'Instead of citing legal principles, he listed the contents of the picnic hamper'

MY FAVOURITE CASE Paul Anthony McDermott: What is your favourite case? The 1894 case taken by an aggrieved ratepayer, Joseph…

MY FAVOURITE CASE Paul Anthony McDermott: What is your favourite case?The 1894 case taken by an aggrieved ratepayer, Joseph Bridgeman, against Dublin Corporation. Members of the corporation had taken a picnic in Wicklow in August 1892 on the occasion of the annual inspection of the Vartry reservoir. The entire council turned up and not simply the members of the waterworks committee. In addition a number of guests had been invited along. The enthusiasm for the trip was inspired not so much by the waterworks but by the liquid picnic that had been prepared for the hard-working councillors and guests.

Mr Bridgeman challenged various allowances that the corporation’s auditors had made in the annual accounts for 1892, such as flowers for decorating balls held in the Mansion House and the illumination of a certificate of the freedom of the city presented to the provost of Trinity College. But what caught the attention of chief justice Peter OBrien, a native of Co Clare, was the remarkable picnic that the councillors and their guests had enjoyed at the taxpayers’ expense.

What was the judgment in this case?

In his judgment, Sir Peter O’Brien’s genius kicked in since instead of citing legal principles he listed the contents of the picnic hamper, flavouring them with a sharp commentary of his own. He noted the sumptuous repast included “one dozen Chateau Margaux – an excellent claret; one dozen fine old Dublin whiskey – the best whiskey that can be got . . . six bottles of Amontillado sherry – a stimulating sherry”.


The judge, by now warming to his theme, noted that: “There is dessert, and there are sandwiches, and an allowance for four glasses broken – a very small number broken under the circumstances.” The solicitor general defended the expense of the picnic and, for his trouble, received what must rank as one of the most cutting put-downs that any lawyer defending the privileges of power has ever received from an Irish court: “The solicitor general in his most able argument – I have always to guard myself against his plausibility – appealed pathetically to common sense; he asked, really with tears in his voice, whether the members of the corporation should starve; he drew a most gruesome picture; he represented that the members of the corporation would really traverse the Wicklow hills in a spectral condition, unless they were sustained by lunch.”

Sir Peter then uttered one of the most memorable lines to be found in any Irish judgment: “We do not say that the members of the corporation are not to lunch. But we do say that they are not to do so at the expense of the citizens of Dublin.”

In the most important part of its finding, the High Court held that an individual aggrieved ratepayer was entitled to come to court as a private litigant and to seek to have unlawful expenses quashed.

The outcome of the case was that the corporation’s auditor was ordered to recover the cost of the picnic from the councillors and Joseph Bridgeman was awarded his costs of bringing the case.

Why is it your favourite case?

Ive always thought it was one of the most colourful and interesting judgments, partly because the language is so witty. A century before anyone had heard of tribunals in Dublin Castle, commissions of inquiry or hearings before Oireachtas committees, one judge showed how to deal with political misconduct – he fought it using the power of humour and ridicule.

The judgment in the case is inspiring since it illustrates the power of ridicule to undermine the pretensions of the powerful. With a few well-chosen words a good judge can shine a spotlight on waste and corruption, and ridicule those who would seek to defend it. If the judge in this case had taken a legalistic analysis, it would have taken two or three pages of dense text and nobody would remember it now.

Any member of a tribunal sitting down to write its report would do well to read the remarkable wit of Sir Peter O’Brien as an example of how simplicity of thought and language is a far more powerful weapon than verbose legal language that no-one understands.

Do cases like this still happen today?

This case was an example of what we call public interest litigation. This is a modern concept – the idea of charities and non-governmental groups holding the State to account in court – but this case shows that even 100 years ago the idea of public interest litigation existed, even if the phrase didn’t.

Its harder now . Obviously nowadays you rarely get a case where individual items of expenditure are looked at by a court in quite this way.

However, the 1987 Crotty v An Taoiseach case, where one man forced a referendum on the Single European Act, was an example of a member of the public taking on the State and ultimately being proved right.

In conversation with Caroline Madden