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Woman alleges inappropriate contact by judge in claim

Updated / Monday, 27 Sep 2021 20:55

The woman alleges that the now-retired Kerry-based judge, James O'Connor, texted and called her over a two-month period
The woman alleges that the now-retired Kerry-based judge, James O’Connor, texted and called her over a two-month period

RTÉ Investigates

A woman who alleges a District Court judge made inappropriate contact with her during a period when she was intermittently appearing before him on a family law matter has threatened to sue the state.

The threat is contained in a nine-page legal claim seen by RTÉ Investigates and sent by her solicitor to the State Claims Agency.

In the claim, the woman alleges that the now-retired Kerry-based judge, James O’Connor, texted and called her over a two-month period and, on one occasion, arranged to meet her outside of the courthouse.

The case “relates to the allegation that a phone number belonging to the plaintiff was accessed and then used for a series of engagements and interaction which is… susceptible to legal challenge,” the woman’s solicitor, Kevin Winters, told RTÉ Investigates.

The woman, a 43-year-old Lithuanian who first came to Ireland as a postgraduate student when she was 20, cannot be named due to reporting restrictions relating to family law cases. She initially attended Judge O Connor’s family law court in Killarney in early 2016, seeking a protection order, after alleging that her husband had assaulted her.

Judge O’Connor granted the protection order and thereafter she appeared before him on several occasions in 2016 and 2017, seeking to renew it. During one of those hearings the woman says that the judge asked her for her telephone number and later phoned her.

Tralee courthouse

She told RTÉ Investigates on Monday that she thought the first call was a “prank”. Screenshots show texts to the woman while she was on holidays with her children from a mobile phone number that is used by the judge.

The screenshots also show calls from the phone number used by the judge. The woman claims that he asked to meet her and that, at the meeting, “his body language clearly indicated that he was pursuing an inappropriate romantic relationship.”

She said she made it clear that she was not interested in Judge O’Connor romantically and that, soon after, he stopped contacting her. She subsequently came before him on one further occasion to renew the protection order, which he extended for three months.

Her legal claim states that there was a “misuse” of personal data “by former District Court Judge James O’Connor for improper and personal purposes.”

It states that her “right to confidentiality and protection of her data has unquestionably been violated. The data was obtained in the course of District Court family law proceedings which are subject to privacy and reporting restrictions.”

RTÉ Investigates contacted Judge O’Connor on Friday seeking comment on the allegations. He said he had “no comment” to make and hung up. He also failed to respond to a number of written queries.

The legal claim is the latest effort by the woman to highlight her case. In 2018, she made statements to An Garda Síochána, who found no criminal wrongdoing by the judge.

She also complained to the Garda Ombudsman, GSOC, who found that gardaí investigating her complaint had not mishandled her case. In 2018, she also wrote to politicians including the Minister of Justice as well as the then president of the District Court, Rosemary Horgan, and Chief Justice Frank Clarke.

Speaking to RTÉ on Monday the woman’s solicitor, Mr Winters, said his client “engaged with various agencies, including GSOC, An Garda Síochána and other agencies and the cumulative outworking of all of that engagement has resulted in nothing in terms of any accountability, transparency and she is left with a real sense of injustice.”

A spokesperson for Chief Justice Clarke said: “A complaint was received by the President of the District Court about the alleged misconduct… Judge Horgan who was then the President of the District Court, followed the procedures set out in Section 36:2A of the Courts Supplemental Provisions Act 1936.”

The Department of Justice said court business is “entirely a matter for the Presidents of the Courts and the Chief Justice”

“Those procedures are to ensure fairness to the complainant and the person complained of. She wrote to, received a reply, and met with the judge in question.”

The spokesperson added that Judge Horgan then “wrote to the Chief Justice and the Attorney General about the complaint.”

Judge O’Connor retired in 2018. RTÉ Investigates understands that his application for a further year on the bench was turned down. While the retirement age for judges is now 70, until recently the fixed retirement age for District Court judges was 65 and those who wished to keep working could apply for a maximum of five one-year extensions.

Asked to comment, in general, on a judge having social contact with a person coming before him or her, the spokesperson for Chief Justice Clarke said: “There are no guidelines in force at present. However respected international guidance, such as the Bangalore principles, would suggest that it would not be appropriate for a judge to seek to make social contact with a party to litigation before that judge or to use information obtained in the context of such litigation to facilitate contact.”

“The Chief Justice and Judge Horgan fully agree with that view.”

The woman’s legal claim states there was a “failure of the state agencies, including the Courts Service and the Minister for Justice, to take appropriate remedial action” in relation to her complaints. Both the Courts Service and the Minister for Justice are listed among the proposed defendants in the legal claim.

The woman alleges that state agencies, including the Courts Service and the Minister for Justice, failed to take appropriate remedial action

The Courts Service told RTÉ Investigates that it “has no role in the issues of Judicial employment, appointment, assignment, or assessing issues of ethics or conduct.”

RTÉ Investigates sent a list of questions to the Department of Justice asking what action it took when it was notified of the complaint in 2018.

In a statement it said: “The conduct of court business is entirely a matter for the Presidents of the Courts and the Chief Justice. Given their constitutionally independent status, the Department has never had a function in investigating or sanctioning the behaviour of members of the judiciary.”

The woman at the centre of this case has also spoken with some journalists, including this reporter, who met with her in 2019. Her case has been referred to in a handful of articles in national and local media. Her case was also referred to in the Dáil in July by People Before Profit TD Paul Murphy, though neither party was named.

The case highlights the absence of a forum for the public to complain about the conduct of a judge.

While the long-awaited Judicial Council has been created, its Judicial Conduct Committee is not yet operational to hear complaints and won’t be until the board of the Council completes its reviewing of draft guidelines concerning judicial conduct and ethics.

Speaking to RTÉ Investigates on Monday, the woman who made the complaint expressed her frustration that those guidelines are taking so long to be approved. “How it is possible?” she asked.

“There are guidelines [in other countries] so go copy and paste something from Lithuania, or Germany or France.” Under the law, the Council must adopt its guidelines by next June at the latest.

The spokesperson for the Chief Justice said progress was being made, including a meeting of the Conduct Committee last week “to ensure that all practical measures were in place to operate the system as soon as the Ethical Guidelines have been adopted by the Council itself.”

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