Renua’s plan to publish Attorney General’s advice misguided

State entitled to keep advice confidential

Lucinda Creighton wants  advice given by the Attorney General to Cabinet to be made “publicly available”. This  would put the State in a bizarre and hopeless position as a defendant in court proceedings. Photograph: Cyril Byrne/The Irish Times

Lucinda Creighton wants advice given by the Attorney General to Cabinet to be made “publicly available”. This would put the State in a bizarre and hopeless position as a defendant in court proceedings. Photograph: Cyril Byrne/The Irish Times

 

When launching Renua Ireland, Lucinda Creighton stated that the party wanted a new concept of open government. She said that one of these new concepts was that the advice given by the Attorney General to Cabinet should be made “publicly available”. This is undeniably a new concept, but one that would put the State in a bizarre and hopeless position as a defendant in court proceedings.

The Constitution provides that the Attorney General shall be the adviser of the Government in matters of law and legal opinion. One of the main functions of the Attorney General is to advise and represent the Government in proceedings taken for or against the State. The State is sued in thousands of cases each year by personal and corporate litigants. It is the function of the Attorney General to advise the Government on the strength of these claims and the stance that should be adopted by the State in each piece of litigation.

Litigation

If all advice given by the Attorney General to Cabinet is to “be made publicly available” then the people who will benefit the most will be litigants who have sued the State. For instance, under Renua’s proposals the tobacco companies would be provided with the confidential advice given by the Attorney to the Government in respect of their prospective litigation. Those tobacco companies would then be in the highly advantageous position of knowing what the State regarded as the weak or strong points of their claims. Furthermore, those companies would be able to seek to undermine in court submissions made by the State by referring to the legal advice of the Attorney General which may have assessed a particular point of challenge as being particularly strong.

It is a fundamental rule of litigation that parties before a court are entitled to keep their legal advice confidential and privileged unless they waive that privilege by announcing it to third parties. Consequently, under Renua’s proposals every litigant before the Irish courts, with the exception of the State, would be entitled to the benefit of confidential legal advice. The State would therefore occupy the unique position, nationally and internationally, of having its legal advice open for general appraisal. Such a policy is internationally unprecedented.

International courts

The proceedings were defended vigorously by the UK government, which, like Ireland, had the benefit of confidential legal advice from its attorney general. Should Ireland ever in the future be involved in international proceedings against foreign countries it would, if Renua’s policy is carried through, find itself before an international court having already provided its opponent with its own confidential legal advice on the substance of the claim.

Outside of the area of litigation, should the legal advice of the Attorney General always be published then every foreign state will know every issue of international legal concern that is being considered by the Irish government.

The ostensible reason for this Renua policy is that it will result in more open government. The reality is that it is a hare-brained idea that fails to appreciate the practical consequences and financial cost to the State. Jim O’Callaghan is a Dublin city councillor and legal adviser to the Fianna Fáil front bench.

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