Thursday, September 22, 2005

Court choices too secretive: judges

Justice G Brennan (left) Justice A Mason (Right)

PRESSURE is on the Howard Government to change the method of appointing High Court judges, with two former chief justices raising concerns about lack of transparency.

Anthony Mason and Gerard Brennan said yesterday there were problems with the appointment system and endorsed calls for debate on how it should be changed.

Sir Anthony, who retired from the High Court in 1995, said the system was not open or transparent. He also urged the Government to reveal whether there had been discussions with new judge Susan Crennan before her appointment this week, and if so, the nature of those discussions.

Attorney-General Philip Ruddock denied the appointment process was conducted in secret. But he declined to say whether there had been any discussions with Justice Crennan before her appointment.

His spokeswoman said Mr Ruddock consulted widely and did not regard it as appropriate to engage in inquisitorial interviews with potential candidates for the position.

"But that is not to say that as he moves around the country he meets with people from all walks of life, including the legal fraternity," she said.

While the spokeswoman declined to say whether discussions had been held with Justice Crennan, she said Mr Ruddock did not regard it as appropriate to "actively seek the views" of High Court candidates.

"It is not a job interview," she said.

Mr Ruddock had earlier said that the consultation process with the states and legal community meant the appointment did not take place behind closed doors.

He asked the legal profession - in particular, state legal societies and their peak body, the Law Council - and state governments to submit a list of worthy candidates before appointing Justice Crennan.

The Law Council said it could not discuss how it compiled its list "because it is secret", a spokeswoman said. The Law Societies of Tasmania, Western Australia and Queensland said they could not divulge the nature of their consultations with the commonwealth.

West Australian Attorney-General Jim McGinty said there had been "token consultations" with the commonwealth and it had nominated Christine Wheeler of the WA Supreme Court for the vacancy.

Sir Anthony said that unless the public were told the nature of any consultations with would-be judges, the "process could not be described as transparent and open".

By Chris Merritt and Elizabeth Colman 22 September 05


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