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Key role for judiciary in a legal system that safeguards basic rights and dignity for all

8 December 2016

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A leading South African Judge visiting Dublin has underlined the key role of an independent judiciary for the rule of law and the protection of constitutional rights. Constitutional Court Justice Edwin Cameron was speaking at the annual lecture of FLAC (Free Legal Advice Centre) in Dublin city centre tonight. At the same event, FLAC’s Chairperson Peter Ward voiced concern about recent attacks on the judiciary and their implications for democracy.

In his lecture, Justice Cameron, who is a gay man living with HIV, recounted how South Africa has changed from an apartheid legal system that excluded, subordinated and humiliated most South Africans to one that is built on the opposite ideals. “The story is how a legal system calculated to thwart access to justice is evolving into one designed to secure it and to safeguard human dignity and basic human rights, with increasing social justice for all. An important part of that story is how non-governmental legal service organisations - like FLAC - played a crucial part in the transition and still do,” he said.

Introducing the judge, FLAC Chairperson FLAC Peter Ward said he was “an inspiration to all of us who believe in the central and vital role of an independent judiciary in a constitutional democracy as something to be valued and protected.”

Given this key role of the judiciary as an independent arm of government, Mr Ward expressed grave concern at recent attacks by Minister Shane Ross on the Irish judiciary. As an organisation seeking to widen access to justice, FLAC had always supported the need for a diverse judiciary that reflects society and thus supported the need for reform, said Mr Ward. However, Minister Ross had accused the judiciary of resisting reform that was required because judges could not be trusted not to forget their oath, of being ‘masters of delay’, of leading ‘charmed lives’ and living in a protected citadel, which Mr Ward described as “Trumped-up charges”.

Characterising the remarks as being gratuitously offensive and factually incorrect, Mr Ward said what was more worrying was “the attempt to validate, at the highest political level, offensive and undermining remarks about another pillar of government which can only serve to undermine it in the public eye.

“We must be willing to reassert the central role in our institutions of state of an independent judiciary who must be recognised and supported as such. We depend on them to play the vital role accorded to them under our Constitution and they must be free, independent and fearless in that role. We must also be willing to speak out in defence of these core principles and value when they are under attack,” said Mr Ward. 

Justice Cameron was in Dublin just ahead of an auspicious occasion: the 20th anniversary of President Mandela’s signing of the new South African Constitution into law on 10 December 1996.

 FLAC holds its lecture annually in memory of Dave Ellis, a community lawyer and activist. Remembering Dave, FLAC Chief Executive Eilis Barry said he saw law as a system of values: “Dave believed that a healthy democracy requires equality and inclusion. It needs a government and legal system that works for all and not just elites.”

“Dave would undoubtedly stand full-square behind the values represented by our speaker, Justice Cameron, tonight. He stood for human dignity and equality for all, where diversity is a strength. He would have contested values based on oppression, exclusion and dominance. We in FLAC are proud to remember him today,” she concluded.

/ENDS

#FLACtalk

Editors’ notes:

  1. FLAC (Free Legal Advice Centres) is a human rights organisation which exists to promote equal access to justice for all. As an NGO, FLAC relies on a combination of statutory funding, contributions from the legal professions and donations from individuals and grant-making foundations to support its work.
  2. FLAC offers basic legal information through its telephone information line (1890 350 250) and free legal advice through its network of 80 volunteer evening advice centres – more at www.flac.ie/help/.  It also campaigns on a range of issues including consumer credit, personal debt, fairness in social welfare law, public interest law and civil legal aid.
  3. The 2016 Dave Ellis Memorial Lecture takes place in the Pillar Room, Rotunda Hospital, Dublin 1 at 6pm (with registration from 5.30pm) on Weds 7 December. For more information, please check the events page of FLAC’s website at http://www.flac.ie/news/events/2016/12/07/10th-annual-dave-ellis-memorial-lecture/.
    Registration is now closed as the event is completely booked out.
  4. Peter Ward’s comments are available to download on the FLAC website at http://www.flac.ie/news/speeches/ 
  5. The late Dave Ellis was a community activist who dedicated his career to working with community groups in areas including welfare rights, legal aid, legal education and legal entitlements generally. Dave was Community Law Officer at Coolock Community Law Centre (now Community Law & Mediation) for more than 20 years. He subsequently established Community Legal Resource to provide information, training and support for the not-for-profit and community sector.
  6.  Justice Edwin Cameron has been a Justice of South Africa’s highest court, the Constitutional Court, since 1 January 2009.  During the apartheid era he was a renowned human rights lawyer.  President Mandela appointed him a judge in 1994.  Before the Constitutional Court, he was a Judge of the Supreme Court of Appeal for eight years, and a Judge of the High Court for six.  He was an outspoken critic of President Mbeki’s AIDS-denialist policies and wrote a prize-winning memoir, Witness to AIDS.  His latest book, Justice: A Personal Account, was published in February 2014.  Justice Cameron chaired the governing council of the University of the Witwatersrand for more than ten years (1998-2008), and remains involved in many charitable and public causes. He has received many honours for his legal and human rights work, including a special award by the Bar of England and Wales in 2002 for his ‘contribution to international jurisprudence and the protection of human rights’.  He is an honorary fellow of the Society for Advanced Legal Studies, London, and of Keble College, Oxford, as well as an honorary bencher of the Middle Temple, London (2008). He holds honorary doctorates in law from a number of universities including Oxford, King’s College London and St Andrew’s.
  7.  Peter Ward SC is Chairperson of FLAC, and is a Senior Counsel with a particular interest in employment law, public law and human rights law in general. He has been a member of FLAC for more than 30 years, since becoming involved with the organisation as a law student. Peter was formerly Research Scholar at University College Dublin, Lecturer in Law at University College Cork and a member of the executive of the Irish Council for Civil Liberties. He was Chairperson of the O’Devaney Gardens Regeneration Board and Chairperson of the Employment Bar Association of Ireland.
  8. Eilis Barry was a barrister prior to joining FLAC as Chief Executive specialising in all aspects of employment law, anti-discrimination and equality. She was the legal adviser of the Equality Authority and head of its legal section from 2000 to 2009, when she resumed practice at the bar.A former board member and Chairperson of FLAC, Eilis drafted Case Law Review of Mental Health in the Workplace and authored Equality How?, a guide to taking cases under the Employment Equality Acts 1998-2008 and the Equal Status Acts 2000-2008. She is a regular speaker at conferences and seminars on employment and equality law. She is co-editor of ‘Equality in Diversity, the New Equality Directives’, ICEL No. 29, and former editor of the Employment Law Reports.

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