DÁIL SPEECH ON JUDICIAL COUNCIL BILL 2017

I also welcome this Bill, which has been an astonishingly long time in gestation. We could go back to the report of the Committee on Judicial Conduct and Ethics which advised in December 2000 that a judicial council be established. We are going back two decades now. A problem with judges and the Courts Service is that movement is at a glacial pace. It is striking that the Chief Justice, Mr. Justice Clarke, has asked for more resources at all levels of the Courts Service, including support for training judges. I have asked many questions over the years on road safety, specifically the lack of efficiency in producing records needed by An Garda Síochána and the Road Safety Authority.

It is amazing that this legislation has taken so long. The former Deputy and Minister, Mr. Dermot Ahern, published the first heads of a Bill in 2010, a decade ago and an interim Judicial Council has been in place since 2012. The aims set out by the judges were excellence in exercising judicial functions, the efficient use of resources and continuing education. That is an important point because it is astonishing that it took us until today to establish a system of lifelong education for judges. We could argue that Deputies and Ministers need the same type of continuous in-service training but it is especially important for judges as society changes. The draft Bill of 2010 included the first provisions on conduct and ethics.

There has been no avenue of complaint for members of the public who might have been upset at lenient sentences or the general conduct of a few judges. Having said that, having a strong, independent and well-resourced Judiciary is a hallmark of democracy. I note that the measuring tape, as it were, for the judicial systems of all countries is the Bangalore principles of judicial conduct, which I have referred to previously. These were endorsed by the United Nations Human Rights Commission in 2003. The six core values that we expect in our Judiciary are independence, integrity, propriety, equality, competence and diligence, and impartiality. These are the values that we need to see throughout the judicial system.

As always our excellent Library and Research Service presented us with a very good background paper. I know the Bill has been amended since then. However, it is interesting to look at the Judges’ Council of England and Wales. The 39-member Canadian council oversees about 1,100 judges and not all the members are judges, as proposed in the Bill before us. There is a council in New South Wales. Of course in the United States judges are elected. Some people might say that for us to become a true democracy we should have the election of some judges, which is characteristic of parts of the American system. The United States has had the judicial ethics model since 1924. Many would believe all the people should have a decision on such a senior role in the State. I have often felt the same about the Governor of the Central Bank, for example. In the past few days, four of the highest positions in the European Union were decided by backroom deals, as Matt Carthy, MEP, said yesterday. Perhaps there is scope for a more democratic system.

The Bill proposes to repeal sections 10(4) and 36(2) of the Courts (Supplement Provisions) Act 1961, which allowed the Chief Justice to investigate the administration of justice at the District Court level. The Court and Court Officers Act provides for funds for training of judges but did not lay out any fundamental improvements in that regard.

We need the improvements proposed for the council itself to address the complaints procedure, which takes up the bulk of the Bill, as well as the committees on conduct, training and so on. They are all very valuable and important improvements. Many people feel we need more fundamental reform. For example, why should professional guilds like the Law Society of Ireland and the Honourable Society of King’s Inns have a fundamental role in and control over education and apprenticeship into the legal system? As with most professions, why are the university law departments not at the centre of the training of not just lawyers generally, but also of judges? Why has that not been considered?

Judges need to be representative of society. There tends to be a self-perpetuating legal elite. It can be seen with some families down through the decades. We need a broader base. I welcome that in recent years at long last gender balance has been achieved in the solicitors’ profession. I would prefer a single profession of lawyer. Reform of the archaic English system of barristers and solicitors should be on the agenda of a future government.

I have experience of being in court helping to support people with local issues. I have been very impressed with the judges in the Flood-Mahon and Moriarty tribunals, and the Priory Hall case. The judges’ performance has been courageous and exemplary. It is often a pleasure to read the reports published by members of the Judiciary, such as the reports of the Morris and Charleton tribunals. Those reports, which were fluent and to the point, were very important for this House. We have gratitude for our Judiciary in that regard.

I believe I already spoke to the Minister about correspondence I had with the Chief Justice regarding legislation. At one seminar the Chief Justice said we should try to avoid introducing legislation that will be litigious and to have a litigation stress test for all legislation. The Chief Justice, Mr. Frank Clarke, has proposed more regional development in the lower courts to allow specialisation by judges in addition to judicial training about the book of quantum, insurance costs and so on. The Chief Justice made an interesting point about records of evidence and the records of courts. He said that except in indictable cases, the records are generally not there. We also need to look at that area.

I have one negative comment. I understand that the Minister, Deputy Ross, asked at a recent Cabinet meeting that judges should provide declarations of interest. In respect of Members of this House everybody knows what our business interests are, those who are directors, landlords, farmers, teachers, etc. The Minister, Deputy Ross, made a reasonable proposal and it needs to be considered. We should know the interests of people carrying out such a fundamental role.

The filibuster being carried out in the other House on the Judicial Appointments Commission Bill is very disappointing. That reflects all the worst elements of an elite legal class determined to prevent encroachment on its sacred turf.

People often talk about courts’ sitting times and the length of the working day. Next week people will talk about Members of this House being off on our holidays. Of course, we will be going off to intense constituency work. Mr. Ahern used to engage in a two-month-long door-to-door campaign in Dublin Central. We will all be out and about because we know a general election is not too far away. We always would be anyway because it gives us a chance to do what we regard as real representative work outside the Chamber. The Chief Justice has commented on the supports judges have. Additional resources are important. The closure of the courts system in August and September is regrettable.

With those caveats, I welcome the Bill and I commend the work the Minister and his colleagues have done in finally bringing the Bill before the House. It represents a good step forward.