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Ireland’s independent courts system ‘should not be taken for granted’, says Chief Justice

Top-level programme of events and projects will mark centenary of establishment of independent courts

The establishment of Ireland’s independent courts system 100 years ago was “revolutionary” but should not be taken for granted, the Chief Justice has said.

A courts system staffed by an independent judiciary obliged to administer justice “without fear or favour, affection or ill-will”, as provided for in the Courts of Justice Act, 1924, is “an essential part of the structure of any modern western democracy where government is limited by law and ultimately a constitution”, the type of state those in 1924 hoped to build, and which we have today, Chief Justice Donal O’Donnell said.

“That achievement should not be taken for granted.”

“This centenary is an opportunity to reflect on the essential role that an independent courts system plays in establishing and maintaining a stable society based on the rule of law which respects and protects the rights of its citizens,” he said.

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“It is also an opportunity which we should grasp to reconnect with the spirit of those who built the legal system in 1924 and to consider how best it can further evolve to meet the needs of a new century and a modern Ireland.

The Chief Justice was speaking to The Irish Times in advance of commemorative events organised by a committee of judges and Courts Service staff, established by the Chief Justice.

The events begin with a commemorative A Centenary of Courts conference on April 12th in Dublin Castle, the venue for the sittings of the new Irish courts.

The date marks exactly 100 years since the signing into law of the Courts of Justice Act. One of the most significant pieces of legislation introduced by the Irish Free State, the Act introduced a system for the establishment of the District, Circuit, High and Supreme Courts.

Hosted by Dr Niamh Howlin of University College Dublin, the conference includes lectures; a multimedia exhibition focusing on the location of the courts, the judiciary and some high-profile trials; guided tours and a musical performance by harpist Teresa O’Donnell. A commemorative stamp commissioned by An Post will be on display.

Other projects include refurbishment of the entrance to the Supreme Court, including the inscription, in Irish and English, of the words of Article 40.1 – “All citizens shall, as human persons, be held equal before the law” – outside the courtroom.

The return of some historical artwork to the Round Hall of the Four Courts is planned, including four friezes depicting key events concerning imposition of English law in Ireland, such as the abolition by King James I in 1603 of Ireland’s Brehon laws.

Three new friezes recording subsequent landmark developments in the development of Irish law, including enactment of the 1937 Constitution, will be installed.

In late May, an official commemorative ceremony will be held at the Four Courts, to be attended by Chief Justices from across Europe, marking the commencement of that part of the 1924 Act which formally established the High Court and the first ever Supreme Court of Ireland.

That ceremony will be addressed by Judge Koen Lenaerts, president of the Court of Justice of the European Union, and by Judge Síofra O’Leary, president of the European Court of Human Rights.

The attendance will include government ministers and senior judges from Ireland, Northern Ireland, England, Scotland, Wales, Cyprus, France, Germany, Italy, Estonia, Czech Republic, Sweden, Slovakia and Tanzania.

On the margins of the ceremony, Chief Justice O’Donnell, a vice-president of the network of presidents of the Supreme Courts of the EU, will host a board meeting of the network to discuss matters of mutual interest.

To mark the first sitting of the Irish Supreme Court on June 16th, 1924, the Courts Service in partnership with the judiciary will provide guided tours of the Four Courts during the month.

Other projects include the updating of a book, The Supreme Court of Ireland: A History, originally edited by Dr Rónán Kennedy and published by the Courts Service in 2003. A series of podcasts exploring, among other things, important cases from the District and Supreme courts and the life and career of the first female judge of the independent Irish courts, Judge Eileen Kennedy, is planned for October.

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