A ban on new judges, pending the establishment of a new judicial appointments system, could be “disastrous” for Ireland’s court system, a High Court judge has said, speaking on behalf of all of the judiciary. The comments come in the wake of a Cabinet decision on Tuesday not to appoint any new judges until a new law on judicial appointments is passed.
Minister for Transport Shane Ross made the reform of judicial appointments a key part of the Independent Alliance’s agenda in Government. Senior political and official sources say a blanket ban on the appointment of new judges, until a new law is passed, is unrealistic – especially as many sources anticipate the legislation may be delayed, such is the level of opposition to it. But senior Independent Alliance sources insist their agreement with Fine Gael, to set up the new structures before any more judges are appointed, is “absolute”, and point to the requirement for Cabinet approval for any new appointments.
The secretary of the Association of Judges of Ireland (AJI), Mr Justice John Edwards, said the association recognised that the system needed to be changed. “Our main concern is that it should not be rushed. It needs to be properly thought out but you can’t put all appointments on hold, in the meantime, because the system would grind to a halt if that happened.”
The Court of Appeal judge said it could be “disastrous from the point of view of the working of the courts if the number of judges was to be lowered as the new position was being worked out”. He said judges should be able to give a considered response to concrete proposals, but they had not seen details yet.
There are three vacancies in the Circuit Court and one in the District Court. Another District Court judge will reach retirement age by the end of the year. Next year, two judges of the Supreme Court, one of the Court of Appeal, three of the High Court, two of the Circuit, and four of the District Court, will reach retirement age.
On the issue of judges having to declare their interests, Mr Justice Edwards said the AJI recognised the general trend in public life was towards greater transparency.
However, a more important and urgently required reform was the establishment of the long-awaited judicial council about which the Chief Justice, Susan Denham, spoke earlier this week, he said.
It was likely that the promised judicial council would have a central role in ensuring greater transparency in terms of judges’ financial and other interests.
Currently judges have to recuse themselves from a trial if they think there is something that might affect their ability to be seen as impartial. Some type of declaration of interests could serve to protect judges when the issue of possible conflicts crop up, he said. “But if there was to be a register, it would need to be carefully thought out.”
Senator Michael McDowell said he would today call for the Minister for Justice to come before the Seanad to address it on any deal the Government had with the Independent Alliance in relation to judicial appointments.