The new legislation decrees that the Council will consist of every judge in the country, and that it has a first meeting not more than three months from its establishment date.
Election to membership of the board will take place at the first Judicial Council meeting, which is now due to take place on 7 February 2020.
The signing of the order took place in the offices of the Chief Justice, at a table that was used by the three-judge Supreme Court set up in 1924, after independence.
“The overriding function of the council is to promote and maintain public confidence in the judiciary and the administration of justice,” Chief Justice Frank Clarke said.
Present for the commencement were Mr Justice George Birmingham, Mr Justice Peter Kelly, Judge Patricia Ryan and Judge Colin Daly, respectively presidents of the Court of Appeal, the High Court, the Circuit Court, and the District Court, as well as Attorney General, Seamus Woulfe SC.
Minister for Justice and Equality, Charlie Flanagan said: “I am a longstanding supporter of the creation of a Judicial Council, and it is a great personal privilege for me, as Minister for Justice and Equality, to have introduced this important legislation.
High quality of judges
“Ireland has been particularly fortunate in the high quality of its judges, and I know the Council will play a critical role in maintaining public confidence in our judiciary and maintaining the high standards of excellence for which our judiciary is renowned.”
He acknowledged the work of Chief Justice Frank Clarke in moving very quickly to form the Judicial Council.
The chief justice told those gathered that the first meeting of the committee-designate of judges took place on 2 December, a full eight months ahead of the mandatory deadline set out in the act.
“I also want to acknowledge the widespread support on all sides in the Houses of the Oireachtas for the Judicial Council Act,” Minister Flanagan said. “I believe the Judicial Council will be of great benefit to all the people of Ireland, given the exceptionally important role of the judicial branch of Government in all of our daily lives.”
The Judicial Council will have four roles:
- Provision for the continuing education of judges through the Judicial Studies Committee,
- Creation of guidelines for awards in personal injuries cases through the Personal Injuries Guidelines Committee,
- Creation of sentencing guidelines through the Sentencing Guidelines Committee,
- Creation of a judicial code of conduct, and the introduction of mechanisms for dealing with complaints.
The Judicial Council has been allocated a budget of €0.25 million in 2019, and €1.25 million in 2020.
'Excessive profit-taking' by insurance firms
Commenting at yesterday’s ceremony, the minister said that a large part of the responsibility for the insurance crisis was due to “excessive profit-taking on the part of insurance companies”.
Insurance companies allege that high personal injury awards are a major factor in the rise in insurance premiums.
The justice minister disputed this position, however, following publication of of the first report from the Central Bank’s National Claims Information Database on motor insurance.
He said the Judicial Council committee, which will produce guidelines on personal injury awards, will allow the courts achieve a greater level of consistency in terms of personal-injury awards.
What happens in the courts is “only one part of the jigsaw”, the minister commented.
He urged the insurance sector to “act swiftly” in response to the establishment of the Judicial Council.
“The insurance industry itself has got to give a lead here. Much of the public debate has been surrounding what has been described as a ‘compensation culture’. I would have to say a response to what is a challenging issue must be more than just dealt with by the courts.”
Insurance firms make “substantial and handsome profits”, he said.
The insurance industry had been very quick to cite fraud and exaggerated claims as being a factor behind high insurance premiums, he said.
“I wouldn’t like to exaggerate those instances in terms of court cases and court hearings,” he commented.
Insurance firms should hand such files to the Gardaí, if they had suspicions, the minister concluded.
The Judicial Council was announced by then-Tánaiste and Justice Minister Frances Fitzgerald in July 2017.
She said that the new body would promote and maintain excellence and high standards of conduct for the judiciary.
One of the functions of the new Judicial Council is to take over the role of providing judicial education, training and information.
The Chief Justice has said that properly-funded judicial training is one of his key priorities and ‘another leg’ of his drive for modernisation and reform of the courts system in Ireland.
The Chief Justice told Gazette.ie that, as legislation volumes become greater and more complex, the need for judicial training increases.
“We’ve already had a working group to put together the parameters for that [training] committee,” he said.
“A report from Dr Ronán Kennedy of NUI Galway, which sets out a model for a significantly-enhanced judicial-education programme, has already been presented to Government.
“We’re hoping to persuade Government to provide the funding to allow the Judicial Council to deliver something which is a big advance on what currently happens.
“It will mean doing in Ireland what some of us now go abroad to get, and it will be tailored specifically for our conditions.
“Provided we get the funding to do it, I will be very happy,” he told Gazette.ie.
“We have been a big centre in Ireland for litigation about data issues, because a lot of the big data companies live here,” the Chief Justice continued.
Layers of complexity
“There’s obviously added layers of complexity because of the interaction of EU law and Irish law,” he said.
The Chief Justice commented that when he started practice, a good lawyer could probably hope to know most of the law about most things.
“I don’t think that’s the case anymore. It’s not possible anymore,” he commented.
“A legal system with a high reputation is an important part of the infrastructure of any country, and certainly is one of the factors that’s taken into account in inward investment.
“It’s also part of the programme, which the Government now supports, to try to attract international litigation into Ireland, post-Brexit.”
The Chief Justice has spoken several times in the US on this theme of attracting legal business, and he is part of the formal group set up to achieve this aim, which is chaired by former Taoiseach John Bruton.
Legal business to expand
While the Chief Justice expects Irish legal business to expand considerably, he says that there are some limits to how much it can expand.
“We’re a small country, but I think we have the capacity to do more. It couldn’t grow too fast, too quickly, because it needs to have judges who are well-regarded -- otherwise people won’t bring their litigation here.
“If you were to suddenly appoint a huge number of extra judges, not all of whom might be very experienced, that would backfire.
“I think there is capacity to grow the system reasonably significantly.”