The State has successfully appealed orders of the High Court which overturned a Circuit Court decision regarding the interpretation of “ownership” under the Police Property Act 1897.
Finding that the Circuit Court had correctly interpreted the statute, Mr Justice Sean Ryan, President of the Court of Appeal, was satisfied that judicial review was not available in the circumstances.
In December 2013, Mr Glen Donoghue was in possession of a Range Rover when it was lawfully seized by Gardaí pursuant to s. 41 of the Road Traffic Act 1994.
Gardaí brought an application under the Police Property Act 1897 and Mr Donoghue applied for the return of the vehicle.
While Mr Donoghue was in possession of a UK DVLA certificate showing him as the keeper of the vehicle, the facts of the case were that the Range Rover had been stolen in the UK.
Drawing a distinction between possession and ownership pursuant to the Police Property Act 1897, neither the District Court nor the Circuit Court were satisfied that Mr Donoghue had proved ownership. Notably no other party established title to the vehicle, and it was therefore forfeited to the State.
In the High Court in January 2016, Barrett J referred to the leading case interpreting s.1 of the Police Property Act 1897 – Lyons & Co v. Metropolitan Police Commissioner  1 QB 321, observing that there were significant differences in the facts of Lyons and in Mr Donoghue’s case.
Barrett J acknowledged that there had been a distinction drawn in Lyons between ownership and possession, but considering, inter alia, that Mr Donoghue was in possession of a UK DVLA certificate showing him as the keeper of the vehicle and that he had not been accused of complicity in the alleged theft of the vehicle; Barrett J “held that the ordinary man or woman on the train or the tram would in the circumstances have concluded that Mr Donoghue fulfilled the criteria for ownership in the popular sense”.
Concerning the jurisdictional issue, Barrett J was satisfied that certiorari had always been available in cases of significant, clear, severe or extreme errors of law and that “the most intellectually coherent approach, consistent with [The State (Holland) v. Kennedy  IR 393] and the wider trend of later jurisprudence, is and has been to treat errors of law as going to jurisdiction…”
Barrett J granted an order of certiorari in respect of the order of the Circuit Court forfeiting the Range Rover to the State and, an order of mandamus directing the State to return the vehicle to Mr Donoghue.
Court of Appeal
In the Court of Appeal, President Ryan identified three issues for consideration:
- The meaning of “owner” in s. 1 of the Police Property Act 1897
- Whether judicial review is available in circumstances where the assertion is that the court made an error in the course of exercising its own undoubted jurisdiction.
- Whether mandamus is either an appropriate remedy available if Mr. Donoghue’s argument is correct and, whether it was open to the High Court to make a definitive ruling as to the vehicle’s ownership, whatever the meaning of the term, in a judicial review application.
President Ryan said that the distinctions made by the High Court between the instant case and Lyons v. Commissioner were not sound as a matter of logic; and that they did not address the principle of that decision.
The fact that the 1897 Act refers separately to possession and ownership indicates that it was intended that a claimant should be able to satisfy the test of ownership.
Differences between the facts of Lyons and the instant circumstances do not and cannot affect the interpretation of the particular words.
It was clear that in Lyons, the question was whether the word “owner”, as it appeared in s. 1, meant a person with a possessory title or the true owner?
All that Mr. Donoghue could prove was that he was at most entitled to possession of the vehicle, not – as s. 1 of the Police Property Act 1897 requires – that he was its owner. President Ryan said that the problem with the alternative interpretation was “that it would make many applications under the 1897 Act a matter of routine or more or less rubber stamping”.
President Ryan held that “the High Court was wrong to think that mere possession was sufficient to establish ownership”, and “the Circuit Court was correct in its understanding of the meaning of the expression ‘owner’ in s. 1 of the 1897 Act”.
In finding that the Circuit Court was correct in its interpretation of s.1(1) of the Police Property Act 1897, President Ryan held that Judicial Review was not appropriately.
Agreeing with the with the submission made by the State parties that there was no basis on which the High Court was entitled to make an order of mandamus, President Ryan stated that this was a discretionary remedy available only in circumstances where the body in question has failed to fulfil a duty that it is obliged by statute to do.
The duty that the Circuit Court had was to hear and determine the appeal under s. 1(1) of the Police Property Act 1897, and President Ryan was satisfied that this is what the Circuit Court did.
As per Lennon v. District Judge Clifford  1 IR 382 “[j]udicial review is concerned, not with the decision, but with the decision-making process. Unless that restriction on the power of the court is observed, the court will in my view, under the guise of preventing the abuse of power, be itself guilty of usurping power”. Lennon considered, President Ryan said that in the present case, granting mandamus “was tantamount to usurping the jurisdiction of the lower court”
Allowing the appeal and setting aside the orders of the High Court, President Ryan said that the most that the High Court could have done was to send the matter back to the Circuit Court for reconsideration of the case in light of the interpretation of s. 1(1) of the Police Property Act 1897 that the High Court had declared to be the correct one.
- by Seosamh Gráinséir for Irish Legal News