Major shake-up in the way Chief Justice is selected

A major shake-up in how the country’s top judge is appointed has been approved by the Cabinet.

In a significant break with the past, an advisory committee will be set up to invite and consider expressions of interest.

The committee, made up of Attorney General Seamus Woulfe, Court of Appeal President Sean Ryan and the chairperson of the Top Level Appointments Committee, Jane Williams, will be tasked with supplying the names of three candidates for the Government to choose from. The post will become vacant this August with the retirement of Chief Justice Susan Denham.

In the past, there was no formal application process and the decision was usually made by the Taoiseach on the advice of the attorney general and the justice minister.

The shake-up will be seen as a victory for Transport Minister Shane Ross, as it is largely in line with arrangements included in the controversial Judicial Appointments Commission Bill he championed.

Under the bill, the committee will have to satisfy itself candidates have the qualifications and suitability for the role. It stresses that recommendations must be made on merit, with only the three most suitable names being proposed.

In legal circles the clear frontrunners for the job are considered to be Supreme Court judges Donal O’Donnell and Frank Clarke. Other names being mentioned are Supreme Court judge Elizabeth Dunne, Court of Appeal judge George Birmingham, who is a former Fine Gael minister, and High Court President Peter Kelly.

However, Mr Justice Kelly is unlikely to have endeared himself to the Government after strongly criticising what he described as the “undue haste” with which the judicial appointments bill is being moved through the Oireachtas.

He also described the proposals as “ill conceived” and “ill advised” and was a co-signatory to a letter to the Taoiseach in which the heads of the five courts expressed concern over the bill. Ms Justice Denham has also been a long-time critic of the proposals which will see a new body with a majority of non-legal members advising the Government on appointments.

The new body will also have a lay chair, a move judges believe will diminish the role of the Chief Justice.

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