her appointment in 2011, shortly after the present Government took office, was universally welcomed.

She was the first female (and the first protestant) chief justice but there was no element of tokenism in her appointment. It has also added to her authority that it owed nothing to any past party political affiliation.

Her judgements, while clear and sensible, may not display the academic brilliance of some of her colleagues on the Supreme Court but she scores highly on the personal qualities and administrative skills that are more important in a chief justice than mere legal cleverness.

At the age of 67 she looks little older than the serious student whom I lectured at King's Inns more than 40 years ago. She retains the reforming zeal of a younger person. It is still directed largely to organisational matters.

Distressed that there should be a four-year wait to have cases heard in the Supreme Court she has pressed for the creation of a court of civil appeal, which would free the Supreme Court to concentrate on major cases. Encouraged by the success of the Commercial Court under Mr Justice Kelly, she has suggested specialist courts in other areas such as family law.

She has also lent support to proposals first made in her predecessor's time that there should be a body independent of government to oversee judicial remuneration.

But it is now part of a larger proposal beneficial to court users for a council overseeing judicial appointments and regulating judicial conduct.

It will all require tactful negotiation and culminate in referendums for the amendment of provisions in the Constitution that now stand in the way of many of the reforms.

Other judges would probably do best to desist from high words or trade union-style confrontations with government and work through the channels set up this week by Chief Justice Denham.

Irish Independent