Taoiseach Leo Varadkar’s Government now risks a major rift with the most powerful judges after their objection to a proposed new lay-majority body deciding on promotions to the bench.
A row over the Judicial Appointments Commission has also widened among politicians, with Transport Minister Shane Ross now accused of having a “personal agenda” in driving the reforms.
Under the plans, the judiciary appointments advisory board will be replaced by an 11-member commission, including a lay majority and a lay chairperson.
Legislation for the commission will be debated for up to eight hours over three days in the Dáil this week.
In an extraordinary development yesterday, the five heads of the top courts sent a letter to Mr Varadkar, with a stern warning about reforming the system.
The letter was signed by the Chief Justice, the president of the Court of Appeal, the President of the High Court, the President of the Circuit Court, and the President of the District Court.
It is expected to be discussed at the weekly Cabinet meeting today but a spokesman for the Department of Justice insisted last night the reforms would proceed.
The challenge followed an earlier statement by the Association of Judges of Ireland, who warned the legislation was “seriously flawed”.
The association said the changes would “not serve to depoliticise” the process. Rationale for a lay majority had not been explained, it said, and changes would damage the judiciary and “State as a whole”.
However, the Government will proceed with the reforms, which are being fast-tracked before the Dáil summer recess.
The commitment was made by Mr Varadkar with Government partners, the Independent Alliance, in an effort to defuse the row over the promotion of Attorney General Máire Whelan to the Court of Appeal.
However, senator Michael McDowell — a former attorney general and justice minister — claimed that Mr Ross had a “personal agenda”, wanting to overhaul the system, based on a book he had written, as well as an “unfortunate” experience in the courts. Mr Ross did not return calls about this claim, but he said he understood the resistance to the reforms from the “legal lobby”.
The spat among politicians, however, is set to widen after additional criticism from Justice Minister Charlie Flanagan. It emerged last night that he texted Fine Gael TDs over the weekend, saying he was “disappointed” by some of Mr Ross’s remarks about judges.
His spokesman confirmed Mr Flanagan had made contact with Fine Gael TDs but refused to discuss claims about texts.
The Government is expected to be supported by Sinn Féin, which will likely bring to 80 the numbers it can depend on to pass the judicial bill.
However, Fianna Fáil will oppose it.
Justice spokesman Jim O’Callaghan told the Irish Examiner he believed the new judicial commission would encourage interest groups to apply to be members and make the appointments more political.
“You will have pro-life or pro-choice groups applying or groups who are harder or softer on criminals,” said Mr O’Callaghan, who is a barrister.
He claimed that senior members of Fine Gael were in fact opposed to the reforms and that the Fine Gael-led Government had only caved into Mr Ross’s demands to get back into power.
“They would have promised to drain the Shannon if they had been asked,” claimed Mr O’Callaghan.