Check Against Delivery
12 October 2016
I wish to thank Senators for making time to address these important matters in the House today.
As Senators are aware, there is a commitment in the current programme for Government to reform the judicial appointments process and to introduce legislation for the establishment of a new Judicial Appointments Commission.
The Judicial Appointments Bill involves complex legal and constitutional questions which will require careful consideration, further consultation and teasing out into the most appropriate measures. I intend then to proceed to finalise a General Scheme of the Bill and bring it before Government for approval.
Senators will of course be aware that under the Constitution, judges are appointed by the President on the advice of the Government. It is an act of the Executive under the Constitution to advise the President on the persons to be appointed to judicial office. The current process for the appointment of judges in Ireland is set out in the Courts and Courts Officers Act 1995, as amended, which established the Judicial Appointments Advisory Board as a recommending body. The role of the board is to identify persons, through their own application or the Board’s invitation, who are suitably qualified for judicial office.
A process involving a wide-ranging review of all aspects of the law and system concerning judicial appointments was commenced under the previous Government and has been referred to by me in previous contributions in this House and in the Dáil.
A consultation process on the system of judicial appointments was conducted by my Department in 2014. It was acknowledged then that the Judicial Appointments Advisory Board process was a model of best practice in its day but, that it was time after almost 20 years to review the operation of the judicial appointments system to ensure it reflects current best practice having regard to international standards, that it is open, transparent and accountable and that it promotes diversity.
At the time there was a very encouraging response to the call for submissions – a total of 27 submissions were received from a range of interested persons and bodies including the Judicial Appointments Review Committee - which was a Committee of the judiciary, the Bar Council, the Law Society, the Irish Council for Civil Liberties and other civil society groupings, former judges, public representatives, university based lawyers and private individuals. These submissions remain available to us, and of direct relevance, in terms of moving now to delivery of new legislation in this area.
A number of reform themes emerged from that consultation process, and are, along with the Programme for Government commitment, informing the preparation of the new legislation.
Perhaps the strongest ideas that emerged are the importance of ensuring that the judiciary retains the independence that is essential for discharging its constitutional function, that the judiciary reflects as far as possible the diverse nature of society from which it is drawn and that judges are appointed on merit. I am sure the House will agree that our reforms must have regard to these important principles.
Significant further work and critical consultation will be necessary in finalising the Scheme for a new Judicial Appointments Commission Bill. However it is a priority for the Government and I look forward to bringing this legislative reform to this House at the earliest opportunity.
There are a number of existing vacancies in the Courts; there is currently one vacancy in the Supreme Court, two vacancies in the Circuit Court and one vacancy in the District Court. There are also two pending vacancies – one in each of the Circuit Court and the District Court and there will undoubtedly be more over the coming period.
The requirements of the administration of justice will be the overriding priority for the Government over the period ahead as the necessary reforms are brought forward as expeditiously as practicable.
I would also like to refer to the Judicial Council Bill which it is intended to publish in this session. That Bill will provide for the establishment of a Judicial Council to promote excellence and high standards of conduct by judges and to facilitate the investigation of allegations of judicial misconduct.
That legislation and the Judicial Appointments Commission Bill will together provide for a fundamental and far reaching reform of the judicial system.
I am very disappointed that the Garda Representative Association has rejected the agreement reached with my Department in recent weeks and has announced its intention to take industrial action. It is also disappointing that the Association of Garda Sergeants and Inspectors is contemplating similar action, particularly in view of the very positive outcome of their recent ballot on the Lansdowne Road Agreement.
In the event that it proceeds, such action would be unprecedented, and would create long lasting detrimental effects on the Garda organisation, Garda morale and on public confidence.
I can assure the House that I am committed to doing everything possible to find a resolution within the very real constraints that exist in terms of public sector pay.
Everything that can be done is being done. The Government’s focus at this stage is on negotiation and we are looking for a pathway forward.
I have consistently made it clear that all sides must continue to explore ways forward, through further engagement.
In this regard I met with both the GRA and AGSI last week to hear first-hand their outstanding concerns. Those meetings were constructive and I will continue to facilitate further engagement.
As Senators will be aware, the agreement reached between my Department and the GRA addressed in a very positive way the issues raised by the GRA in the course of negotiations, which took place over a number of months. In particular, it sought to address the concerns that they have articulated in relation to the pay of new recruits, the additional hours that Gardaí are required to work, their access to pay determination and dispute resolution bodies, and the completion of the Review of An Garda Síochána. The agreement included very significant benefits, including the restoration of the rent allowance worth over €4,000 annually to new recruits, and also the lifting of the increment freeze that has been in place since 1 July.
It would be most unfortunate if, rather than engaging further, action was to be contemplated that would not be in the best interests of our communities or An Garda Síochána.
Members of An Garda Síochána, like all public servants, played a significant part in stabilising the public finances and bringing about the economic recovery. They were subject to the same pay reductions as all other public servants over the course of the financial crisis years and similarly have benefited from the partial restoration of pay commenced on foot of the Lansdowne Road Agreement.
The Government is conscious that the Associations, as is the case with many public sector representative bodies, are frustrated at the pace of pay restoration. However, the Government must take a sustainable and prudent approach to public sector pay and is fully committed to the Lansdowne Road Agreement as the framework for industrial relations and pay determination within the public service until 2018. Within this framework, the Programme commits to the establishment of a Commission for Public Sector Pay to examine pay levels across the public service, including entry levels of pay, and to the gradual, negotiated repeal of the Financial Emergency Measures in the Public Interest (FEMPI) Acts
As Minister Donohoe said in his Budget speech yesterday, the Public Service Pay Commission will report to him by the middle of next year and provide inputs on how the unwinding of the Financial Emergency Measures in the Public Interest legislation should proceed.
The resolution of any outstanding issues of concern to the GRA, or indeed AGSI, can only be addressed through engagement between the parties and I would urge them to engage in discussions before contemplating any action that would not be in the best interests of our communities or An Garda Síochána.