Enoch Burke says decision to fine him €700 daily is akin to making him pay for ‘religious beliefs’

High Court says penalties, which he will incur if he fails to stay away from Wilson’s Hospital, should persuade dismissed teacher to end ‘utterly pointless attendance’ at the school

The court ruled that Enoch Burke has until Friday to purge his contempt of the restraining order at the Co Westmeath school - or face a €5,000 weekly fine.

Dismissed teacher Enoch Burke has claimed that a High Court decision to fine him over his continued breach of an order forbidding him from attending Wilson’s Hospital School equates to making him pay for his “religious beliefs”.

Mr Burke has until just 2pm on Friday to purge his contempt of an order, made last September, restraining his attendance at the Co Westmeath school, Mr Justice Brian O’Moore ruled yesterday.

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If he does not, a daily fine of €700 will come into effect. It will amount to just under €5,000 weekly and “should persuade Mr Burke to end his utterly pointless attendance at a school which does not want him on his property”, the judge said.

If it does not have the desired effect, “it can always be increased”, he added.


Mr Burke strongly criticised the court’s ruling at the gates of the Co Westmeath School on Thursday afternoon.

“We’re at a time in this country where people are at their wit’s end. With the cost of everything, as we know, the cost of fuel, the cost of putting bread on the table, clothes on children’s backs, grocery bills going up.

He said that he was a “young teacher” who had spent the last four years “scraping together” a deposit for a house.

Quoted scripture

He then quoted scripture to gathered reporters, and refused to answer further questions.

Mr Burke repeated claims that a direction from the school to address a transitioning pupil by the pronoun “they” went against his religious beliefs.

Mr Burke spent the entirety of Thursday outside a school building. He left with his father after speaking to reporters.

Mr Justice O’Moore listed the matter on February 10th to monitor Mr Burke’s compliance and to consider liability for the costs of the school’s application to fine Mr Burke or sequester (temporarily detain) his assets until he purges his contempt.

This “saga” has led to “a slew of court appearances which are potentially extremely expensive” and it is desirable liability for costs be decided as the case progresses, he said.

The school’s application was brought on January 6th after Mr Burke went there the previous day. Barrister Rosemary Mallon alleged he was in breach of a court order from last September restraining him from attending the school after it suspended him on paid leave pending a disciplinary process.

That process was grounded on a report last August by the then school principal. It concerned Mr Burke’s opposition to her direction requesting teachers to address a transitioning pupil by their chosen name and using the pronoun “they” and Mr Burke’s behaviour at a school event last June where he publicly raised issues with the principal about her direction.

Exploiting imprisonment

Mr Burke was jailed on September 5th for contempt and freed after 108 days on December 21st without purging it. Mr Justice O’Moore released him for reasons including he considered Mr Burke was exploiting his imprisonment for his own ends but made clear Mr Burke could face further sanction if he returned to the school.

The school’s sequestration/fine application was heard on January 17th.

In his judgment on Thursday, Mr Justice O’Moore said Mr Burke had “consciously, deliberately and therefore wilfully” breached the court orders by attending at the school on January 5th, 6th and 9th last.

His reason for attending, that he was there “to work”, is “quite surreal” as he was not given access to a classroom or rostered to give any lessons and was asked to leave by the school authorities. The evidence at the hearing was that he intended to continue to disobey the order.

It was “not immediately attractive” that Mr Burke be again sent to prison given his earlier finding that Mr Burke exploited his earlier imprisonment for his own ends, he said.

It was not appropriate that Mr Burke’s assets would be sequestered, he considered. Even if that option was available, the judge said he did not believe it was likely to persuade Mr Burke to comply with the order.

‘Unusual circumstances’

A daily fine was the correct response to the continuous breach “in the truly unusual circumstances of this case”, he held.

In deciding the amount of the fine, he took into account the public interest, the absence of “contrition” on Mr Burke’s part and his defiance of court orders over an “extremely lengthy” period.

It is not in the public interest, or consistent with the need to secure compliance with court orders, for this “ceaseless” contempt to be ignored or dealt with in a way unlikely to be effective. It was not correct, as Mr Burke asserted, that he had done nothing wrong.

“He has unapologetically and repeatedly breached a court order disrupting the operation of a school which he professes to serve.”

The fine should have a “real impact” on Mr Burke and his finances, he said. Mr Burke had declined to give information about his income and assets, he noted, and the only information in that regard was the school’s estimate of his teacher’s salary as some €48,000 gross a year. The judge concluded the appropriate fine was €700 a day.

Earlier in his ruling, he said Mr Burke’s argument that he had breached no valid order of the court and it had no power to sequester his assets or fine him was “entirely misconceived”. It is “constitutionally impermissible” for one High Court judge to set aside another High Court judge’s order, he said.

Compliance with the order “in no way compromises Mr Burke’s religious beliefs”, he added.

Last week, another High Court judge, Mr Justice Conor Dignam, refused Mr Burke’s application to stop a disciplinary hearing on January 19th. While finding Mr Burke had made out a strong case, based on the school’s conduct of the disciplinary process, for an injunction, he refused it after Mr Burke refused to stay away from the school.

The disciplinary hearing resulted in a decision on January 20th dismissing Mr Burke from his employment. Mr Burke again attended at the school this week.

Mary Carolan

Mary Carolan

Mary Carolan is the Legal Affairs Correspondent of the Irish Times