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Attorney General to advise Government over Seamus Woulfe controversy

The Chief Justice has told the Supreme Court judge he should resign.

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Chief Justice of Ireland Justice Frank Clarke, left, with Supreme Court judge Seamus Woulfe (Brian Lawless/PA)

Chief Justice of Ireland Justice Frank Clarke, left, with Supreme Court judge Seamus Woulfe (Brian Lawless/PA)

Chief Justice of Ireland Justice Frank Clarke, left, with Supreme Court judge Seamus Woulfe (Brian Lawless/PA)

The Attorney General is to advise the Government on the crisis surrounding Supreme Court judge Seamus Woulfe after the Chief Justice said he should resign over his attendance at a controversial golf dinner in Galway.

Mr Justice Frank Clarke told the judge he should resign during a meeting, a position he then repeated in correspondence between the two men.

The judge told the Chief Justice in the correspondence, which was issued by the courts on Monday, that he will not resign over the controversy.

Mr Justice Woulfe, a former attorney general who was appointed a judge of the Supreme Court in July, faced criticism after it emerged he was among 81 guests who attended the Oireachtas Golf Society dinner in August.

I note that you have reaffirmed the view expressed at our meeting to the effect that you will not resign Chief Justice Frank Clarke

In a statement, the Government said: “The Attorney General has been asked to advise the Taoiseach and Government on the matter. It would be inappropriate to make any further comment at this stage.”

The Chief Justice met Mr Justice Woulfe last week as part of a resolution process emanating from a report investigating Mr Justice Woulfe’s decision to attend the golf event amid coronavirus guidance against large indoor gatherings.

In a letter to Mr Justice Woulfe on Monday, Chief Justice Clarke wrote: “I remain of the view expressed at our meeting and in the draft letter that you should resign.

“Part of my role as Chief Justice is to do what I can to maintain public confidence in the Supreme Court, the judiciary generally, and the administration of justice.

“It is in that context that I have expressed my view as to the course of action that will do the most to achieve those ends.

“I note that you have reaffirmed the view expressed at our meeting to the effect that you will not resign.”

The Chief Justice also said he recognised it has been “a most stressful time”, adding that he was “glad” Mr Justice Woulfe recognised his views were “not borne out of ill will” but rather his “genuine assessment of the situation”.

In a letter last Thursday, the Chief Justice told Mr Justice Woulfe he had “no powers” to impose any formal sanction, but Mr Justice Woulfe would “not be listed to sit as a judge until February 2021”.

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Frank Clarke, left, with Seamus Woulfe (Brian Lawless/PA)

Frank Clarke, left, with Seamus Woulfe (Brian Lawless/PA)

Frank Clarke, left, with Seamus Woulfe (Brian Lawless/PA)

He also suggested Mr Justice Woulfe either waive or repay his salary for that period.

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Mr Justice Woulfe had offered to donate a month’s salary to charity, and also offered to make a further apology.

Chief Justice Clarke said a judge should not attend an event organised in breach of the law or where there may be a “reasonable public perception that this is so”.

“To do so brings the law into disrepute and is therefore a serious breach of judicial ethics,” he wrote.

He added that even if the event was lawful, it did not comply with the objective of the regulations, which was to prevent large numbers of people from mingling at social events.

“It is inappropriate for a judge to attend such an event,” he told Mr Justice Woulfe.

“To do so adds to a public health hazard and to a perception that legal technicalities outweigh public health.”

He added that the event in Clifden did not comply with the Government’s public health guidance at the time.

My determination now is to work to help and co-operate with the Supreme Court in every way I can to remedy this matter insofar as possibleSeamus Woulfe

In response, Mr Justice Woulfe wrote to the Chief Justice on Monday.

He apologised “again” for accepting the invitation to and attending the golf event on August 19 and said he fully accepted the “opinions, reasons and recommendations set out in the report prepared by Ms Justice Denham”.

“As a newly appointed judge of the Supreme Court, my ill-judged acceptance of the invitation, and subsequent attendance at the dinner, occasioned offence and hurt to the public and damage to the court and this is a cause of profound regret to me,” he wrote.

“My determination now is to work to help and co-operate with the Supreme Court in every way I can to remedy this matter insofar as possible.”

Opposition parties have called for the matter to be addressed in the Oireachtas.

Sinn Fein leader Mary Lou McDonald said: “It’s interesting that the position of the Chief Justice is that damage has been done, not so much by the gathering, but by the manner in which these things were handled and the response of Seamus Woulfe thereafter.

“It’s very difficult to see how Seamus Woulfe can sustain his position and insist that he stays on.

I have an even more fundamental worry and that's how a justice of the Supreme Court could imagine it appropriate to be at an Oireachtas shindigMary Lou McDonald

“The reality is that we don’t have the legislative framework that we need to deal with the judiciary and allegations of judicial bad practice and I think that’s at the core of the problem.

“The whole area of reform, in terms of the appointment of judges, in terms of the relevant accountability, has been fraught and it’s a battle that I think the political establishment fought tooth and nail.

“I think it’s very clear for anyone who didn’t understand before why we need these relevant types of legislation and deal with occurrences like this.

“I have an even more fundamental worry and anxiety in respect of all of this turn of events, and that’s how a justice of the Supreme Court could imagine it appropriate to be at an Oireachtas shindig with politicians, with banking lobbyists.”

Former chief justice Susan Denham, who carried out the report on Mr Justice Woulfe’s attendance at the dinner, said he did not break any law or knowingly breach any Covid-19 guidelines.

She found that he did “nothing involving impropriety” that would justify calls for his resignation, adding that such a step would be “unjust and disproportionate”.

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