Séamus Woulfe apology fails to quell criticism over ‘reckless actions’

Supreme Court judge understood event would be within public health guidelines

Supreme Court judge Seamus Woulfe has  apologised for  attending golf dinner in Co Galway. Photograph: Collins

Supreme Court judge Seamus Woulfe has apologised for attending golf dinner in Co Galway. Photograph: Collins

 

The recently-appointed Supreme Court judge, Séamus Woulfe, has apologised for his attendance at the Oireachtas Golf Society event in a hotel in Clifden, Co Galway.

Mr Woulfe, who served as Attorney General in the previous government, said he was not aware in advance that there was to be a dinner after the organised golf outing in Ballyconneely, which he attended as an invited guest.

However, his statement on Friday did not quell public criticism of his decision to attend the event, with one leading public health expert saying Mr Woulfe needed to consider what his remaining in office would do to trust in Ireland’s judiciary.

Dr Anthony Staines, professor of health systems at Dublin City University, said Mr Woulfe — as the Government’s leading legal advisor at the time — wrote the Covid-19 restrictions.

In attending the golf dinner “his actions were reckless and dangerous” and he has “serious questions to ask himself”, Dr Staines told the Irish Times.

“There is a process for getting rid of judges if they misbehave, but it has never to my knowledge been activated. I think it would be an appalling end to what has been a very distinguished career if Séamus Woulfe had to be thrown out of office,” he said.

Dr Staines said Mr Calleary and Mr Buttimer had done “the right thing” by resigning and that Mr Woulfe needed to consider “what his staying in office will do to public faith in the judiciary”.

“I think it is very important that respect in the Irish judiciary is maintained and I don’t think what Séamus Wolfe did has contributed to maintaining respect in the judiciary,” he said.

Attendees and organisers of the golf dinner were “recklessly stupid”, Dr Staines said.

“I really hope nobody falls sick because of this: either staff of the hotel or visitors,” he said.

“This is the kind of event where you get 40 cases, ten days later. I sincerely hope that doesn’t happen. Those 40 cases spread to other people.”

More than than 80 people attended the dinner in breach of the Government’s regulations controlling indoor events during the Covid-19 pandemic.

In his statement, Mr Justice Woulfe said on learning of the proposed dinner during the course of the day, “my understanding was that the organisers and the hotel had satisfied themselves that they would be operating within Government public health guidelines.”

He said he attended the dinner -held in the in the Station House Hotel on the understanding it would be within Covid-19 guidelines.

“But I do apologise for any unintentional breach of any of the new guidelines on my part.

“I would never disregard governmental or health authorities’ advice regarding public health, and have been at pains to follow rules and guidelines since their introduction in March.

“That I ended up in a situation where breaches may have occurred, is of great regret to me, for which I am sorry. I unreservedly apologise.”

It has been reported that the hotel room where the dinner was held was partitioned into two sections so as to comply with Covid regulations that no indoor event should be organised that involved a gathering of more than fifty people.

However, when a number of speeches were being made, the partition was pulled back, according to reports.

A seating plan published on social media shows Mr Justice Woulfe sitting at a table of eight, with other guests including the Moroccan ambassador to Ireland.

Since June 29th indoor gatherings have been restricted to 50 people under the Government’s public health controls. Further restrictions announced this week identified only weddings and artistic and cultural events as being allowed to have groups of up to 50.

Moreover, the latest regulations say tables in restaurants should not exceed six people from no more than three households.

The Courts Service has greatly reduced the range of court hearings that are being held because of social distancing rules that have seen an almost complete halt to jury trials.

The service, and the judiciary, have over recent months been intensively involved in devising systems that would allow for a greater level of work to be conducted in the context of the ongoing pandemic.

The Supreme Court has been able to maintain its workload by way of remote hearings, as it does not hear witness evidence.

While the Taoiseach can sack a member of his Cabinet, the Chief Justice cannot force a member of the court to resign.

Such decisions are a matter for the individual judge.

Mr Justice Woulfe is highly-regarded lawyer who is reported to have a good relationship with Chief Justice Frank Clarke.

A judge can only be removed from his position if the Oireachtas votes to do so but nobody has suggested Mr Justice Woulfe’s attendance at the Clifden dinner would justify any such proposal.

The recently-established Judicial Council provides for complaints to be made against members of the judiciary, but that section of the new regime has yet to become law.

A Judicial Conduct Committee set up under the legislation that established the council, is currently drafting guidelines for how the system will work.

The section of the law governing the complaints system will not be commenced until the guidelines have been adopted by the council.