The state must see the appointment of judges “who truly reflect Irish society” and “not just a certain section of society”, the Dáil has heard.
Sinn Féin TD Chris Andrews said there must be judges ‘who are in touch with all communities’, especially working-class communities, and that the state must be ‘proactive’ to ensure the justice system reflects “increasing diversity as soon as possible”. .
The Dublin Bay South TD was speaking as the Judicial Appointments Commission Bill 2022 was debated in the second stage on Thursday.
Justice Minister Helen McEntee said the bill would lead to the “biggest reform” in 25 years in the way judges are chosen. The new measures mean that all candidates, including sitting judges seeking appointment to higher courts, will be subject to the same new application and interview procedures.
Applicants will also be required to complete judicial training or continuing professional development.
Under the bill, the Judicial Appointments Commission (JAC), chaired by the Chief Justice, will replace the Judicial Appointments Advisory Board (JAAB).
The commission will include four lay members, selected and recommended by the Public Appointments Service, four judges and the attorney general, who will not have voting rights.
Only those recommended by the JAC must be recommended by the government to be appointed as judges.
“I am constantly told that judges are out of touch and leaving the gardaí to fight crime and social disorder with one arm tied behind their back,” Mr Andrews said.
“Countless gardaí have told me how frustrating and daunting their role has become due to disconnected judges, countless examples of violent offenders with 70 or 80 prior offenses being given suspended sentences by judges.
“Many violent offenders feel untouchable. This has a devastating impact on local communities. This infuriates local residents and undermines the role of the gardaí.
Sinn Féin TD said that if his party supported the legislation, the state must have judges who “are not afraid to hold offenders accountable”.
Social Democrats TD Catherine Murphy said she was concerned about the attorney general’s role in the selection process and asked if it was “appropriate”.
“Although the prosecutor does not have a vote in the selection process, it is undeniable that he would play a central role. We all know people are sought after in terms of influence and advice and no doubt the Attorney General would be in that position,” she said.
“Then, when the names are sent to Cabinet, the prosecutor will again have a significant influence on the final choice.
“The Attorney General, while no one doubts his qualifications, is nevertheless a political appointee and having a government representative on the Judicial Appointments Commission undermines his supposed independence.”
The Kildare North TD said this was not the norm in other jurisdictions and the Attorney General was also responsible for purchasing legal services in the state and there were ‘significant risks of conflict of interests that need not be the case if there is a change made here”.
“There is also an added complication that many attorneys general assume a prominent role in the justice system when they leave office,” she added.
“With this kind of well-established precedent, it is completely inappropriate for the Attorney General to sit on the Judicial Appointments Commission.”
Minister of State for the Department of Justice, James Browne, said that as legal adviser to the government and chief legal adviser to the state under the Constitution, the incumbent of the office of Attorney General was a ” person fit” to be a member of the JAC in the “execution of his duties under the Bill”.
Mr Browne said the provision that the AG will have no vote as a member of the committee ‘provides an appropriate balance between the four judicial members and the four lay members’.