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Seamus Woulfe should resign over golf dinner, says Chief Justice

Mr Justice Woulfe faced criticism after it emerged he was among 81 guests who attended the Oireachtas Golf Society dinner in August.

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Seamus Woulfe (Niall Carson/PA)

Seamus Woulfe (Niall Carson/PA)

Seamus Woulfe (Niall Carson/PA)

Chief Justice Frank Clarke has said Supreme Court Judge Seamus Woulfe should resign over his attendance at a controversial golf dinner in Galway.

The Chief Justice outlined his personal view in correspondence between the two men which was issued by the courts on Monday evening.

It would appear from the correspondence that Mr Justice Woulfe does not intend to resign.

The Chief Justice met Mr Justice Woulfe last week as part of a resolution process emanating from a report investigating Mr Woulfe’s decision to attend the golf event amid coronavirus guidance against large indoor gatherings.

Mr Justice Woulfe, a former attorney general who was appointed a judge of the Supreme Court in July, faced criticism after it emerged he was among 81 guests who attended the Oireachtas Golf Society dinner in August.

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Chief Justice Frank Clarke (Brian Lawless/PA)

Chief Justice Frank Clarke (Brian Lawless/PA)

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Chief Justice Frank Clarke (Brian Lawless/PA)

In a letter to Mr Justice Woulfe on Monday Chief Justice Clarke wrote: “I remain of the view expressed at our meeting and in the draft letter that you should resign.

“Part of my role as Chief Justice is to do what I can to maintain public confidence in the Supreme Court, the judiciary generally, and the administration of justice. It is in that context that I have expressed my view as to the course of action that will do the most to achieve those ends.

“I note that you have reaffirmed the view expressed at our meeting to the effect that you will not resign.”

The Chief Justice also said he recognised it has been “a most stressful time”, adding that he was “glad” Mr Justice Woulfe recognised his views were “not borne out of ill will” but rather his “genuine assessment of the situation”.

In a letter last Thursday the Chief Justice told Mr Justice Woulfe he had “no powers” to impose any formal sanction, but Mr Justice Woulfe would “not be listed to sit as a judge until February 2021”.

He also suggested Mr Justice Woulfe either waive or repay his salary for that period.

Mr Justice Woulfe had offered to donate a month’s salary to charity, and also offered to make a further apology.

Chief Justice Clarke said a judge should not attend an event organised in breach of the law or where there may be a “reasonable public perception that this is so”.

“To do so brings the law into disrepute and is therefore a serious breach of judicial ethics,” he wrote.

He added that even if the event was lawful, it did not comply with the objective of the regulations, which was to prevent large numbers of people from mingling at social events.

“It is inappropriate for a judge to attend such an event,” he told Mr Justice Woulfe. “To do so adds to a public health hazard and to a perception that legal technicalities outweigh public health.”

He added that the event in Clifden did not comply with the Government’s public health guidance at the time.

In response Mr Justice Woulfe wrote to the Chief Justice on Monday. He apologised “again” for accepting the invitation to and attending the golf event on August 19 and said he fully accepted the “opinions, reasons and recommendations set out in the report prepared by Ms Justice Denham”.

“As a newly appointed judge of the Supreme Court, my ill-judged acceptance of the invitation, and subsequent attendance at the dinner, occasioned offence and hurt to the public and damage to the court and this is a cause of profound regret to me,” he wrote.

“My determination now is to work to help and co-operate with the Supreme Court in every way I can to remedy this matter insofar as possible.”

Former chief justice Susan Denham, who carried out the report on Mr Justice Woulfe’s attendance at the dinner, said he did not break any law or knowingly breach any Covid-19 guidelines.

She found that he did “nothing involving impropriety” that would justify calls for his resignation, adding that such a step would be “unjust and disproportionate”.

Ms Justice Denham said it was reasonable for Mr Justice Woulfe to rely on the assurances of the event’s organisers and from his own observations that it complied with Covid-19 regulations.

However, she said Mr Justice Woulfe did not consider the dinner invitation from the point of view of his new status as a Supreme Court judge and in this regard he was “not sufficiently vigilant”.

She found there was no breach of law committed by Mr Justice Woulfe and that his attendance at the dinner did not breach the principle of the separation of powers.

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