I am sorry the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform is not present even for the concluding part of my contribution. I repeat my congratulations to Deputy Shatter on taking up his new brief and compliment him again on his record of successfully introducing Private Members' business into the House. I fear for the future of that record, given that the current incumbent in the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform is less than generous in terms of accepting good ideas from this side of the House. This is despite the fact that the Minister took great personal pride in measures he advocated from this side of the House which were accepted by his predecessor.
It should be an important part of the reform of the Houses that Ministers should be encouraged to see the Dáil as a real legislative Chamber and not as a cipher or rubber stamp for the work of Departments. It should be perceived as a place for bringing the various talents on all sides of the House to bear on issues so that no side or individual appears to have a monopoly on wisdom.
I wish to précis some of the arguments I made last night, to deal with some of the aspects of the Bill and make a number of general comments. As already stated, the Bill is a worthy measure and it will be supported by the Labour Party. However, it does not purport to be radical and is limited in its scope. The first point I made to broaden the debate involves the issue of the divided legal profession. I can address that issue as a lay person who is a member of neither the solicitors' nor barristers' profession. I am not convinced that a divided profession, such as the one which currently exists with separate entry, training and disciplinary criteria, best serves the public. When it comes to litigation, I am concerned that the division of the profession adds to the cost to members of the general public of access to legal redress.
There are a number of useful general proposals in the Bill. The first of these – I am sure Deputy Shatter will be anxious to reply to this point – involves having litigation solicitors appointed to the superior courts. As Members are aware, under the law solicitors can be appointed judges of the District and Circuit Courts and can be appointed judges of the High Court from the Circuit Court. This provision, should it be enacted, would allow solicitors who are designated litigation solicitors to be appointed to the superior courts immediately.
I raised a number of points last night regarding how litigation solicitors could be identified and Deputy Shatter pointed out to me that in the definition section he has defined that term. The Bill states that High Court or Supreme Court litigation solicitor means a practising solicitor who is regularly engaged in the conduct of proceedings before the High Court or the Supreme Court whether as an advocate or as an instructing solicitor to counsel. I have a difficulty with that definition – I was aware of it when I made my comments last night – because, being involved as an instructing solicitor, it is hard to judge the person's involvement in litigation in that sense.
I was probably disingenuous when I stated that many solicitors have a hard neck charging fees for what amounts largely to clerical work in certain instances in circumstances where they hire an advocate to prosecute or take a case and sit in the court with no great function other than to instruct counsel in the matter. I am sure that extensive briefs are prepared by some but it would be difficult to ascertain from the definition, solicitors who would measure up to the criteria we would expect of people serving in the good tradition of eminent High Court and Supreme Court judges.
I do not want to dwell overlong on this matter but I made the point last night that the definition to which I refer requires some refinement. For example, what does the term "regularly" mean when used in this instance? Does it mean once a year or several times a year? These issues can be teased out later and, as already stated, this point is extraneous to the principle which I strongly support.
The current system of appointment introduced in recent legislation to establish a Judicial Appointments Advisory Board came about on foot of concern within the body politic and the among members of the general public in relation to appointments to the Judiciary. I recall when my party was in Government with Fianna Fáil some difficulties arose in respect of the appointment of the President of the High Court. I was asked to sit down with a Cabinet Minister from Fianna Fáil to devise a system and the embryonic judicial advisory board system emerged from those discussions. However, legislation was not enacted until the following Administration came to power.
I stated last night that I have some concerns, in principle, about the workings of the Judicial Appointments Advisory Board. I welcome the Minister's comments that he also would require more openness in the way that system works. I wish to refer to two aspects which need to be addressed. First, the broadness of the recom mendations that come to Cabinet. As stated last night, seven are required to be present but those applications that are not successful remain on the table unless the applicants wish to have their names withdrawn. Therefore, the actual pool from which the Government chooses can be a number far greater than seven at any given time. I would prefer it if a smaller select list were presented.
I have a number of difficulties with regard to the consultative process or, to use the term employed in the Law Library, the "soundings" which are taken in private to determine whose names should be placed on the list. I am fully aware that we cannot have a public list because people would not put themselves forward if they thought their candidature might be made public and that, in the event they were not chosen, it might have an effect on their standing thereafter. However, we require a more open system than the "soundings" that are currently taken.
On the general accountability of judges, a matter on which the Chief Justice, Mr. Justice Ronan Keane, has made comment upon in recent times, the Bill deals with appointment only but we need to deal also with some measure of accountability after appointment. I know that a report on that matter is to become available shortly and I hope this matter is one of high priority for the Minister.
My final point relates to solicitors being appointed senior counsel. As stated briefly last night, I am assured that the procedure for the appointment of senior counsels is one which simply creates precedence within the Bar, has no other status and is a throwback to the sovereign's prerogative from a foreign jurisdiction. I understand there is no legal basis for this procedure and I am advised that there have been no legally created senior counsels in this State since its foundation. The Minister might be willing to address this matter or perhaps not.
In essence, I have no difficulty in supporting the measures proposed in the Bill. The Minister, in the spirit of accepting reasonable ideas from this side of the House and allowing them to progress to Committee Stage, should also accept it.