At a recent speaking engagement, Chief Justice Frank Clarke proposed a radical overhaul to the way in which the lower courts operate in Ireland, advising that the "art of judging" could be improved by allowing judges in the district courts to specialise in different practice areas. This could be done by dividing the country into regions in which a judge of each speciality could be assigned, as opposed to the current system whereby each district judge is assigned a specific geographical region, and must deal with the wide variety of cases that arise in that district.
He highlighted the need for an increase in the number of judges and greater “back up” for the judiciary as among potential further improvements. He said there was a strong case for the creation of a group of senior, legally qualified, court officials to deal with all aspects of pre-trial procedure prior to the involvement of the Judge. He also called for more support staff for judges to reduce in delays in the writing of judgements by Judges
Chief Justice Clarke also identified a need for a judicial training programme, and spoke of his “embarrassment” that cutbacks in Ireland meant that many judges had to travel to Scotland for training. While the Judicial Council Bill (which is currently at the second stage in the Seanad and therefore still some time away from enactment), specifically provides for judicial training, Chief Justice Clarke advised that he did not see the need for the Council to be up and running before training and resource allocation could take place.
He also signalled an appetite for change of the current “rather curious” system where the appointment of a judge to the district or circuit court is both permanent and made by the government, rather than by the president of the relevant courts.
Reform of the current system of appointment of judges is something which is addressed in the Judicial Appointments Commission Bill (at committee stage in the Dail and expected to be enacted into law this year). The Bill allows for the setting up of a Judicial Appointments Committee to consider prospective candidates to be recommended for appointment by the Government. The Committee will include both members of the legal profession and lay members, however it is proposed that it will have a lay majority and a lay chairperson. The Judiciary have previously described the Bill as "seriously flawed" and not in accordance with international standards.
He advised that he has asked the Law Reform Commission to consider reform of the current appeal system in Ireland which he felt is “unnecessarily complex” and merits “significant streamlining”.
Time-Table for Change
He advised that he hoped to spark debate and encouraged the production of a "high level blueprint" for reform by all interested parties. He advised that he hoped to have these reform proposals before the Government this year.
These comments are to be welcomed by the legal profession in Ireland, as the proposed changes which would result in streamlined legal processes and a more capable, expert judiciary. It remains to be seen however, how the Government respond to the Chief Justice's comments.