Chief Justice Frank Clarke has been forced to defend the independence of the new judicial council committee in the wake of Government commentary in recent weeks.
In what has been seen as sharp rebuttal of potential government interference in the new committee's work, Judge Clarke said he felt it was incumbent on him to make the independence of the new body absolutely clear.
“I have felt it incumbent on me to make these additional comments so as to avoid any wrong impressions about the full independence of the Judicial Council and the Committee itself,” he said.
Formally nominating the seven judges to the Personal Injuries Guidelines Committee of the Judicial Council, Judge Clarke took the rare step of indirectly addressing recent comments made by Junior Finance Minister Michael D'arcy about the new committee's work.
Judge Clarke did not refer to Minister D'arcy by name in his statement but the unambiguous nature of the statement has been seen as a clear rebuttal of the minister's views.
In a recent Sunday Business Post interview, Mr D'Arcy called on judges to use their new powers to set personal injury guidelines by the end of the year.
Mr D’Arcy said he hoped the new guidelines would bring court awards for personal injury cases more in line with those in England and Wales.
The comments were seen as most unhelpful by members of the judiciary and the robust statement from the highest judge in the land reflects the current mood.
In a statement issued today, Judge Clarke said in the light of some recent publicity, and having consulted with the senior judiciary, it is incumbent on him to “emphasise the total independence” which the law gives to that committee.
“Given that independence, and given that the Committee has not yet had its first meeting, there could be no basis in fact for suggestions that the Committee will necessarily pick the five most common injuries for initial consideration, use any particular research in the course of its work, have results in respect of those five injuries by March of next year, and make an assessment of the compensation for such injuries which would reduce same by more than 15% – 20%,” he said.
He said that independence is subject only to such directions as the Judicial Council itself may give.
“It will be for the Committee, in the exercise of its independent statutory function, to decide on all of those matters. I should further emphasise that the Committee is also independent of me,” he said.
Judge Clarke said the purpose of designating the membership of the Committee at this stage is to allow it when established, to hit the ground running.
The Chief Justice nominated Justice Mary Irvine as Chair of the Committee Designate and she has convened a first meeting for early next week.
In his Sunday Business Post interview, Mr D'Arcy called on judges to make “every effort” to achieve the objective of addressing high payouts in personal injuries cases due to the urgency of the situation, particularly in relation to minor soft-tissue injuries.
Tánaiste Simon Coveney said the independence of the judiciary needed to be respected but that the cost of insurance must come down.
Speaking at Dublin Castle, when asked about recent comments from ministers about reforming insurance awards, Mr Coveney responded:
“The chief justice will remind everybody that there is and needs to be a complete separation between the judiciary and the political system.
“But I think it's also important to recognize that insurance costs are a huge issue and a very political issue that the government has been working to address for a number of years now.
"There's a whole raft of legislation that we've brought through and policy change to bring about a reduction in insurance costs.
“But of course, we in government respect the separation of powers here.
“The Chief Justice has a job to do. He has made it very clear that he's going to get on with that job in turn of the council that's been set up. And I think that new structure will have a positive impact on the cost of insurance in Ireland but we need to let the system work and allow it to be independent. And not politicised.”