Judge Heather Perrin and the question of judicial discipline and removal

District Court Judge Heather Perrin was today found guilty of deception by a jury in the circuit criminal court. The former solicitor was found to have deceptively induced Mr Thomas Davis to bequeath half of his estate to Perrin’s children, Sybil and Adam Perrin. Judge Perrin is due to be sentenced next week and faces up to five years in prison. She has become the first sitting member of the Judiciary to be convicted of a serious criminal matter and questions have now arisen over her possible removal from office.

Under Article 35.4.1 of the Constitution, a High or Supreme Court judge can only be removed from office following resolutions passed by the Dáil and the Seanad, in the case of stated misbehavior or incapacity. Section 20 of the Courts of Justice (District Court) Act, 1946 extended the tenure of District Court judges to align them with judges of the High and Supreme Courts, thus bringing them within the remit of the constitutional provision. (Circuit Court judges are also governed by the provision by virtue of s39 of the Courts of Justice Act, 1924). However, since the Constitution does not specifically mention District Court judges or even Circuit Court judges in regard to security of tenure, an ordinary statute could technically change the removal procedure for these judges. This was pointed out by Finlay CJ in the case of Magee v Culligan [1992] IR 233: “The Constitution does not contain any guarantee to judges of any of the courts, other than the Supreme Court or the High Court, of the particular method by which they can be removed from office.”

District Court judges are in an unusual position in that there are specific statutory provisions providing for informal disciplinary measures. Read about these here. Furthermore, under section 49 of the Courts of Justice Act 1936, a provision which has been repealed by the 1946 Act, the Government was authorised to remove District Court Judges from office – an extremely undesirable situation which was totally at odds with the separation of powers principle. But while the 1946 Act improved the position of District Court judges, the point remains that for these judges and for those of the Circuit Court, a simple legislative provision would be sufficient to amend the procedure for their removal, provided that it did not interfere with the independence of the judiciary.

The issue of judicial discipline and removal from office was brought into sharp focus following the Sheedy affair in 1999 and the Brian Curtin Case in 2006. Following numerous reports on this topic, in which it was indicated that our current system of judicial discipline is inadequate, it was decided that these issues would be dealt with in the Judicial Council legislation, the heads of which were published by the previous Government and which is still on the current Government’s programme for legislation but for which we are still waiting.

Dr Laura Cahillane

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