Report ordered on judge’s dinner attendance
Supreme Court asks former chief justice Susan Denham to consider questions around Clifden golf dinner
Judges place great emphasis on public confidence in administration of justice, because ultimately the whole system falls apart if the public do not have confidence in the system
The Supreme Court has asked former chief justice Susan Denham to create a report on Mr Justice Séamus Woulfe’s attendance at last week’s Oireachtas Golf Society dinner in Galway.
Ms Justice Denham will report her conclusions and recommendations to Chief Justice Frank Clarke.
She has been asked to consider:
■ Whether Mr Justice Woulfe should have accepted the invitation to dinner;
■ Whether he should, in all the circumstances, have left the hotel in “the light of the situation prevailing”;
■ Whether he should have attended the golf event without attending the dinner.
“In the context of those questions Ms Justice Denham has also been asked to consider whether there are any relevant codes of practice or guidelines and to make any recommendations in that regard which she considers appropriate,” said the Supreme Court in a statement.
“This non-statutory approach has been necessitated because of the fact that relevant sections of the Judicial Council Act, 2019 have not yet been commenced.”
The comments follow mounting concerns across political parties at the behaviour of the judge, including calls on him to consider his position and for the judiciary to deal with the issue.
Mr Justice Woulfe, who was the attorney general until last June, attended a dinner hosted by the Oireachtas Golf Society at a Galway hotel last Wednesday, which was attended by more than 80 people.
Government legislation and regulations, introduced while Mr Justice Woulfe was attorney general, made it a criminal offence for someone to organise an event holding more than 50 people.
In an unreserved apology for “any unintentional breach” of public health guidelines, the judge said it was his understanding that the organisers and the hotel
had satisfied themselves they were operating within the guidelines.
A Garda investigation is under way into the organisation of the event.
Laura Cahillane, a lecturer in constitutional law, with a specialism in judicial discipline, said there is “very little” that can be done under the law in relation to a judge.
She said the only formal legal process is under Article 35.4.1 of the Constitution, which states that a judge can only be removed for “stated misbehaviour or incapacity” on resolutions of the Dáil and Seanad.
Ms Cahillane said this is a “nuclear option” and that such a removal has “never actually happened” and that it only came close in the Judge Brian Curtin case in 2004-2006.
Ms Cahillane said judges do not ignore political and public commentary.
“Judges place great emphasis on public confidence in the administration of justice, because ultimately the whole system falls apart if the public do not have confidence in the system.”
Ms Cahillane said the Judicial Council Act does lay out a disciplinary procedure for judges, but said the section has not been commenced yet, and that guidelines on conduct and ethics are due by July 2021.
Earlier, Taoiseach Micheál Martin was asked whether there is an option for the Dáil to appoint a select committee to examine Mr Justice Woulfe’s behaviour.
Mr Martin said on RTÉ radio that there is a separation of powers and that the Government does not impose its will on the judiciary.
“We’ve been busily criticising, at European level, countries like Hungary and Poland and others, for what has been a creeping emasculation of the judiciary in their countries, an undermining of the judiciary in their countries,” said Mr Martin.
“These are very important concepts. They may not readily appear so, but... in terms of the governments and parliaments becoming embroiled in judicial issues,” he said.
“That’s potentially a slippery slope to undermining our democracy.”
Mr Justice Seamus Woulfe, who attended the Oireachtas Golf Society dinner in Clifden, Co Galway, last Wednesday; and Ms Justice Susan Denham, who has been asked to report on the judge’s attendance.