Lord Chief Justice addresses MLAs
Northern Ireland's most senior judge has warned against using positive discrimination measures to propel more women into the region's top legal posts.
There are no female High Court judges in Northern Ireland, while women are also significantly under-represented at county court judge and QC level.
But Lord Chief Justice Sir Declan Morgan, in a rare appearance before Stormont's Justice Committee, insisted that the principle of merit had to be applied.
In a lengthy and wide-ranging evidence session with committee members, Sir Declan also stressed the need for judges to "think smart" about how they explain potentially controversial sentencing decisions to the public.
Sir Declan did not directly refer to the recent political row over why bail was denied to certain Union flag protesters. He stressed the importance of judicial independence, but made clear that did not mean judges were beyond criticism.
"I realise some judicial decisions will be unwelcome and hard to understand and I have no objection to decisions being criticised, as long as it is informed criticism grounded in facts," he said, emphasising the role the media had to play in explaining judgments and rulings.
On the failure to attract two lay members - one from a victims background and one from academia - to apply to join the sentencing group, Sir Declan said it had been "slightly embarrassing". He said the two members would now be drawn from a list of potential candidates identified by Justice Minister David Ford.
During an almost two-hour appearance before the committee, the lord chief justice also detailed the efforts he was undertaking to tackle avoidable delays in the judicial process and reflected on how the Human Rights Act could potentially affect legislation drafted in the Assembly.
Committee chairman Paul Givan praised Sir Declan for attending. He said: "It is a very welcome step. I think it is a sign of maturity within our democratic process."
Sir Declan said he would be happy to address the committee on an annual basis in the future.