Woulfe’s actions create problem for Supreme Court despite ‘fool’s pardon’
Some lawyers feel judge should have quit even after Denham’s ‘Golfgate’ verdict
Supreme Court judge Séamus Woulfe: The whole experience ‘has been excruciatingly embarrassing for him, and that’s really all it warrants, I think’ said one solicitor. Photograph: Gareth Chaney/Collins
The echoes left by former chief justice Susan Denham’s report into Séamus Woulfe’s attendance at the so-called “Golfgate” dinner could be felt around the Four Courts yesterday.
Legal practitioners who spoke off the record with The Irish Times mostly agreed with her finding that it would not be appropriate to ask him to resign.
“At the end of the day, it was probably not a sacking offence,” said one senior counsel. “You have to think that, say, taking a bribe to decide a case in someone’s favour, is at the top of the scale. And then step away and think of how far down the scale this is.”
However, there is little doubt but that many who work and practise in the Four Courts believe that the affair has damaged the reputation of the judiciary and created a significant problem for the Supreme Court.
Rumours abound that relations are now “poisonous” between the new judge and his colleagues in the State’s top court. “It’s a collegiate court and they all have to get along,” said one barrister.
Reflecting the views of some, one barrister said a lot of people think that Mr Justice Woulfe should have offered to resign, even if he should not have been asked to quit.
“Because he has brought the judiciary into disrepute. He’s approached the whole thing in a very legalistic way, but really this is about perception, and the perception is that the great and good didn’t have to abide by the same rules as everyone else.
“Woulfe’s problem is that he is now sending out a signal that, really, judges have lower standards of accountability than politicians, and that is a problem.”
If the judge, who was attorney general to the previous government, was still in that role, he would almost certainly have had to resign, the barrister said. Most, though believe, that Denham’s conclusions struck the right balance. If there had been published guidelines in place under the Judicial Council regime, and a list of sanctions set out for judges who were the subject of criticism, Mr Justice Woulfe’s attendance at the dinner in Clifden would not have led to the ultimate sanction, said the barrister, who sometimes appears before the Supreme Court.
“I think it is important that she said [dismissal] would have been unjust. I think that’s quite an important word,” a barrister said.
“I think he is safe,” said another barrister who sometimes appears before the Supreme Court. “Unless something new emerges.”
“She’s given him a fool’s pardon, by saying he was too junior to know, and you can take from that what you will,” the barrister said. “This is a guy who sat on the Judicial Appointments Advisory Board and was the attorney general when judges were being appointed.”
In time the controversy will fade, though it would always be something that will be associated with Mr Justice Woulfe’s career, the solicitor said. “To some extent he has suffered a penalty already.”
Another senior solicitor had a similar view. “He’s been very chastened by the way [Denham] set out the report, and in particular the quotations of direct evidence. They are embarrassing. I think that has been the appropriate medicine. There is no appetite for his having his career destroyed.”
The whole experience “has been excruciatingly embarrassing for him, and that’s really all it warrants, I think”.
Parliamentarians with legal experience and qualifications were broadly of the view that Denham had struck the right balance, and that calling for his resignation would be disproportionate.
However, many of those same people criticised Woulfe’s “overly confrontational” handling of the issues. More generally, though, politicians privately grumble that there is one rule for judges, and another for them.