Irish life laid bare, one court case at a time
Assault, drink-driving, parents who do not talk ... It’s all in a day’s work for the District Court
The District Court in Virginia, Co Cavan, sits four times a month before Judge Denis McLoughlin. Photograph: Garrett White
It’s the fourth Tuesday of the month, which means the District Court in Virginia, Co Cavan, is sitting. It sits four times a month in total, starting at 10.30am each day.
Today, it’s just gone 10am, and there is already activity outside the courthouse on Main Street. An unmarked garda car draws up, and drives in to the back of the courthouse. A man in handcuffs emerges, accompanied by a plainclothes garda. He is led into the courthouse though the back, his head down, expressionless.
Everything starts in the Districts Courts. From the least serious societal transgression, such as failure to pay a television licence, to charges of homicide. Wherever the crime occurred, the court sitting closest to the region is where the defendant first presents, before travelling further through the system, as directed by the judge.
Today, the man in the handcuffs, Vytautas Racys, a Lithuanian citizen aged 34, is due in court on a charge of assault causing harm. The previous Saturday evening in Carrickmacross town, he had encountered Seamus Bell, who had been out celebrating the christening of his twin daughters. It is alleged that Racys punched Bell. Bell fell backwards, hit his head and on the day the court sits is on life support in Beaumont Hospital.
The courtroom in Virginia holds three rows of public benches and additional benches that go around the perimeter of the walls. Most of them are already full: there are some 30 people there. The central benches face the dais where the judge sits in front of the registrar, and the table where the solicitors representing the defendants are based.
I have been warned it is often difficult to hear the proceedings clearly in a District Court, and thus sit close to the top on a side bench, which I share with a ever-changing number of gardaí.
“All rise,” calls registrar Norah Rafferty at 10.30am promptly, as Judge Denis McLoughlin enters the room. Judge McLoughlin is carrying two enormous piles of books and papers, and wearing a grey pinstriped suit. He is also wearing a large cherry-red watch. The judge has a glass jug of water beside him; the solicitors have plastic bottles.
The registrar has given me a copy of the Daily Court List, which lists the names of complainants and defendants: more than 50 cases in total are for hearing on today’s list.
My first impression is that there could scarcely be a less paperless work environment in 2018 than a courtroom. Each solicitor has towering bundles of paperwork, folders, and files in front of them, into which they are constantly writing, or highlighting with fluorescent marker. Every garda has either a notebook with hand-written notes, or a typed statement in a manila folder.
Technology seems to have passed the courts by. The volume of paper is astonishing, and more and more of it appears as the day progresses.
My second impression is how noisy and apparently chaotic the courtroom is. The door is constantly opening and closing, with people coming and going.
Gardaí are passing me by every few minutes. Solicitors are conferring with defendants. Members of the public are murmuring to each other. A phone even goes off briefly once, without comment.
This kind of noise appears to be routinely accepted. However, when a woman with a crying baby in a buggy comes in, the judge immediately intervenes. “Please remove the baby from the court,” he directs.
For some time, I have very little idea of what is happening. Less than a minute or two into the sitting, the judge has dispatched three cases. By 10.40 am, we are on case 20. Names are called and solicitors representing those defendants, not all of whom are in court, answer. Cases are given new dates for hearing, or occasionally struck out.
Those defendants who are not in court – which are many – are issued with bench warrants; this is a warrant for the arrest of a person who has failed to appear in answer to a summons. The judge notes with annoyance on one occasion as a name is called that the person in question is now receiving their third bench warrant.
Names are called so quickly and initial cases dispatched so swiftly, with so little context, that I find it impossible to follow what’s going on.
Then it’s announced the criminal list is commencing and all recording devices are to be turned off. For the third time, I check my phone is on silent, and definitely not set to record. Since time immemorial, it is forbidden for journalists or members of the public to record proceedings in court, although nobody I ask can explain why this is.
Almost everyone who comes before the judge is male. They do not, in the main, dress up for their court appearances
Not mentioned on the list the registrar has given me is the case concerning Vytautas Racys, as it was a late addition. It is now first to be called, and there is a stir in court: everyone present seems to be aware of the seriousness of the case.
Racys’ solicitor, Damien Rudden, stands up and explains an interpreter is needed, and won’t arrive for another hour.
Over the course of the morning, there are several cases of unpaid television licences and people who don’t have car insurance, who have been speeding, or who have been found drunk-in-charge, which is the expression for being drunk while driving.
A young man who his solicitor says is a student at DCU is charged with doing 136km in a 100km zone. His father is in court with him. The issue is non-payment of the speeding fine, which it appears, got lost in the post.
“My client was waiting for something in relation to the fine to arrive in the post,” the solicitor says. “The first thing he got was a summons.”
The man is called to take the oath. He takes it on a very worn black hardback of the New Testament, whose spine is entirely covered in a shiny lattice of sellotape. “I never received the fine,” he says to the judge. He looks petrified. “I’m in college all week, and my post at home is left out for me on the kitchen table by my father.”
“Has other post gone missing?” asks the judge.
“An interview letter from Aldi never arrived either,” he answers.
“Is his father here?” asks the judge.
The father makes himself known, but not before the judge has asked the solicitor if she thinks it was appropriate that her client was travelling at 136km an hour.”
“No,” she says.
“Would you like to be disqualified for a few years?” the judge asks the young man.
“No,” he says, in a barely audible voice.
The father is a full-time farmer, who is the one who sorts the family post. He says their usual postman got sick about a year ago, and the replacements are not as familiar with the rural location of their farm.
“What do you think of the speed that your son was travelling at?” asks the judge.
“He shouldn’t have been doing it,” is the subdued reply.
The judge says he has no option but to dismiss the case, although not before he has once again, with clear displeasure, pointed out the speed the car was doing.
Almost everyone who comes before the judge is male. They do not, in the main, dress up for their court appearances. This is the typical attire I see during a day when more than 50 people are listed to have their cases heard: tracksuit bottoms, hoodies, dirty jeans, soiled sneakers. Occasionally, when a defendant stands near me, I get a strong smell of body odour.
It is remarkable the number of defendants who appear to be indisposed with the flu, or whose cars have broken down en route to court. Their solicitors regularly relay this news to the judge.
“He had a mechanical problem with the car on his way to court this morning.”
“He called to say he had the flu.”
“There was a problem with his car.”
Dumped in a graveyard
The complainant in one case is Cavan County Council. A litter warden takes the stand, which is a tiny alcove in front of the desk where the solicitors sit, with a twin space on the desk’s opposite side. The litter warden reports having observed household rubbish dumped in a graveyard last June. On inspection, he found material within which identified the householder. A fine of €160 was issued, which, despite various letters of reminder from the council, has not been paid.
“Was this actually dumped in a graveyard?” Judge McLoughin asks. He sounds genuinely scandalised. “Would people be buried in that area?”
The answer is yes. The defendant is not in court. A bench warrant is issued.
For a case where the complainant is the Department of Agriculture, the defendant is charged with cruelty to the health and welfare of a magpie and a fox cub. Both had been trapped in a “Larsen trap”, intended to capture birds such as magpies and crows in the breeding season, to keep those populations down. They are not meant to trap animals.
“It’s a cage?” the judge qualifies. “There is no noose?”
The trapped fox cub had water but no food. “My client was on holidays, and the cage wasn’t being looked after,” the solicitor says.
In this case, as in several others, the defendant’s marital status and weekly income are mentioned by the solicitor. He is separated, with two children, and earns €600 a week. There is no previous record. He is fined €500 and the judge also orders the destruction of the trap.
There is a hush
Close to noon, the Lithuanian interpreter arrives, and the defendant and solicitor and some others leave the courtroom to confer. When the case is eventually called, there is a hush.
“There is no application for bail, and the defendant says he is sorry that this has occurred,” solicitor Damien Rudden says.
We are told he is married, with two children. We are also told he is willing to start his sentence right away, which is apparently a highly unusual thing for a defendant to say. Racys stands handcuffed beside the female interpreter, looking at the floor.
'Saying someone is ‘the devil’ is not an innocent pass remark comment,' the judge says
The judge says that due to the seriousness of the offence, Racys will be taken to Cloverhill Prison from court. He will appear again before Cloverhill District Court later in the week. He is led away. His wife, who is in court with him, looks stunned, bewildered and distraught.
Case after case is heard without a break. It is extremely intense, and as the hours go by, the wooden bench under me feels harder and harder. Sometime after noon, my head begins to ache. I can only imagine how challenging it is for the judge to remain so focused for so long.
There are 11 solicitors in court, and they share most of the cases between them, but it’s the judge who has to be solely responsible for each judgment. For the entire day, he remains calm, unflustered and decisive. He is a close and careful listener. His impassive expression never changes.
During the day, a number of family cases are heard. For these hearings, all members of the public not directly associated with those appearing before the judge are asked to leave the courtroom, apart from one garda.
Journalists are permitted to remain, and to report on the content of cases, but must not identify the parties by name or give potentially identifying details. Cases are called into the courtroom by their initials only, so that those members of the public waiting outside in the crowded corridor don’t hear their names.
The first family case concerns an estranged couple, and access by the mother to their small children, who now live with the father. They each have a solicitor. The father is present in court, and the mother is represented by a female guardian “ad litem”. This legal term means a person who acts on behalf of a child or adult who cannot adequately represent themselves.
One of the solicitors explains that the mother is seeking to rebuild a relationship with the children, eventually having unsupervised contact. Currently, the contact is supervised twice weekly, due to former mental-health problems arising from postnatal depression.
The father is reluctant to increase access to the children, with a view toward unsupervised contact, as he is concerned about the suitability of the mother to adequately care for them.
There is much discussion in court around the fact that the children have been heard to describe their mother to the ad litem representative as “the devil”.
“The children now have a view of their mother as a devil,” she says. “So when they see her, they believe they are going to see the devil.”
It is, she says, the mother’s belief that the father and other family members of his are deliberately attempting to make the children frightened of the mother and not wish to see her at all, let alone more frequently.
“Saying someone is ‘the devil’ is not an innocent pass remark comment,” the judge says. “Someone had to say that to the children. Were they saying that word with conviction?”
“It was my sense that they did believe it,” the ad litem representative says.
For some 20 minutes or so, a detailed conversation about medical reports, and contact with various State health services on the part of the mother is discussed. The judge requests that an updated psychological report be prepared, and that unsupervised access will not take place in the immediate future, but it is something all parties should work towards, in the interests of the children.
In contrast to most of the other cases of the day, the family law cases take much longer to resolve. Most of them concern now-estranged former partners.
One case is heard in which the question of whether or not a barring order has been issued to the former male partner of a women. Both parties are in court. The woman is staring fiercely at the man, who does not look at her at all. It transpires the man came to her residence to remove his car, at a time when she was under the impression he was barred from being there.
“Is he consenting to a barring order?” the woman’s solicitor asks. It is made clear that he now is, and that he understands he is the subject of a barring order.
“I just want my stuff from the house,” the man says, before his solicitor turns around to shush him.
The judge rules that the man can attend the house at an appointed day and time, accompanied by a garda, to remove his personal belongings.
“He can’t take the TV!” the woman shouts.
“Just his personal belongings,” the judge confirms.
‘He’s our son!’
In only one of these family cases, the two people involved each choose to represent themselves. This case again is about former partners, now estranged, and focuses on access to one of their children. It occupies by far the longest court time of the day.
The particular young child in question has special needs, and the mother has come to court hoping the judge will make an order for the father to visit the child, who apparently adores his father, more frequently.
“In most cases that come before me,” the judge reflects, “fathers are looking for additional access to their children, but this is not the case here.”
This case, in fact, is that the father is refusing to have extra contact with his son, beyond every second weekend. The mother maintains their son becomes very physically agitated and violent due to his disability “because he wants to see you more than every two weeks”, as she says to her former partner, who sighs loudly every time she speaks.
It is clear from the body language and the way these two people address each other that any civil relationship between them has completely broken down. At times, it feels like they are having a personal argument in private – it is deeply uncomfortable to witness. But they are not in private; they are in court, arguing about parental responsibility for their small son.
“Could you not call down for a few hours every second Saturday to see him, on the weekends you don’t have him?” the judge asks.
“It’s not possible,” the man says. He explains he is now with a new partner, and lives more than four hours away from his former family. “I had to borrow the money from my partner’s daughter to get here today.”
“Is the issue that your son wants to see his father more often?” the judge asks the mother.
“Yes,” she says.
“I’m a judge,” the judge says, addressing the man. “My job is not mediation. But in this case, during the next couple of months, to get some stability for your son, could you not come along with your former partner a bit of the way?”
“It’s not possible,” he answers.
“He’s our son!” the woman cries out. She is on the verge of crying. “My health is deteriorating rapidly. This man could help our child with his anxiety. This child was not the result of a one-night stand. This was planned. I am begging him to take him more often.”
There follows a long exchange about whether the father will agree to take the child during mid-term and Easter.
“Could we have a court order about holidays?” the woman asks.
The man says he flat-out cannot commit to any dates, due to his responsibilities to his new partner and her children, some of whom are awaiting dates for hospital appointments, to which he will have to accompany them. “This is being blown out of all proportion,” he says angrily.
The judge considers. “It seems to me that you cannot agree on anything,” he says. He orders a Section 20 report to be made. This is when the HSE or another party prepares a report about the family and child in question, to access the impact of the parental conflict on the wellbeing of the child. “I have to tell you that the current waiting time for these reports is three to four months,” he then says.
Both the next midterm break and Easter holidays will be over before a Section 20 report can be filed.
He looks at each parent in turn. “Do you talk to each other on the phone?” he asks. They do not. They correspond solely by text. He orders them to come to some mutual arrangement about who will take their son during the upcoming holidays before they come before the court again in a fortnight.
No way home
The family law cases are not all heard together. In between, there are other cases. There is a case of drunk-in-charge, which takes a long time to hear. A young man was discovered by a garda at 2.30am in a parked car, drunk, and in the driver’s seat, with the engine and lights off, but keys in the ignition.
All over Ireland, District Courts sit at least once a month, hearing cases like these
The man’s solicitor argues for a long time that his client had parked for the night, with no intention of driving anywhere. He says that call records show he was calling and texting his then girlfriend, looking for her to come collect him, and these are produced.
The defendant takes the stand, and talks about how the night in question is “a blur” but that he had told the garda he was waiting for lift. “You don’t go against a guard,” is what he says.
“The two phonecalls and text message you sent at 2.30am, were they answered?” asks the judge.
“No,” the man says.
“So effectively, you had no way home,” the judge says. He goes on to address the court, saying, “It’s quite clear from the defendant’s evidence that he has very little recollection of the night in question, and he didn’t know he had made the calls until the next day.” He also mentions the alcohol levels found in the test. The judge’s sentence is a fine of €1,500 and disqualification for three years.
The final case of the day is not on the list. It is a breach of a barring order, and resulted in the man being arrested earlier in the afternoon. His former partner had reported that he had been banging on her door at 5.40pm the previous day.
“Do I get to speak?” the man asks.
He does not, as it remains an allegation at this point. He is awarded bail of €100, told to obey the terms of the barring order that had been issued in December, offered free legal aid, and ordered to come before the court again in February.
It transpires he is due in Cavan District Court on February 1st on a separate charge, and so the judge adds this case to it.
It’s now 3.50pm and there has been just one short break of 25 minutes for lunch. “All rise,” registrar Norah Rafferty says for the final time that day, as Judge Denis McLoughlin gathers his books and papers, and quietly departs the courtroom. He has a day like this four times a month.
All over Ireland, District Courts sit at least once a month, hearing cases like these.
Cases of serious assault, of drink driving, abandoned rubbish and unpaid television licences, of parents who no longer speak to each other, of children who crave parental attention, and women who are now afraid of their former partners.
These cases reflect, in each particular locality and community, all the mundane, sad, unignorable complexities of human life.