Judicial Council set to reduce general damages awards

Meeting expected to approve new guidelines for judges dealing with personal injury cases

Supreme Court judge Séamus Woulfe arriving at the Four Courts on Thursday morning. Mr Justice Woulfe  is expected to participate in Friday’s council meeting. Photograph: Nick Bradshaw

Supreme Court judge Séamus Woulfe arriving at the Four Courts on Thursday morning. Mr Justice Woulfe is expected to participate in Friday’s council meeting. Photograph: Nick Bradshaw

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A meeting of the country’s 166 judges on Friday will be asked to approve new guidelines expected to lead to significantly reduced general damages awards for many personal injuries, especially minor soft tissue injuries.

The meeting of the Judicial Council, to be held via video conference, will be chaired by Chief Justice Frank Clarke.

Its focus will be on proposed new guidelines for judges dealing with personal injury cases.

Prepared by a committee of seven judges chaired by High Court president Ms Justice Mary Irvine, the guidelines will apply if a majority of judges vote in favour of them.

The guidelines have yet to be published but they are expected to propose major reductions in personal injury awards, to be achieved by significantly cutting back on the scope for judicial discretion when making awards by setting tighter limits on awards for specific injuries.

The tighter limits would mean more predictable outcomes to cases, leading to more and earlier settlements, and cutting back considerably on legal costs. They are also likely to discourage plaintiffs from bringing cases to the High Court, where significantly higher legal costs apply.

The guidelines were prepared following examination of damage awards here and in other countries.

The council’s website has described the judges as “exceptionally cognizant” of the need to ensure the guidelines would be “anchored in reality”, noting “prohibitive” insurance costs are having a significant effect on the ability of traders to trade profitably, or at all.

At the second annual meeting of the council on Friday, the judges will be updated about the work of other committees, including the Judicial Conduct Committee.

The council’s functions include promotion and maintenance of high standards of conduct among judges and public confidence in the judiciary, but, until the conduct provisions of the Judicial Council Act 2019 are commenced, it has no power to take enforcement action against a judge.

Work on preparing the guidelines on ethics and conduct necessary for the conduct provisions to come into force is understood to be well advanced.

‘Golfgate’

The absence of such guidelines was thrown into sharp focus last August when the “Golfgate” controversy erupted following the attendance of newly appointed Supreme Court judge, Mr Justice Séamus Woulfe, and some 80 other people at an Oireachtas golf society dinner in Clifden.

Mr Justice Woulfe, a former attorney general, said he was unaware of guidelines announced by the Government the previous day, intended, in light of the Covid-19 pandemic, to reduce to six the numbers permitted at an indoor event.

Arising from his attendance, an informal resolution process was embarked upon but ran into difficulties. The Government declined to intervene after the Chief Justice, in published correspondence last November, expressed his personal view Mr Justice Woulfe should resign. Mr Justice Woulfe declined but made other various offers, including not to formally sit until February.

Mr Justice Woulfe formally sat this week as a judge of the Supreme Court and is expected to participate in Friday’s council meeting.

The meeting will also be updated on the work of the Judicial Studies Committee, which focuses on improving judicial training, by High Court judge Ms Justice Mary Rose Gearty, the first holder of the newly created office of director of judicial studies.

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