The European Commission's 2021 Rule of Law Report has said that Government proposals to change the system of judicial appointments must guarantee judicial independence.
It says that, while the Judicial Appointments Commission Bill addresses previous concerns, it would “continue to leave broad discretion to the Government”. The report points out that there is no ranking of candidates, and that the Government is not bound by the list put forward by the new commission.
It also raises questions about the membership of the Attorney General (AG), saying that this may raise concerns about the commission’s independence from the Government, even though the AG will not have a vote.
On anti-corruption measures, the report notes that Ireland is reviewing its structures and strategies in this area, and that the Government has committed itself to amending the Criminal Justice (Corruption Offences) Act 2018.
It adds, however, that “limited resources and institutional fragmentation” are affecting Ireland’s capacity to deter and punish corruption.
“Challenges remain as regards enforcement, in particular on asset disclosure, lobbying and revolving doors,” the report says.
It also refers to concerns that the Standards in Public Office Commission may not have enough resources to adequately manage the disclosure of interests and tax-clearance regimes of those holding public office.
The report expresses concerns about the “limited parliamentary oversight” over ministerial measures introduced to deal with the pandemic. “While Ireland has a well-developed legislative procedure, there has recently been substantial recourse to possibilities to shorten discussions in parliament,” it says.
'Political attacks' on judges
Across the EU, the 2021 report finds that, despite some positive developments, concerns about the independence of the judiciary have increased in some member states.
Věra Jourová (commission vice-president for values and transparency) says that the report also highlights concerns about media freedom in some EU countries, pointing out that two journalists have been murdered over the past few months.
The report says that some member states have continued to carry out reforms that lower their safeguards for judicial independence, and raise concerns about the increased influence of the executive and legislative branch over the functioning of their justice system.
“Moreover, in some member states, political attacks and repeated attempts at undermining judges or judicial institutions are further challenging judicial independence,” it adds.
More safety alerts for journalists
The report also finds that the COVID-19 pandemic has slowed down reforms of anti-corruption measures, as well as decisions in corruption cases, in some EU countries.
On media freedom, the report calls on the EU to address a record number of journalist safety alerts during the pandemic. It says that the 2021 Media Pluralism Monitor pointed to an overall deterioration of the situation of journalists in several member states.
“Not all media regulators are free from political influence and there is a high risk of political interference in the media in some member states,” the report says.
It also calls for state support schemes — introduced to help media outlets deal with the economic challenges of COVID-19 — to be implemented transparently and equitably.