Saturday 23 February 2019

Dearbhail McDonald: New gunas for judges -- now for real reform

IT is a pity that our Supreme Court judges came over all camera-shy when they donned their new Louise Kennedy-designed robes -- we were left with headless models to show off the new gunas instead.

The new European style robes are more than a costume change -- they mark a major (long overdue) symbolic break with the English tradition.

Minds boggle when they learn that Irish barristers and judges are still technically mourning the death of Charles II in 1685 with the black robes they wear in court.

And that it is because of the same king that they wear curly, white horse-hair wigs, a custom he introduced to English society.

As a result of new laws introduced last year by Justice Minister Alan Shatter, judges are no longer required to wear wigs. Many judges and barristers had already abandoned them.

The new gowns are welcome, but their introduction pales in comparison with the widespread reforms needed in our courts.

Earlier this month I visited the Supreme Court in London, as a guest of Lord Kerr.

Brian Kerr, former Lord Chief Justice of Northern Ireland, was the last justice appointed to the House of Lords before the creation of the Supreme Court of the UK in 2009.

This court, which replaced the Appellate Committee of the House of Lords, hears appeals on arguable points of law of the greatest public importance.

In contrast, our own Supreme Court often resembles a kitchen sink.

It is our final court of appeal, but it does not have the capacity to filter out all but cases of exceptional constitutional and public importance -- hence a four-year waiting list.

New Chief Justice Susan Denham has argued for the introduction of a Civil Court of Appeal and specialist courts that would alleviate the burden of cases on the Supreme Court.

This requires a constitutional referendum.

In London, the Supreme Court justices wear no wigs and gowns, except on ceremonial occasions.

They sit at the same level as barristers, litigants and the public -- justice is not handed down from on high.

As with the European Court of Human Rights, summaries of complex judgments are prepared for press.

Almost all UK Supreme Court proceedings are filmed, occasionally broadcast on major TV and radio news networks and streamed via the Sky News website.

Technology is an integral part of proceedings, with lawyers working off their Ipads and other devices.

One bugbear for Irish lawyers, journalists and layman is the lack of access to documents opened and relied upon in court.In other countries access is routine.

Indeed, it is a wonder that Irish court reporters are not held in contempt day in, day out, given the gymnastics we sometimes have to perform to just do our job as the eyes and ears of the public who can not attend court.

When legislators want to, they can improve access to the courts, as the creation of the Criminal Courts of Justice and the fast track Commercial Court -- the jewel in the crown of the Courts Service -- has proved.

Dearbhail McDonald, Legal Editor, visited the Supreme Court of the UK as part of a regional meeting of the Eisenhower Fellowships

Irish Independent

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