John Gilligan’s two decades in court funded by State
Legal costs of challenge to conviction and the Cab’s seizure of assets likely to be north of €1m
John Gilligan on his release from Portlaoise Prison in October 2013. Photograph: Alan Betson
It would be impossible to estimate how much convicted criminal John Gilligan’s right of access to the courts has cost the State to date, but it has to be well north of €1 million, if not far beyond that.
Gilligan received legal aid when he faced charges before the Special Criminal Court in 2000, when he was found not guilty of the murder of journalist Veronica Guerin but guilty of the importation of cannabis resin.
He launched appeals of his conviction and his sentence, which went to the Court of Criminal Appeal and the Supreme Court. His original 28-year sentence was reduced to 20 years by the appeal court, and he was released in 2013.
Along the way there were a series of hearings and appeals over different aspects of the matter, some of them very long hearings. He received legal aid for all of them.
Since 1996, just over two decades, Gilligan has fought in the courts with the Criminal Assets Bureau (Cab) over its seizing of his and his family’s assets on the basis that they were the fruits of his criminal activities. As well as him taking cases, so has his wife, Geraldine, and children Darren and Treacy.
Wednesday’s judgment, which was concerned with the seizure of assets, was relevant to 12 separate appeals, the earliest dated 1998, and cited (at least) three High Court rulings. Among the matters disputed over the years were the Gilligans’ right to use the assets seized by the Cab to pay for the cost of contesting the seizures.
The Cab lost an application to make the family liable for its costs, and a few years ago the Supreme Court granted the family the right to legal aid to pursue its dispute with the bureau.
The limits of litigiousness
In a 2012 High Court ruling, Mr Justice George Birmingham said he had no doubt but that the family was distressed by what the Cab was trying to do, and it was not surprising that they would seek to resist and frustrate the agency. However, there had to be a limit to how often the same point could be argued.
“There is a limit to how long and how often any drum can be banged, “ he said. “That limit has now been reached, if indeed not exceeded.”
During one hearing in the Supreme Court, after Gilligan had sacked his legal team, he said he would not be paying the Cab’s costs as “anything I have the State has taken off me, so I won’t be able to pay”.
During his time in prison he also took cases against the prison system. Now that he is out of jail and his assets seized, it may be the case that he will be less inclined to indulge his right of access to the courts.
Still, there are two classes of people for whom going to court is not prohibitively expensive: the extremely rich, and those with nothing.