Séamus Woulfe is believed to be ‘preparing for a fight’ amid golf dinner inquiry

Sources say Supreme Court judge’s recruitment of senior lawyer shows he is ‘digging in’

Séamus Woulfe. ‘You don’t engage Michael Collins or John Rogers if you are about to throw the white towel into the ring,’ said one legal source. Photograph: Alan Betson

Séamus Woulfe. ‘You don’t engage Michael Collins or John Rogers if you are about to throw the white towel into the ring,’ said one legal source. Photograph: Alan Betson

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Supreme Court judge Séamus Woulfe’s recruitment of a senior lawyer is seen in legal circles as the former attorney general “digging in to fight his corner” in the inquiry over his attendance at the Oireachtas golf dinner.

Legal sources interpreted Mr Justice Woulfe’s decision to retain Michael Collins SC as the judge preparing to defend himself in the review undertaken by former chief justice Susan Denham. She is looking into his attendance at the Oireachtas Golf Society dinner on August 19th. The dinner, attended by more than 80 people, went ahead despite Covid-19 public health guidelines that limit indoor gatherings.

Mr Justice Woulfe has also sought advice from another former attorney general, John Rogers SC, as Ms Justice Denham is examining whether the judge should have attended the golf dinner at the Station House Hotel in Clifden, Co Galway.

“He is preparing for a fight. You don’t engage Michael Collins or John Rogers if you are about to throw the white towel into the ring,” said one legal source.

Mr Collins declined to comment. Mr Rogers and Mr Justice Woulfe did not respond to requests for comment.

Ms Justice Denham has been asked by the Supreme Court to carry out a non-statutory review of the judge’s attendance at the event because the Judicial Council Act that establishes a judicial complaints mechanism and guidelines on the conduct of judges has not yet been commenced.

Sanction

The former chief justice or the wider judiciary do not have the power to sanction or remove Mr Justice Woulfe from his position on the Supreme Court. Only the Houses of the Oireachtas can, under the Constitution, remove a judge from their position for “stated misbehaviour.”

Given the unprecedented and informal nature of the judicially ordered inquiry, the appointment of legal representation is seen by legal sources as an attempt to apply procedural safeguards to the review to ensure fair procedures are followed should Ms Justice Denham’s findings be later used to attempt to remove the judge.

Mr Collins, an experienced lawyer, would be well placed to examine issues of this nature. He reported on procedures employed by the Department of Justice in response to requests for documents from the Disclosures Tribunal chaired by Supreme Court Justice Peter Charleton.

Mr Rogers represented former Circuit Court Judge Brian Curtin in 2005 in his challenge against procedures adopted by the Oireachtas to inquire into his alleged misbehaviour after the Government sought his removal. The judge resigned during the impeachment process.

Mr Justice Woulfe has said he attended the dinner on the understanding that it would be adhering to public health guidelines and has apologised for any unintentional breach of them.

The legal world is divided over Mr Justice Woulfe’s attendance at the dinner, with some arguing privately that he has undermined the judiciary and should resign, while others say his apology should suffice and resignation would be disproportionate to the scale of his error of judgment.