Sunday 22 September 2019

Shane Phelan: 'Judges are a convenient scapegoat for Varadkar'

Leo Varadkar (Niall Carson/PA)
Leo Varadkar (Niall Carson/PA)
Shane Phelan

Shane Phelan

Leo Varadkar says there needs to be an examination of the way the courts are managed so cases can be dealt with more quickly than is presently the case.

His remarks, coming amidst fears women will die before their cases for alleged screening failings or delayed diagnosis of cancer are heard, were an implicit criticism of the judiciary and the way they manage cases.

He was responding to comments by Mr Justice Kevin Cross, who presides over the High Court personal injury list. The judge said women taking cancer diagnosis actions may have died before their cases are heard and, not unreasonably, called for more judges to be appointed.

He said the personal injuries list has been swamped with complex cases, including those related to the CervicalCheck controversy.

Pressed on those remarks yesterday, the Taoiseach's response was: "I think we need to examine court procedures and the way our courts are managed so that cases can be heard more quickly.

"Justice delayed is justice denied. It's not just a case of appointing more judges, I think we need to manage cases better and improve in terms of case efficiency."

No one denies court procedures need to be reformed.

But the Taoiseach's remarks could also be seen as part of a trend where the judiciary is used as a handy scapegoat for the Government when the political heat comes on.

Just a few weeks ago, junior minister Michael D'Arcy threatened the Government would hold a referendum to override the discretion of judges if they don't act within two years to reduce awards for minor injuries such as whiplash. There is no doubt awards for minor injuries are too high.

But it was an odd threat to make given that the Government has done little to progress the Judicial Council Bill, the very legislation which will give judges a mechanism to recalibrate injury awards downwards.

Mr Varadkar's shot across the bows of the judiciary yesterday also seems ill-judged.

Indeed it smacks a bit of desperation from a Government which has abjectly failed to get to grips with the CervicalCheck scandal.

No one, not least the judiciary, will argue that court procedures are not in need of modernisation.

What the Taoiseach failed to say though is that this process is under way. A group led by the President of the High Court, Mr Justice Peter Kelly, is deep in the midst of a review of the administration of civil justice, announced last year by Mr Varadkar's then Tánaiste Frances Fitzgerald.

What was also not said was that cases related to the CervicalCheck controversy have been handled with a great deal of compassion by the courts.

The Taoiseach has learned the hard way that he shouldn't promise too much when controversies like this unfold.

He came in for stinging criticism over comments in May after pledging no woman caught up in the cervical cancer scandal would have to go to court to get compensation.

Unfortunately things are not that simple and there are no quick-fix solutions either.

A tribunal model suggested to the Government by a senior judge will still require women affected to prove negligence.

Instead of brushing off Mr Justice Cross's remarks, it would make sense for the Government to act on them.

More judges are needed.

Ireland has the lowest number of judges per head of population in Europe and among the lowest in the world.

In recent times both Mr Justice Kelly and Mr Justice Seamus Noonan, who manages the judicial review and non-jury High Court list, have highlighted the knock-on effect of an overstretched judiciary. Both indicated the shortage of judges was resulting in important cases not getting a hearing, including "life changing" actions.

Irish Independent

Today's news headlines, directly to your inbox every morning.

Don't Miss