Golf dinner: Woulfe review to be shaped by international guidelines

UN principles and other common law countries set out rules on the conduct of judges

A review into the attendance by Supreme Court judge Seamus Woulfe at the Oireachtas golf dinner is expected to be framed by international guidelines on judicial conduct, legal experts say.

In the absence of defined Irish rules on how judges should behave, with the Judicial Council Act still not fully commenced, former chief justice Susan Denham is expected to consider a United Nations code known as the Bangalore principles and rules in other countries with the common law system.

Ms Denham, a retired supreme court judge, has been asked to report to Chief Justice Frank Clarke on Mr Justice Woulfe's decision to attend the August 19th dinner in Clifden. The dinner, attended by more than 80 people, went ahead despite Covid-19 public health guidelines that limit indoor gatherings.

Ms Denham has been asked to consider any relevant codes of practice or guidelines and to make any recommendations on the attendance of Mr Justice Woulfe, a former attorney general, at the dinner.


Her review is expected to be completed in the coming weeks. It will be a non-statutory review because the parts of the Judicial Council Act that relate to judicial conduct have not yet been commenced. The judicial conduct committee, created in July, has 12 months to set guidelines.

The Act defines judicial misconduct as behaviour that departs from acknowledged standards of conduct requiring judges to uphold and exemplify judicial independence, integrity and propriety, or conduct that brings the administration of justice into disrepute.

Judges should avoid situations which might reasonably reduce respect for judicial office or might cast doubt upon their judicial impartiality

"I think the way Ms Justice Denham will approach it is by asking the question of whether his conduct in any way compromised the administration of justice," said Dr Laura Cahillane, a law lecturer at the University of Limerick.

“The question is: can someone continue as a judge if their conduct has brought the administration of justice into disrepute? She will have to use her own judgment in trying to assess the impact of public confidence on the administration of justice.”

Public scrutiny

The Bangalore principles, endorsed at the UN Human Rights Commission in 2003, set an international guide on judicial ethics. They say a judge should avoid impropriety or the appearance of impropriety in all their activities, and accept personal restrictions as a subject of constant public scrutiny.

They state that the behaviour and conduct of a judge “must reaffirm the people’s faith in the integrity” of the judiciary.

"We do have some sense of what constitutes good judicial conduct here already – that wheel has already been invented," said Dr Rónán Kennedy, a lecturer in law at NUI Galway. "I wouldn't be expecting her to break any new ground on what she considers to be best practice or appropriate standards for the judiciary. Those are well established internationally."

In England and Wales, rules state that while judges are entitled to engage in social activities, they must accept that the nature of their office exposes them to considerable scrutiny and puts constraints on their behaviour.

“Judges should avoid situations which might reasonably reduce respect for judicial office or might cast doubt upon their judicial impartiality, or which might expose them to charges of hypocrisy by reason of their private life,” the regulations state.

Judges are urged to “avoid any appearance of political ties” by attending political gatherings.

The Scottish guide says a judge “should do nothing which could give rise to any suggestion of political partisanship”, while the Canadian rules state that a judge should refrain from attendance at political gatherings.

Australia’s regulations say a judge, on appointment, should sever all ties with political parties, and an appearance of continuing ties, such as by attending political gatherings, should be avoided.

“I am not sure Ms Justice Denham will be focusing so much on the administration of justice in the courtroom as the extent to which [Mr Justice Woulfe’s] conduct could give to an apprehension of bias or could be seen to draw the integrity of the judiciary into question,” said Dr Kennedy.

Simon Carswell

Simon Carswell

Simon Carswell is News Editor of The Irish Times