Chief Justice gave Seamus Woulfe blessing to go on Oireachtas golf outing
October 01 2020 04:17 PM
The Chief Justice gave his blessing to Mr Justice Seamus Woulfe’s attendance at the infamous Oireachtas Golf Society outing during the summer.
However, Mr Justice Frank Clarke was not told there would also a dinner element to the event.
The revelation is contained in a report on the matter by former Chief Justice Susan Denham, who concluded it would be “unjust and disproportionate” for Mr Justice Woulfe to have to resign over the affair.
The former Attorney General was one of 81 people who attended the dinner in Clifden, Co Galway during August, which was held in breach of Covid-19 restrictions on indoor events.
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Senior political figures, including Agriculture Minister Dara Calleary and EU Commissioner Phil Hogan, resigned over their attendance at the dinner, but Mr Justice Woulfe resisted suggestions he should follow suit.
In her report, Ms Justice Denham concluded: “Mr Justice Woulfe did nothing involving impropriety such as would justify calls for his resignation from office.”
The 39-page report details how Mr Justice Woulfe was still Attorney General when he was invited to the golf outing in Ballyconneely, Co Galway by former Fine Gael senator Paul Coghlan.
But after being appointed to the bench in July, he was “not familiar with internal judicial protocols”.
After discussing the matter with his wife, Mr Justice Woulfe decided the safest thing to do was to raise the issue of the golf society event with Mr Justice Clarke.
According to the report, Mr Justice Woulfe said he did this on July 29 when he met the Chief Justice in the yard at the Four Courts.
“Mr Justice Woulfe called out to the Chief Justice, saying that because he was new he just wanted to check something with him,” the report said.
“He said that he had been invited to the Oireachtas Golf Society outing. Mr Justice Woulfe emphasised that it was a non-political event. Mr Justice Woulfe recollects the Chief Justice said something like ‘I don’t see any problem with that’.”
The report said that Mr Justice Woulfe pointed out that, in fairness to the Chief Justice, he [Mr Justice Woulfe] did not raise the issue as to whether there would be a dinner or not.
Ms Justice Denham said that judges needed to be vigilant to ensure they act with propriety, and the appearance of propriety.
Although Mr Justice Woulfe considered the dinner invitation carefully, in her opinion “he did not consider the situation from the aspect of propriety and appearance of propriety, from the aspect of a Judge of the Supreme Court”.
She said he appeared to have relied upon his original conversation with the Chief Justice.
“But neither he nor the Chief Justice knew of the dinner at that time. While he stated that the Chief Justice would have known there would be some ‘eating’ at the golf game, it was not a topic discussed with the Chief Justice,” she said.
Ms Justice Denham said that in her opinion, while it was appropriate for him to attend the golf event, it would have been better if he had not attended the dinner.
She said he should not have accepted the dinner invitation.
Ms Justice Denham said it was reasonable for Mr Justice Woulfe to have relied on assurances from the organisers that the dinner was compliant with the regulations.
However, she was of the view Mr Justice Woulfe did not consider separately the propriety, or if there would be an appearance of impropriety, for a judge of the Supreme Court to attend a celebratory dinner in a public place while there is a pandemic in the State.
“He should have considered whether the community may regard the judge’s participation as an impropriety,” she said.
Despite these views, she found there were a number of significant mitigating factors.
She said Mr Justice Woulfe did not break any law, or knowingly breach any guidelines and his failure to reflect upon whether his attendance as a Judge of the Supreme Court might cause controversy, and bring the Supreme Court into disrepute, should be seen in the light of the fact he was a newly appointed judge and had yet to sit on the bench.
Other mitigating factors were that he had not had the benefit of any introductory programme as a judge.
“There were no judicial guidelines or judicial code of conduct that could have assisted him to deal with the situation,” she found.
Ms Justice Denham recommended that a code of judicial conduct and judicial ethical guidelines should be introduced as a matter of urgency.
It was her view that if there had been an introductory programme for newly appointed judges and if judicial guidelines had existed at the time, as they do in most jurisdictions, they would have greatly assisted Mr Justice Woulfe and it is highly unlikely this situation would have occurred.
She said that in her opinion Mr Justice Woulfe did nothing involving impropriety such as would justify calls for his resignation from office.
In light of the mitigating factors, she was of the opinion it would be open to the Chief Justice to deal with this matter by way of informal resolution.