Supreme Court quashes dismissal of harbour master minister complained about

Judges uphold claim of objective bias over Mary Coughlan’s ‘twin involvement’ in case

 The Supreme Court found the 2009 decision to dismiss Patrick J Kelly should be quashed on grounds including that former minister for social affairs Mary Coughlan, who had made complaints about him, should not have attended a cabinet meeting when the decision to fire him was made. File photograph: Bryan O’Brien

The Supreme Court found the 2009 decision to dismiss Patrick J Kelly should be quashed on grounds including that former minister for social affairs Mary Coughlan, who had made complaints about him, should not have attended a cabinet meeting when the decision to fire him was made. File photograph: Bryan O’Brien

 

A former harbour master in Co Donegal has won his Supreme Court appeal over his dismissal following a investigation which found he had private marine service business interests which were in conflict with his role as a civil servant.

The Supreme Court found the 2009 decision to dismiss Patrick J Kelly should be quashed on grounds including that former minister for social affairs Mary Coughlan, who had made complaints about him, should not have attended a cabinet meeting when the decision to fire him was made.

The court held that her presence resulted in the government’s decision being tainted by objective bias, and therefore it was allowing Mr Kelly’s appeal against his dismissal.

The court rejected Mr Kelly’s claim that he was dismissed contrary to fair process from his post.

Mr Kelly was dismissed as Killybegs harbour master in Co Donegal following a number of complaints about him, including from Ms Coughlan in 2004 when she was minister for social and family affairs.

The then minister had expressed concerns including that Mr Kelly had employed his brother-in-law at the harbour without following due process and that he switched off the CCTV system in the harbour.

An investigation was ordered by the Department of Marine and Natural Resources and a number of allegations were found proven against him.

These included providing pilotage services for reward, receiving payments in his personal capacity while on duty as harbour master and using some of the Killybegs harbour workforce in the clean-up of an oil spillage while they were being paid by the department.

He claimed it was his understanding he could receive payments for pilotage on his own time. His dismissal was recommended in a report to the minister for marine.

He appealed and among his submissions to the appeal board was that he never denied doing any of the activities he was accused of as he was “instructed to do them by his superior and by other agencies in the same department ie the Coastguard.”

The appeal board found a serious conflict of interest between his duties as harbour master and the carrying out of commercial pilotage work. It did not overturn the dismissal recommendation.

His challenge against that decision was rejected by the High Court. In 2019, the Court of Appeal (CoA) dismissed his appeal. It said it was not necessary to allow him cross-examine all the witnesses during the investigative process and he was not denied fair procedures.

In relation to his claim of not being afforded fair procedures over Ms Coughlan’s complaints, the CoA said neither of the minister’s initial complaints, about the employment of his brother-in-law or the CCTV system, formed part of the investigation into his conduct.

Mr Kelly secured permission to bring an appeal before the Supreme Court on the basis that the case raised an issue of public importance, which in Mr Kelly’s case related to the question of bias.

On Tuesday, the five-judge court unanimously found in Mr Kelly’s favour.

Giving the court’s lead judgement Ms Justice Elizabeth Dunne said that given that Ms Coughlan had “strong and trenchant views” about Mr Kelly, she should not have participated at the cabinet meeting at which the decision was taken to dismiss him.

“In my view the hypothetical reasonable observer would have had a reasonable apprehension as to the possibility that the decision taken by the government by reason of the presence of the minister at the cabinet was tainted by bias,” Ms Justice Dunne said.

The judge said that it should have been apparent to Ms Coughlan that it was inappropriate for her to attend at that cabinet meeting given her previous interest and involvement in the matters at issue.

The fact that the government took the decision to dismiss Mr Kelly, did not mean that the decision was immune from objective bias, the judge said adding that there was no question of actual bias in the decision.

The judge also noted that following the 2004 meeting a long and detailed investigation into allegation against Mr Kelly took place and that the minister had “no hand, act or part in that process”.

The matter also came before an independent appeal board which reached its own conclusions, the judge also noted. Ms Justice Dunne also dismissed Mr Kelly’s claim that his dismissal was done in the absence fo fair procedures.

In his judgment Mr Justice Donal O’Donnell agreed that the decision should be quashed.

He said the Minister had in 2004 met the person carrying out an investigation into allegations against Mr Kelly, at a time when Ms Coughlan did not have responsibility for harbour masters was also a factor in his decision why the decision to dismiss Mr Kelly should be quashed.

A reasonable bystander, he said, would not be confident that the process was “not affected by the twin involvement of the minister” as “a complainant at the outset of the process”, and as “a decision-maker at its conclusion”.

He said that he had taken a preliminary view that the matter could return before the current Cabinet, which could consider the report where it was recommended Mr Kelly be dismissed.

Mr Justice O’Donnell said the court would hear counsel for the parties on what is the appropriate course taken should be taken in light of the court’s decision.

He said that this was an “unfortunate and complex” case which was also “unusual and unique”.

Mr Justice John MacMenamin said in his view that the order quashing the dismissal must encompass the entire disciplinary process from the offset.

This was because the judge found the entire process to be tainted with objective bias.

Dealing with the issue of fair procedures Mr Justice Peter Charleton said that there was no proof of what Mr Kelly had alleged, and therefore that aspect of his appeal must be dismissed.