Stark warning of judge choice ‘disasters’ as ministers clash over reform bill

Many unsuitable people will be appointed judges if the Government pushes through controversial legislation, the Dáil has heard.

The stark warning comes as the Government is set to defy judges and press ahead with the Judicial Appointments Bill, which minsters clashed over at Cabinet yesterday.

Independent ministers Shane Ross and Finian McGrath are said to have taken issue with Justice Minister Charlie Flanagan over his explicit criticisms of their reform-based bill.

The two Independent TDs made their unhappiness known at Mr Flanagan’s comments in recent days, where he criticised “populist politicians” for putting judges in the dock.

It is understood that Mr Ross led the charge, with Mr McGrath backing him up, demanding that Fine Gael stick to a deal agreed more than a year ago.

Last week, the Irish Examiner revealed how, following a heated row with Mr Varadkar, Mr Ross had to be talked “off the ledge” by Foreign Affairs Minister Simon Coveney.

In the Dáil, Mr Varadkar said no threat to leave government was made to him and he restated his denial that he attempted to put pressure on President Michael D Higgins to fast-track the appointment of Máire Whelan to the Court of Appeal.

During a debate on the bill, which began last night and will continue today and tomorrow, Fianna Fáil justice spokesman Jim O’Callaghan claimed the bill, which will see a lay chair and lay majority on the commission tasked with appointing judges, is a “bad piece of legislation”.

He said the bill is “being promoted by one or two members of Government who really don’t know what they are talking about”.

Mr O’Callaghan argued that having a board dominated by lay people who make “paper-based” decisions does not bring the same “insight, knowledge, and experience” as judges.

“I know many people who on paper would look like they would make excellent judges but if appointed they would be a disaster,” he said.

Under fire in the Dáil, the Taoiseach defended the legislation, claiming it follows best international practice.

Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin said there is no compelling rationale for the changes, which he said were being rammed though.

He also claimed that, “deep down, we know that the vast majority of Fine Gael Deputies do not agree with this bill”.

However, Mr Varadkar said the rationale behind the bill is threefold.

“We want these appointments to be less political in the future, we want them to be more transparent, and we do not want any profession to be self-regulating or self-appointing,” he said.

Citing England and Scotland, he said having a lay chairperson is “not unusual” and is the “modern way” of making appointments.

He added that this was now the case in both the private and public sector and that no profession should be self-regulating or self-appointing.

“When hospital consultants, for example brain surgeons, cardiac surgeons and geriatricians, are selected in HSE hospitals the chairman of the interview board comes from the Public Appointments Service and is not a doctor,” said Mr Varadkar.

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 new appointments commission was a “kick in the teeth” for Chief Justice Susan Denham. However, if the chief justice was to chair the new commission, as opposed to a non-legal expert, this could go a log way to addressing concerns of the judiciary, Ms McGuinness told RTÉ.

Former president of the High Court Nicholas Kearns compared the proposed bill to “a group of judges selecting an Irish football team”.

An unprecedented intervention by the country’s top judges, led by Justice 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”.

News: 4

Gerard Howlin: 10


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