Coalition has no plans to amend judicial appointments bill

The Government plans to drive through legislation for the new judicial appointments system and does not expect to make any amendments despite calls for changes from top judges and opposition parties.

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar told the Dáil the terms for the Judicial Appointments Commission Bill were agreed under last year’s Programme for Government. This includes proposals for a lay majority to sit on the new commission and for its chairman to be a lay person — the main concern of judges.

An unprecedented intervention by the country’s top judges, led by Chief Justice Susan Denham, this week saw a joint warning by letter to Mr Varadkar that the new system would have “serious implications for the administration of justice”.

Despite the warning, the Government officially said yesterday that there were no plans to reply to the letter from the five judges.

Instead, Mr Varadkar confirmed to the Dáil that the bill, championed by Independent Alliance Minister Shane Ross, who secured it during government negotiations, would be passed through the Dáil and Seanad without any amendments. This is because the arrangements for the commission were agreed by Fine Gael in last year’s deal with the Independent Alliance.

Mr Varadkar said: “We have no understanding on amendments and any amendments put forward will be considered on a case-by-case basis in the normal way by the Minister for Justice and Equality.

“The bill is provided for in the programme for government which stated specifically over a year ago that we would introduce a Judicial Appointments Bill providing for a lay chair and a lay majority. We would be going against our own programme for government as agreed by Fine Gael, the Independent Alliance, and Independents if we were to support amendments which changed that aspect of it.”

Mr Varadkar has indicated that more than nine hours of debate have been put aside for debate on the bill for its different stages.

Fianna Fáil objects to the proposals and says a compromise would be if the chief justice were to chair the appointments commission.

The party’s justice spokesman, Jim O’Callaghan, said the whole row stemmed from Fine Gael caving into Mr Ross’s demands in the government formation talks last year. He said a compromise should be examined whereby the chief justice sits as chairperson on the new body.

Earlier, more judicial figures added their voices to concerns about the proposed reforms.

Former Supreme Court judge Catherine McGuinness claimed the move for a non-legal person to chair the appointments commission was a “kick in the teeth” for Chief Justice Denham.

If she, rather than a non-legal expert, were to chair the commission, this could go a long way to addressing concerns of the judiciary, Ms McGuinness told RTÉ.

Former president of the High Court Nicholas Kearns compared the Judicial Appointments Commission Bill to “a group of judges selecting an Irish football team”.

The proposed move to disallow the chief justice from chairing the new body was also “extremely offensive”, he told RTÉ.

Gerard Howlin: 10


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