Following 10 years of argument over its inception, Justice Minister Dermot Ahern yesterday announced the setting-up of the judicial council. But the Heads of Bill do not allow for a judge to be removed from office, and probe will be held in private and will not name the judiciary publicly.
Complainants must also lodge issues with the judicial council and its committees within six months of an incident involving a judge and must be directly affected by a matter or be witness to it.
The bill provides for the setting up of a judicial conduct committee, which will consider complaints against judges and guidelines concerning their conduct. It will be made up of eight judges and three lay people.
Sanctions can include issuing advice or a reprimand to a judge, a recommendation they follow a certain action or a specific course. The council could also decide on changes to their responsibilities.
Mr Ahern said: “The participation of lay persons will provide an open and transparent means of investigating complaints.”
Members of the elite council will include judges from the supreme, high, circuit and district courts.
The council must sit at least once a year, as well as provide an annual report, while its individual committees will meet more often.
The bill also includes reform of the Judicial Studies Institute, which informs judges and arranges conferences and the distribution of information on sentencing. The guidelines also state that complaints against judges that are “frivolous or vexatious” will not be accepted.
Judges under investigation will be compelled to take oaths during cross-examination and anyone blocking or suppressing an inquiry faces fines of up to €3,000, including judges.
The Irish Council for Civil Liberties welcomed the bill but said proposals for investigations were sketchy, and lay members would be government appointees and outnumbered by judges.
Law Society director general Ken Murphy welcomed the draft bill, saying the absence of a system of complaints against judges had been “a flaw in our democratic system”.