Jury unable to reach verdict in Paudie Coffey defamation case

Senator sued publisher of ‘Kilkenny People’ over article comparing him to highwayman

Paudie Coffey pictured at the Four Courts last Friday. Photograph: Collins Courts.

Paudie Coffey pictured at the Four Courts last Friday. Photograph: Collins Courts.

 

A jury has failed to reach a verdict in a defamation case taken by Fine Gael politician Paudie Coffey. A retrial may now occur with the legal costs to be determined on the basis of its outcome.

The former Waterford TD, who is now a senator, took the case against the Kilkenny People over an article published in January 2016 which bore the headline ‘Coffey the Robber’.

After nearly 11 hours of deliberation over two days, the foreman of the jury of eight men and four women said they were unable to reach a majority verdict.

Mr Justice Bernard Barton said they could reach a majority verdict of nine to three or better.

The foreman said there was “no prospect of us reaching a majority verdict, your honour” and they were asked to retire for a few more minutes so the judge could consult with lawyers for both sides about the next step.

When the jury returned, the judge said the consequence would be that the case would have to go before a new jury.

He said they were not the first jury to fail to reach a verdict but the parties had asked if they were afforded any further time to discuss whether or not they would reach a verdict.

The foreman asked for a couple of minutes to discuss it. They returned 25 minutes later and the foreman said they would still not be able to reach a verdict.

Excused

Mr Justice Barton thanked them and excused them from jury service for the next five years.

The trial, which was expected to last four days, instead lasted for 13 and is likely to have involved legal fees of up to €300,000 on each side. It was the longest defamation trial involving a politician and a media organisation since the 2001 case in which Beverley Cooper Flynn lost a case against RTÉ.

During the trial, Mr Coffey said he was aware that he had put “everything on the line” in taking the case but wanted to “ fight for my good name”. He said the effect of the article was that “for the rest of my life my name is garbage”.

The article concerned a proposed change to the Carlow/Kilkenny electoral border and the court heard that the headline was inspired by a press release from Mr Coffey’s Fine Gael colleague, the Carlow-Kilkenny Minister of State, John Paul Phelan.

In the press release there was a reference to an 18th century highwayman in Waterford called ‘Crotty the Robber’ and it was stated that ‘Coffey the Robber’ was now trying to take part of the Carlow-Kilkenny constituency.

The trial heard that in the months leading up to the publication there had been other articles published about the controversial proposed change.

Lost seat

Mr Coffey told the trial that the article was a major contributory factor to him losing his Dáil seat in 2016. At the time of publication, Mr Coffey was a minister for state at the Department of the Environment. He accepted he had “jumped the gun” when he issued a press release in June 2015 saying he had worked to establish the boundary commission. It had in fact been established by the then minister, Alan Kelly.

Mr Coffey sued Iconic newspapers, the publisher of the Kilkenny People and other regional titles. Iconic is owned by the UK business executive Malcolm Denmark, whom it is understood decided personally to contest the case.

Among the reasons for the extended duration of the trial was a number of legal arguments and applications from Mr Coffey’s side that the trial be collapsed, applications which were refused by Mr Justice Bernard Barton. These applications and arguments were heard in the absence of the jury.

One of the judge’s rulings, refusing an application from Mr Coffey in relation to matters concerning the former rugby player, Mick Galwey, was published by the judge on the Courts Service website last week.