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‘Serious constitutional issues’ following Seamus Woulfe controversy

The Attorney General outlined the dilemma after Mr Justice Woulfe was urged to resign over his attendance at a golf dinner.

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A general view of the Four Courts in Dublin, Ireland (Niall Carson/PA)

A general view of the Four Courts in Dublin, Ireland (Niall Carson/PA)

A general view of the Four Courts in Dublin, Ireland (Niall Carson/PA)

Attorney General Paul Gallagher has outlined “serious constitutional issues” arising out of the crisis surrounding Supreme Court judge Seamus Woulfe.

The Irish Government received legal advice after the Chief Justice said the judge should resign over his attendance at a controversial golf dinner in Galway.

In a statement, the Government said it has considered the correspondence between Mr Justice Frank Clarke and Mr Justice Woulfe which was published on Monday.

“The Attorney General outlined the serious constitutional issues that now arise and the respective responsibilities of each of the organs of the State as set out in the Constitution, including in particular the respective roles of the Judiciary and of the Oireachtas,” the statement added.

“The members of the Government, who are also members of the Oireachtas, are acutely aware of the sensitivity and seriousness of the issues, and the need to ensure that the constitutional framework is fully respected by all concerned.

“This includes avoiding inappropriate public comment.

“The Government agreed that it will continue to reflect on these issues.”

The Chief Justice 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

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, 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.

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“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.

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.

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

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

“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.”

In the Dail on Tuesday, the Taoiseach said he would organise a meeting of opposition party leaders so they could assess the situation “without prejudice”.

“It is fundamental to the separation of powers, it is at the very heart of our constitution so we have to respond in a very serious and sensitive and proper way,” Micheal Martin said.

“I think the first step in that regard would be that I suggest a meeting with party leaders to see how we could assess what has happened and how to deal with it.”

The Ceann Comhairle Sean O Fearghail reminded TDs that it was “crucial” that members did not make comments about the matter that might leave them open to “the perception of bias”.

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”.

On Tuesday, a further 270 new cases of Covid-19 were reported by the National Public Health Emergency Team.

Sixteen more deaths related to the virus have been reported.

Fourteen of these deaths occurred in November, one in October and one remains under investigation.

Dr Tony Holohan, chief medical officer, said: “The significant improvement in the profile of the disease is encouraging: the 14-day incidence of 152 cases per 100,000 is down by 51% compared to the previous two weeks.

“To maintain this positive trajectory, we need to remain vigilant to the highly infectious nature of this virus, which can easily spread from person to person through close contact and by social mixing.

“Our individual everyday choices to stay at home and keep our contacts to a minimum are vital to driving down the spread of Covid-19.”

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