Judge asks lawyers to take defamation defence for free
A JUDGE yesterday appealed to lawyers to consider giving their services free to a woman traffic warden who is being sued by a Donegal county councillor.
The judge refused to go ahead with the defamation case because the defendant did not have legal representation. The judge said the woman’s rights were not being respected if she was refused legal aid in such a case.
Judge Keenan Johnson urged former Bundoran town traffic warden Patricia McCafferty to seek legal aid representation if she wished to proceed with the matter.
The judge said he believed Ms McCafferty, of Main Street, Bundoran, was being deprived of her human rights without legal representation.
Ms McCafferty was defending an accusation by Cllr Seán McEniff that she had defamed him in a letter sent to Donegal County Council on January 5th, 2009, which made serious criticisms of him.
When the case was called at Donegal Circuit Civil Court, Ms McCafferty, who represented herself, said her application for free legal aid had been rejected for the third time, despite the judge previously urging her to seek it.
Peter Nolan, counsel for Mr McEniff, who is also a member of Bundoran town council, said Ms McCafferty had not been denied free legal aid because of her means but because, under Irish law, free legal aid was not available for the defence of defamation.
The judge said that seemed unfair to him and questioned whether the law was “in violation of the European Court of Human Rights”.
He refused to allow the case proceed. He said it was not a simple case. “In fairness to the defendant, I don’t see how she can take this case without legal aid. She’d be entering the court with one hand tied behind her back,” he said.
“It’s my duty to see that justice is done and seen to be done and that parties come into the court on a level playing field. I have serious concerns,” he added.
The judge adjourned the case again, until the next Donegal town session, and advised Ms McCafferty to explore her options, including approaching a Free Legal Advice Centre or Citizens’ Information bureau.
He said another option was to approach a solicitor to take on the case pro bono in the interests of justice.
“I always say that the practice of law is not a career; it is a vocation. And I am quite certain that there are solicitors in Donegal that would be prepared to give you the benefit of their expertise free of charge. They may feel that this is an appropriate case to have some ruling made with regard to the lack of free legal aid on your behalf,” he said.
He urged Ms McCafferty and solicitors present in court to convey his comments to the Donegal Bar Association.