Wednesday 21 August 2019

Charlie Flanagan: 'With this Judicial Council Bill, we have finally got things right'

Justice Minister Charlie Flanagan on why the Judicial Council Bill which passed last week was worth the wait

‘Not only is justice being done, but it is being seen to be done’. Stock photo
‘Not only is justice being done, but it is being seen to be done’. Stock photo

Charlie Flanagan

I've heard it said this Bill was a long time in the making. Indeed, I have said so myself. And it's true. The thinking behind what has become the Judicial Council Bill, which was passed by the Houses of the Oireachtas last Tuesday, goes back 20 years.

But even a long wait can be worthwhile if at the end of it, you get things right. In this Bill, I firmly believe we have got things right.

It started out in 1999, in large part, as a way of promoting high standards of judicial conduct. Then, as indeed is still the case now, apart from some provisions relating to District Court judges, judicial misconduct could only be dealt with through impeachment by the Oireachtas. There were, and are, no other steps, no other stages, no other processes to be gone through. Notwithstanding the fact that the vast majority of judges have proven themselves, over and over again, to be impressive and upstanding, that is clearly unsatisfactory.

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This Bill delivers the way. It provides for investigating allegations of misconduct against judges and then potentially disciplining them through a Judicial Conduct Committee. The committee's membership will include both judges and lay people. It may resolve matters informally or have them formally dealt with by a panel of inquiry, which will be public. If the panel upholds the complaint, then a reprimand may be issued, and published in the Annual Report of the Judicial Council.

I have to say, based on my experience of the good work of the judiciary I don't see this committee as being overburdened with cases. However, I am at the same time satisfied that it is absolutely necessary to have it in place.

The Bill also makes provision for a properly resourced and effective Judicial Studies Committee. I suspect the current Judicial Studies Committee would agree with me if I said, due to staffing and resource issues, it struggles to provide comprehensive induction, training and continuing professional development to judges. But in these days of rapid change and development, such supports are essential, for any professional, in any walk of life. Judges are no different. And so I know it will be of great comfort to all the members of the judiciary, and to the rest of us, to know that judicial training is getting the status, the funding and the recognition it deserves.

Of course, one thing all good training, in any profession, can deliver, is a level of consistency. Consistency, in sentencing, is seen as an issue. In support of our judiciary, I would point out that we only hear about the sentences which strike us as particularly egregious, but even accepting that every day hundreds of unseen sentences, which we would all accept as appropriate, are handed down, I think we would all agree that consistency is important. And visible consistency is more important still.

We need to know there is a solid basis on which a judge makes a decision. A framework within which he or she is working.

That is where the sentencing guidelines come in. The Sentencing Guidelines and Information Committee will have the job of preparing guidelines to which a judge must adhere unless he or she is satisfied that to do so would not be in the interests of justice. And if a judge does depart from them, the reason why, must be given in the judgment.

The committee will also monitor the operation of the guidelines, and, importantly, collate information about sentences imposed and provide that information both to judges and to the public.

I think this provision will go a long way to reassuring all of us that not only is justice being done, but it is being seen to be done, all of the time.

Of course, all of this will take effort, and resources. But it will happen. I expect the Judicial Council to be established before the end of this year. It will then take on the task of establishing the various committees, which will include, by the way, the one I haven't even mentioned yet, the Personal Injuries Guidelines Committee.

We all know that insurance costs are a big issue. This committee will compile guidelines for appropriate general damages for various types of personal injury, addressing inconsistency in awards while acknowledging that each case should be judged on its own distinct merits.

I have to admit that just a few short months ago I would never have imagined that the Judicial Council would have a role in tackling the high costs imposed on members of the public by insurance companies.

However, the Personal Injuries Commission, which we established, identified the possibility of the new Council taking on the role of developing guidelines for damages in personal injuries awards cases and so I introduced amendments to give effect to that.

I believe the new committee will help achieve a greater consistency in levels of damages awarded but it is just one piece of the jigsaw, just one of the things Government can do. Fundamentally it is still the case that there is a major responsibility on the insurance industry to provide consumers with insurance options which are based on fair and honest analyses, at reasonable costs.

I look forward to the industry doing that. And I also look forward, very much, to seeing all of the work programme the Judicial Council makes provision for, being established.

As I said, it has been a long time coming.

But it's here now. I believe it is fit for purpose and I am proud of the progress and professionalisation it represents in the way we deliver justice in this country.

Charlie Flanagan is the Minister for Justice and Equality

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