Dr Laura Cahillane: Denham report will increase attention on judicial conduct committee

Dr Laura Cahillane: Denham report will increase attention on judicial conduct committee

Dr Laura Cahillane

Dr Laura Cahillane, lecturer in constitutional law at the University of Limerick, considers the Denham report.

The report of the inquiry carried out by former Chief Justice Susan Denham into the conduct of Mr Justice Woulfe in attending the golfgate dinner was published yesterday. The report concludes that Mr Justice Woulfe should not have attended the dinner but that calls for his resignation are unjust and disproportionate.

A key fact which emerged from the report was that Mr Justice Woulfe did question whether his attendance at the golf outing would be appropriate and sought advice in a casual conversation with the Chief Justice, who didn’t see a problem with it. At this stage however, neither of them were aware that the event also involved a dinner.

Mr Justice Woulfe said that as he was on holidays he had not heard the updated restrictions and also that he was not aware that there were further people involved in the dinner in an adjoining room and believed that the event only included the 45 people in his room. He also produced an engineer’s report to demonstrate that the two rooms were separate defined spaces.

Ms Justice Denham concluded that Mr Justice Woulfe should not have attended the event but that he did not break any law and that he placed reliance bona fide on assurances from the organisers that the event was in compliance with the guidelines. Because of this she felt his resignation would not be appropriate.

There are a number of interesting features of the report. It points to the fact that he was a newly appointed judge and therefore had not received any induction material or training relating to judicial conduct or ethics but judges do not receive any induction, training or advice on these matters anyway. Perhaps this is something the new committee on judicial education and training, established by the Judicial Council Act, could look at.

Another issue of note is that Mr Justice Woulfe claimed the golf society gathering was not a political one; he said the Oireachtas Golf Fociety is “not connected to the Oireachtas” and is essentially a “society mostly for retired members, their friends and family for recreational purposes”. Denham accepts this and says that for this reason there is no separation of powers issue.

This is a matter which requires further consideration, however. International codes of conduct are very clear about any possible perceived political bias and require judges to maintain very high standards in this regard. This is crucial to maintaining the independence of the judiciary, particularly of judges of the Supreme Court, who are required to judge the constitutionality of the actions and policies of the Government. Any hint of political bias is damaging to public confidence in the administration of justice, which is why this principle is sacrosanct.

Certainly this is an issue which will have to be considered when the judicial conduct committee of the Judicial Council comes to write its guide to judicial conduct and ethics.

Members of the public may now feel that Mr Justice Woulfe has escaped consequences when others were required to resign their positions but the fact is that the only potential consequences here were either the resignation or removal of the judge and since the report decided that this was a step too far, there are no further options. There are no lesser sanctions available.

This whole episode has highlighted the dangers in failing to establish mechanisms for judicial accountability and it is unfortunate that delays in passing the relevant legislation and in establishing the Council have meant that we don’t have a guide to conduct to rely on and also that this incident cannot be dealt with by the recently established conduct committee.

It also now means that there will be increasing attention on the judicial conduct committee when it eventually publishes its guide to judicial conduct and ethics as well as the mechanisms that will be set up around investigating complaints, resolving complaints informally and on the sanctions which will be provided.

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