That Seanad Éireann:
- recognises that judicial independence is enshrined in Article 35.2 of Bunreacht na hÉireann;
- recognises that judicial independence is an integral component of the doctrine of the separation of powers;
- recognises that public confidence in the independence of the Judiciary could be enhanced if formal procedures were established to review the conduct of all judges and to promote excellence in the exercise by judges of their judicial functions;
- acknowledges the work of the Committee on Judicial Conduct and Ethics and the recommendations contained in the committee’s report of December 2000;
- supports, in particular, the recommendation of the Committee on Judicial Conduct and Ethics which called for the establishment of a judicial council of all serving members of the Judiciary to oversee judicial conduct and ethics;
- recognises the experience and positive outcomes associated with establishment of judicial councils and commissions internationally, particularly in Canada and New South Wales;
calls on the Government:
- to legislate to establish a judicial council to provide a framework of judicial conduct and ethics;
- to commit to the early publication of the Judicial Council Bill which incorporates the comprehensive recommendations of the Committee on Judicial Conduct and Ethics to provide for effective remedies for complaints about judicial misbehaviour, including lay participation in the investigation of complaints;
- to consider ways to support and improve the operation of the Judiciary by providing for judicial studies and support committees, as envisaged by the Judicial Council Bill, in order to bring about greater efficiency and uniformity in judicial services and to improve their quality.
I thank the Minister of State, Deputy David Stanton, for attending. I want to preface my remarks by saying we have an exemplary Judiciary and that in no way does anything I am suggesting seek to undermine the calibre or integrity of the Judiciary which has served the nation with distinction.
The independence of the Judiciary is a central tenet of our democracy and enshrined in the Constitution. Article 35.2 of the Constitution states: “All judges shall be independent in the exercise of their judicial functions and subject only to this Constitution and the law”. Judicial independence does not just apply for the benefit of judges but also for the people. It ensures public confidence in the administration of justice and without that confidence, the rule of law would be threatened.
The objective of a judicial council was not set out as an objective of the Government in the current programme for Government and there is no reference to such a council in the document that guides Government policy. That is not to say it is not supportive in principle and I have spoken to a number of people in government who are sympathetic and supportive of the principle behind a judicial council. In order to safeguard public confidence in the Judiciary, I propose the motion and call on the Minister to publish a judicial council Bill without further delay.
With regard to the background to the motion, in 1999 the Working Group on a Courts Commission provided a report for the then Chief Justice, Mr. Liam Hamilton, now deceased, on the question of judicial conduct and ethics. This was against a backdrop of the resignation in that year of a High Court judge in what was known as the Sheedy affair. One of the recommendations of the working group was the establishment of a judicial council which would promote excellence and efficiency in the performance by judges of their judicial functions and would provide a process for investigating complaints of alleged breaches of judicial ethics. The Chief Justice established a committee to examine the general issue and it produced a report in December 2000, known as the Keane report. The report concluded that the existing structures for dealing with concerns about judicial misconduct were inadequate. It contained reasonably detailed proposals for new legislation.
In 2010 the then Fianna Fáil Minister, Mr. Dermot Ahern, introduced the general scheme of a Bill to give effect to the recommendations of the 2000 report, the Judicial Council Bill 2010. The general scheme of the Judicial Council Bill was published in August 2010 and took into account the recommendations of the 2000 report. The purpose of general scheme of the Bill was to establish a judicial council of all judges to promote high standards of conduct among judges and supports for judges. Central to the Bill is provision for effective remedies for complaints about judicial behaviour.
The provisions include the establishment of a judicial conduct committee, with lay participation in the investigation and consideration of complaints. This is very important and I hope it will be taken on board when a new Bill is finally published. The Bill envisaged the establishment of the judicial council as an independent corporate entity with its own board. It would also facilitate the ongoing support and education of judges through the Judicial Studies Institute and by the establishment of a judicial support committee. The general scheme of the Bill proposed the establishment of a judicial council of all serving members of the Judiciary which would be independent in its functions and have its own seal. Functions of the judicial council should be to maintain and promote the following: excellence in the exercise by judges of their judicial functions; high standards of conduct among judges; the efficient and effective use of judicial resources; continued education among judges; and respect for the independence of the Judiciary. I acknowledge and stress the last point. The judicial council might consider other matters, perhaps a register of interests for judges, but that would be a matter for it. I am very conscious of the separation of powers and the issue of interference by the Executive in the workings of the Judiciary.
The establishment of a judicial council is not just being called for by me but also by the Chief Justice, Mrs. Susan Denham. In an article in the October edition of the Law Society Gazette the Chief Justice said the lack of action in establishing a judicial council was a matter of real concern both for the Judiciary and the State. She added that the Judiciary had been advocating for its establishment for over 20 years. The establishment of a judicial council is long overdue. I look forward to hearing from the Minister of State with an exact timeline for the publication of a judicial council Bill. I commend the motion to the House for its careful consideration and support.