Thomas “Slab” Murphy’s challenge to his 18-month sentence dismissed by the Court of Appeal

Thomas “Slab” Murphy has been unsuccessful in challenging his conviction for failing to make Income Tax returns, with the Court of Appeal dismissing all 53 of his grounds of appeal in its lengthy judgment.

Delivering the judgment of the three-judge Court, Mr Justice Seán Ryan, President of the Court of Appeal stated that Mr Murphy’s defence based on the forging of his signature had failed to undermine the prosecution’s case, and that arguments relating to the brevity of the judgment of the Special Criminal Court did not exhibit deficiencies of the Court’s findings.


In December 2015, Mr Thomas Murphy was sentenced to 18-months imprisonment for failing to make Income Tax returns between 1996 and 2004.

In the Special Criminal Court, Mr Murphy had been found guilty on a total of nine counts; four for failing to make the returns without reasonable excuse contrary to s.10 of the Finance Act 1988, and five for failing to make the returns knowingly or wilfully under s.951 of the Taxes Consolidation Act 1997.

Court of Appeal

In the Court of Appeal, Mr Murphy sought to challenge his convictions on the basis that the Court had erred in admissibility rulings and in its decisions at direction and verdict. In general terms, Mr Murphy’s argument was that if the evidence had been ruled inadmissible, the residual circumstantial evidence would not have been sufficient to carry a conviction.

In addition to alleging that the Court had failed to provide any adequate reasons for its decisions, 53 grounds of appeal were submitted on behalf of Mr Murphy spanning over 350 pages.

Justice Ryan stated that the written submissions in the case were “daunting”, and that many of the grounds argued were general and repetitious. As such, the Court summarised the core issues as follows:

  1. Was the Special Criminal Court entitled to come to the conclusions that it set out in its judgment and find the accused guilty accordingly?
  2. Did the defence establish by cross-examination or by production of documentary material or by handwriting evidence of Mr. Stephen Cosslett that there was a reasonable doubt on the case generally or on each or any of the elements that the prosecution relied upon?
  3. Was the judgment of the Special Criminal Court as delivered in December 2015, a satisfactory one in that it complied with the obligations on the court to explain its reasoning whereby it found the accused guilty?
  4. In a lengthy judgment expanding to over 200 paragraphs, the Court of Appeal held that the Special Criminal Court was correct in rejecting arguments put forward on behalf of Mr Murphy that his signature had been forged on documents concerning his farm and related bank accounts – and that this defence did not raise a reasonable doubt as to Mr Murphy’s guilt.

    Justice Ryan stated that there was “no doubt but that the trial court could have given a fuller discussion, in particular with reference to the defence submissions” but that the question was in fact whether the judgment fell so far short of what was required as to make the trial unsatisfactory or the verdict unsafe.

    Justice Ryan was satisfied that, while brief, the Special Criminal Court did set out in clear and simple terms the reasons why it found Mr Murphy guilty.

    Justice Ryan stated that while the trial court could “undoubtedly have engaged in a more elaborate discussion”, Mr Murphy could be in no doubt as to the reasons that led the court to its conclusion, and that the Court of Appeal did not have difficulty in regard to the reasoning in the judgment.

    Accepting the submissions of the Director as to the adequacy of the reasons contained in the judgment of the Special Criminal Court, Justice Ryan stated that the judgment reflected the “fundamental simplicity of the issue before the court in regard to the counts in the indictment, the strength of the prosecution case and the essentially hypothetical nature of the defence”.

    The Court emphasised that there are differences in the approaches that courts and judges adopt in expressing their conclusions, and that contrary to Mr Murphy’s complaints; brevity and clarity are cited as desirable qualities in judicial writing.

    The Court of Appeal was satisfied that the Special Criminal Court did indeed refer to the handwriting evidence upon which much of Mr Murphy’s defence was based, and that this “fell far short of undermining the prosecution case”.

    In all the circumstances, the Court did fulfil its function of declaring why it found Mr Murphy guilty and it could be “inferred from the judgment why the defence evidence and submissions did not create a reasonable doubt”.

    The Court of Appeal was also of the view that if deficiencies of the judgment of the Special Criminal Court could have furnished a ground of appeal, it would be appropriate to consider exercising the jurisdiction under section 3 to disallow the appeal on the ground that no miscarriage of justice was involved and there was no basis for setting aside the verdict.

    Dismissing the appeal against Mr Murphy’s conviction, Justice Ryan added that the Court endeavoured in this judgment to deal with the 48 grounds of appeal in sequence following the judgment of the Special Criminal Court and as far as possible in a thematic and comprehensive manner.

    • by Seosamh Gráinséir for Irish Legal News
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