Tag: 1937 constitution

“Conscience” and the marriage referendum

Each time an Irish government proposes to introduce new rights for gay citizens opponents call for the right of service providers to discriminate against those citizens. They call this a “conscience clause”, which is surely a misnomer but sounds better than a “permissible discrimination” exemption.

Strangely, this is an argument which it appears must be had repeatedly. I wrote about it at the time of the Civil Partnership Bill and that post applies equally to the marriage referendum. In short: the Equal Status Act prohibits discrimination against people on the basis of sexual orientation. It was introduced fifteen years ago and it does not include a “conscience clause” (there is a limited “ethos” exemption for schools run by religious organisations). A “conscience clause” was not permitted in the Equal Status Act or the Civil Partnership Act. Why should marriage be any different?

The religious beliefs of citizens also benefit from protections and the State should not offend against those rights. But the State is entitled to insist that businesses providing services to the public respect its equality laws. The difficulty with providing an exemption from equality legislation on the basis of religious beliefs is that it would allow the law of the State, applicable to all, to be subverted by the private beliefs and opinions of self-defining groups. Indeed, if a “conscience clause” were introduced, there is no reason why it shouldn’t protect political beliefs as well as religious beliefs.

Today William Binchy is concerned that gay couples might sue a church for refusing to perform a same sex religious marriage ceremony. This is a strange concern to have. I have yet to hear of divorced people suing churches for refusing to perform a marriage, for example, but the same principles apply. Even if Mr Binchy’s fear was realised, it would mean that civil marriages would have to be registered separately from religious ceremonies. This would not require churches to perform same sex marriages.

It is striking that calls for a “conscience clause” only seem to arise in the case of gay rights. One does not hear the Iona Institute and other groups opposing the marriage referendum advocating on behalf of bakers and stationers forced to provide services to single mothers, divorcees or atheists. If one were to introduce a “conscience clause” it would have to apply to all categories of persons who benefit from protection under the Equal Status Acts and would open the gates to a wide and unpredictable range of subjectively permissible discrimination that would entirely undermine the purpose of equality legislation. Any conscience clause limited to gay rights would, in itself, constitute discrimination.

Challenging court closures

A few years ago there were concerns, which sometimes resurface, that the Courts Service might close the District Court in Newcastle West and transfer its sittings elsewhere. The only logical venue would be Limerick city, which would raise a number of problems for the Courts Service, lawyers and their clients.

It appears unlikely, at least for now, and in the past year some areas have been added to the Newcastle West district. Court sittings have also been reorganised. Other districts have not been so lucky and have lost out on their local court house.

The West Cork Bar Association has recently been granted leave by the High Court to challenge the closure of the court in Skibereen.

The West Cork District Court area extends from Kinsale westwards as far as Castletownbere. In recent years, there has already been seven local courts closed by the Courts Service in the West Cork area, the most recent being Kinsale District Court which sat for the last time on December 19.

The West Cork Bar Association issued a statement yesterday saying solicitors were concerned court closures were seriously eroding access to justice for people living in the region. The organisation said that if more closures were allowed to proceed, the people of West Cork would face travelling long distances to Cork City to deal with district court matters, when under the Constitution, the State has to provide courts of local and limited jurisdiction.

Solicitors pointed out that vulnerable citizens, who require the urgent assistance of the district court, such as in a domestic violence situation, will find it much more difficult to access the help and protection they need.

I mentioned previously a High Court judgment which dismissed a challenge brought by solicitors in New Ross area against the temporary relocation of court sittings to Ardcavan. The challenge was on public interest grounds and on the basis that the move threatened the applicant’s right to earn a living.

In that case, the Courts Service argued that solicitors do not have locus standi (a legal interest) to challenge the closure. Mr Justice Hedigan rejected that argument:

I accept that as solicitors practising in the relevant area they have a strong interest in the decision sought to be quashed both in their own and their clients interest. The question is fairly posed “if they do not have locus standi – who does?” The fact their interest coincides with the public interest does not, it seems to me, alter anything. In my view, the applicants have the requisite locus standi to challenge the decision made.

However, in the New Ross case the transfer was originally intended to be temporary due to an “urgent need” where the courthouse was “unsafe or otherwise unusable” and therefore the challenge was dismissed. Mr Justice Hedigan’s decision obviously leaves the wider questions open:

  1. is a court closure an attack on the constitutional right of local solicitors to earn a living; and
  2. is a court closure an attack on the constitutional right of citizens to have access to justice?

We might get an answer from Skibereen.

Significant reforms of family law in 2014/15

Two important announcements have been made by the Government that will lead to reform of family law in Ireland:

  1. a referendum on same-sex marriage will be held in the first half of 2015;
  2. the Family Relationships and Children Bill will be enacted in advance of it.

Both announcements are the responsibility of the Department of Justice where the Minister, Alan Shatter TD (FG; Dublin South) has a long-standing interest arising out of his significant, high-profile career as a family law solicitor. He, literally, wrote the book and has been calling for reform of many aspects of family law for decades. The Bill is not a comprehensive reform package, but does address some key issues.

The current situation in cases involving children where the core concern of the courts is their welfare will be updated to emphasise their “best interests”, as will be required by the new article 42A.4.1° of the Constitution once signed into law by the President (assuming that the Supreme Court appeal challenging the referendum result is unsuccessful). The wording of the Bill itself is not yet available, but the proposal to include legislative guidance on the best interests principle is particularly welcome. “Best interests” will

includ[e] the benefit of meaningful relationship with both parents, ascertainable views of the child, needs of the child, history of upbringing and care, religious, spiritual and linguistic needs, harm suffered or which the child is at risk of suffering, custody arrangements, capacity of applicants etc. [as well as considering] any family/domestic violence and its impact

Existing guardianship legislation provides little detail on the nature, obligations and powers of guardians and this will also be changed. In addition, the range of people who can become guardians will be expanded to provide greater opportunity for non-parents to obtain guardianship. This will particularly benefit non-parents who reside with a child as a spouse, civil partner or cohabitant of that child’s parent. It also envisages guardianship for non-parents who have cared for children where their parents or guardians were unwilling or unable to do so.

While principles concerning the voice of the child in family are established in practice the Bill will clarify those principles, for example by requiring that a child over 12 must be consulted in relation to guardianship, custody and access applications. 

The Bill includes limited provisions to deal with assisted reproduction and surrogacy. While assisted reproduction will not be fully regulated, the Bill will specify who the legal parents of a child are in a number of possible scenarios. The Bill will also prohibit commercial surrogacy arrangements.

There have been reforms to the law on children, cohabitants and civil partners in recent years but there has been little reform of the key questions of parentage, guardianship, custody and access. Part of the reason, it could be surmised, is an unwillingness to tackle such issues when a variety of alternative or new family arrangements have arisen but were considered too politically controversial to address, for whatever reason.

Between 2008 and 2011 very little happened that was not dictated by economic considerations and it is refreshing to see that, while those considerations still dominate, the current Government has evidently decided to tackle social issues as well.

More detail on the proposals should be available by the end of 2013 with the Bill being published and (it is intended) enacted in 2014. The Government has created a long run-up to the same-sex marriage referendum, which will allow significant time for debate, though the proposed legislation is unlikely to be available before 2015.

Why no separate vote on the abolition of the “one judgment rule”?

[Correction at end] Alan Shatter is concerned that RTÉ is not giving sufficient coverage to the upcoming referendum on the establishment of a civil court of appeal.

“I find it extraordinary that RTÉ on their six o’clock TV bulletin failed to make any mention whatsoever of the referendum being held to establish a court of appeal,” the Minister said.

He may be right, but it is not a constitutional amendment that was ever likely to generate much interest. If the Government genuinely wanted to ensure a high profile debate on the proposal it should not have scheduled the vote to take place on the same date as the referendum to abolish the Seanad . That proposal concerns politicians and inevitably most air time is consumed by them.

What is far more extraordinary is that the Government has tucked away in the court of appeal referendum an entirely separate amendment to the Constitution. This separate amendment would remove one of the “one judgment” rules from the Constitution (see section 5 of the Thirty-third Amendment of the Constitution (Court of Appeal) Bill 2013). It has nothing to do with the court of appeal, but we will vote on both amendments together.

The first I heard of the proposal was in Michael Williams’ article in the Irish Independent on 4 September 2013:

On October 4 next, as well as voting on abolishing the Seanad, we will consider a composite proposal, first to approve the establishment of a new Court of Appeal and, second, to remove a rule that when the Supreme Court makes a decision on a constitutional issue, only one judgment appears.

But, amazingly, the Government has limited our choice. We must vote for or against the package. We may not approve one part but not the other.

The one judgment rule (article 34.4.5°) arises when someone challenges the constitutionality of a law before the Supreme Court. Usually, the Supreme Court issues a majority judgment and other judges who sit on the particular case can supplement that judgment with comments of their own or, if they disagreed, can issue a dissenting judgment outlining why they took a different position. This is not the case with a constitutional challenge, when only one judgment may be issued and no others can be published which indicates the majority view.

"Where is my minority report?"
“Where is my minority report?”

It is of historical and political interest that the one judgment rule was not in the original 1937 Constitution but was introduced in 1941 during the transitional period when the Oireachtas could amend it without holding a referendum. The history of the 1941 amendment is set out in the report of the Constitutional Review Group (1996):

[The provision] seems to have been inserted as a direct result of the decision of the Supreme Court in In re Article 26 and the Offences Against the State (Amendment) Bill 1940 [1940] IR 470. In this very sensitive case, the Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of the Offences Against the State (Amendment) Act 1940 (which provided for internment) a few months after the High Court had pronounced that similar legislation was unconstitutional. Chief Justice Sullivan commenced the judgment of the court by announcing that it was the ‘decision of the majority of the judges’ and as Chief Justice Finlay was later to state in Attorney General v Hamilton (No 1) [1993] 2 IR 250:

This was apparently seen to indicate a dissenting opinion which, it was felt, could greatly reduce the authority of the decision of the court and, we are informed, and it is commonly believed, led directly to the additional clauses by the Act of 1941 in both Article 26 and Article 34.

This is borne out by Mr de Valera’s comments in the Dáil during the debate on the Second Amendment of the Constitution Bill (82 Dáil Debates 1857-9):

From an educational point of view, the proposal [for separate judgments] would, no doubt, be valuable, but, after all, what do we want? We want to get a decision … The more definite the position is the better, and, from the point of view of definitiveness, it is desirable that only one judgment be pronounced … [and] that it should not be bandied about from mouth to mouth that, in fact, the decision was only come to by a majority of the Supreme Court. Then you have added on, perhaps, the number of judges who dealt with the matter in the High Court before it came to the Supreme Court, as might happen in some cases. You would then have an adding up of judges, and people saying: ‘They were five on this side and three on the other, and therefore the law is the other way.’

What is important is legal certainty as to the judgment, which may affect fundamental issues. It was also suggested that the one-judgment rule allows the Supreme Court to provide the legislature with certainty without any of its members becoming the subject of political criticism and, possibly, pressure. Moreover, certainty would not be provided by a three-to-two judgment where at any time in the future a judge might change his mind on a fundamental issue.

It can be seen that there is a debate to be had about the one judgement rule. The 1996 Review Group considered it and their report outlines four pages of argument either way. Most arguments were in support of abolishing the rule and the argument for keeping the one judgment rule was as follows:

1 it is the decision of the majority of the Supreme Court which really counts and only uncertainty is created by allowing the publication of dissenting opinions

2 the publication of dissenting opinions serves only to weaken the authority of the court’s pronouncement and impair its persuasiveness.

Ultimately, the Review Group was in favour of what the Government now proposes: to remove the one judgment rule in constitutional challenges before the Supreme Court. (The referendum will not remove the one judgment rule in the case of article 26 references by the President, and indeed the 1996 Review Group failed to reach consensus on that point.)

There are clearly reasonable arguments in favour of removing the one judgment rule as is now proposed and the Government could credibly argue that this is a “tidying up” referendum which is merely implementing a recommendation made in 1996 (by a Review Group, it could be noted, established by Fine Gael and Labour when they were last in office).

But the one judgment rule can hardly be thought of as a pressing issue. Why has the Government not taken the opportunity to consider the operation of the article 26 reference power of the President, to which the one judgment also applies, and consider wider reform of the law on constitutional challenges? After all, one of the reasons for establishing a civil court of appeal is to free up the Supreme Court so that it can devote its time to constitutional issues.

Paul McMahon says that while there are positive aspects to the one judgment rule it appears to be a “disproportionate restriction on judicial free speech”. But Michael Gallagher makes the point I alluded to already:

There is certainly a good case for deleting 26.2.2 and 34.4.5, but this is pretty arcane stuff to be putting to the people in a referendum. Any such proposal would surely have to be part of a reform package if it was to generate much interest from the electorate, especially given the ‘referendum fatigue’ noted by Theresa Reidy in her post here on 2 July.

Furthermore, there are existing forums to consider such wider reform. The 1996 Review Group considered almost all aspects of the Constitution, including constitutional challenges in the Supreme Court, and made recommendations for reform. The current Government established a Constitutional Convention albeit one which, despite the grand title, has a limited remit and is ordered to consider a specific list of limited issues, few of which are particularly pressing.

It is peculiar that the current Government has embarked on a series of referendums on constitutional reform which are separate from the Convention. Why are some issues to be considered by the Convention and others not? Why are some amendments proposed, presumably on the basis of recommendations almost 20 years ago, whereas others are put through a fresh round of consideration?

The most important current question is, however: why is the abolition of the one judgment rule not proposed in a separate bill and subject to a separate vote?

One might reasonably be in favour of abolishing the one judgment rule, but the manner in which the amendment is being proposed raise is significant and worrying:

  1. it is included in legislation to establish a court of appeal and although the issues are entirely separate and unconnected they will be voted on as a package;
  2. the government parties do not appear to be making any reference to the proposal in their referendum campaign;
  3. there is little or no debate on the issue.

One might wonder if this is the future of constitutional amendments in Ireland: small “tidying up” measures being tucked into larger reforms, with no government or political attention being drawn to them, no real debate and no option to vote separately on each issue.

PS: Given that polling day on 4 October 2013 includes a referendum on Seanad abolition it is ironic that the only Oireachtas debate on the abolition of the one judgment rule that I could find was in the Seanad (Senator Ivana Bacik; Senator Averil Power).

[Correction] The speech of the Minister for Justice, Alan Shatter, when introducing the Bill did of course note the proposal in the following terms, but did not address why it is included in the court of appeal Bill rather than in stand-alone legislation:

It is my strong view that justice is best served by giving the Judiciary the freedom, where they so desire, to give judgments, including minority judgments, on important matters concerning the constitutionality of our laws. For the time being, this reform, in line with the review group’s recommendation, is limited to the Article 34. Therefore, if the referendum is carried, both the court of appeal and the Supreme Court will be able to issue multiple judgments in cases involving challenges to the constitutionality of laws, in the same way as in all other cases that come before them.

Oaths: at best embarrassing and at worst offensive

Eamon de Valera
Renowned Irish expert on oaths.

When giving evidence in an Irish court or being sworn in as a juror, why is the default oath still religious? In fact, why is an oath required at all? Over 20 years ago, the Law Reform Commission recommended that oaths were not required and should be abolished but their report has largely been ignored.

Irish law generally requires that evidence be given viva voce (ie. live in court) and, according to Murdoch’s Legal Dictionary, the purpose of that requirement is “to ensure that such evidence is true by the provision of a moral or religious and legal sanction against deliberate untruth”. The oath used in Irish courts calls upon the Christian god to witness that evidence is true. As an alternative, a solemn affirmation can be used which doesn’t involve any religious element.

The Law Reform Commission, in its 1990 report on oaths and affirmations, describe the oath as “security for the truth”, the historical reasoning being that human self-interest creates a conflict in the mind of the witness, necessitating that evidence be supported “by the indispensable security of the fear of an avenging God.” But, as Mary Kotsonouris, in her memoirs of her time as a District Court judge, rightly notes:

[T]hose who tells lies without qualm are not going to be put off by the prospect of doing so with their hand on the Bible or the Koran. Ironically, it is the witnesses who ask to affirm rather than swear who show that they are the ones taking the idea of religion seriously.

The oath used in Ireland involves repeating the following while having a hand on a copy of the bible:

I swear by Almighty God that the evidence I shall give shall be the truth the whole truth and nothing but the truth.

A similar oath is used when juries are sworn in. The statutory law on oaths, which originates in the 1800s, provided for a procedure of inquiring into the faith of the witness and formulating an oath which would be appropriately binding on his or her conscience. The most common alternative to the oath is the affirmation:

I do solemnly, sincerely and truly declare and affirm that the evidence I shall give shall be the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.

But it is likely that the religious oath precedes the evidence given by the majority of witnesses in Ireland. Ireland is around 87% Roman Catholic and while no statistics on oaths are available, I would be surprised if 13% of witnesses opted for the affirmation.

There are many reasons why the oath is unsatisfactory and the Commission’s report concluded that many forms of oath are “at best embarrassing and at worst offensive”. The most significant objection is the risk that a juror might be prejudiced against a witness who affirms or who refuses to take the oath. This Commission report noted that this risk was identified by lawyers across many jurisdictions.

Aside from the people “who tell lies without qualm” referred to by Kotsonouris, what of the atheist who gives evidence on oath? Section 3 of the Oaths Act 1888 closes the loophole, at least in so far as terrestrial consequences are concerned: the fact that the witness does not have any religious belief or has beliefs contrary to the oath will not affect the validity of the oath.

The Commission report suggested that the oath is a formality to be “rattled off” and which has no special significance even for Christians; that “it has become a technical adjunct to the law of perjury, “more a genuflection performed out of habit than a ceremony sacred or significant to the law”.” A report of the New South Wales Law Reform Commission is quoted which suggests that the evolution of Christian beliefs in the modern era and the move away from belief in hell and damnation has meant that, even for devout Christians, the oath is deprived of much of its force. In addition, the swearing of an oath in judicial proceedings is contrary to the beliefs of some Christians on the basis of scripture.

The oath is, therefore, an empty formula. So what’s the point?

It would surely be more logical for the affirmation to be the default and, in the interests of efficiency if nothing else, only form of words used. After all, it should be sufficient that evidence given in a civil court be subject to civil law. One could go further and abolish oaths and affirmations entirely, something suggested by Kotsonouris.

The offence of perjury is lying to the court. While it may also be a sin, it is a crime. If, instead, a judge was obliged to tell all witnesses individually, including the police, of their obligation to tell the truth, to inform them of the penalties for perjury and to ask if they understood, it might take a little longer, but it might also put the fear of God – and of punishment – into some liars, while removing a cause of scandal to the pure heart.

The final recommendation by the Commission report was as follows:

Having reviewed all these factors, and in particular having regard to our conclusion that the oath offers little or no greater security for the truth than a statutory affirmation, the Commission considers that the potential prejudice to witnesses and jurors who choose to affirm, together with the great attraction of providing for a universal and simplified procedure which would place all persons on an equal footing, weighs in favour of the abolition of the oath generally.

This recommendation, that the oath be abolished and replaced by a modified affirmation, has never been implemented. For now, the oath is another aspect of public life in Ireland which remains theistic by default.

Thankfully, this can be changed by any reform-minded government. The oath required of a judge before taking office is, however, a different matter. Article 34 of the Constitution sets out the text of the declaration:

In the presence of Almighty God I, [judge’s name] , do solemnly and sincerely promise and declare that I will duly and faithfully and to the best of my knowledge and power execute [my] office … without fear or favour, affection or ill will towards any man, and that I will uphold the Constitution and the laws. May God direct and sustain me.

This oath does not involve swearing on the bible and merely states that it is made “in the presence” of God, calling upon him to “direct and sustain” the judge. Nevertheless, many categories of citizen might reasonably object to taking such an oath. Article 34, however, provides that any judge who declines or neglects to take this specific oath “shall be deemed to have vacated his office.”

More on court reporting of indecent material

In response to my post about sections 14 and 15 of the Censorship of Publications Act 1929, TJ McIntyre points out that it would be interesting to test the restriction on court reporting against the decision of the Supreme Court in Irish Times v. Ireland [1998] 1 IR 359. That case concerned balancing the constitutional right of the public to know what happens in courts against the right of an accused to a fair trial but the judgment is highly significant to court reporting generally.

In the Irish Times case, Hamilton CJ stated:

While the public nature of the administration of justice and the constitutional right of the wider public to be informed of what is taking place in courts established by the Constitution are matters of public importance these rights must in certain circumstances be subordinated to the interests of justice and the rights of an accused person which are guaranteed by the Constitution.

It is difficult to see what right could be asserted by someone defending section 14 of the 1929 Act against an Article 34 challenge, although Article 40 does say that the publication of indecent matter is an offence which shall be punishable in accordance with law. The offence of blasphemy, also mentioned in Article 40, is contained in section 36 of the Defamation Act 2009 which the then Minsiter for Justice was at pains to stress had to be preserved due to a “constitutional obligation”. Given that the 2009 Act does not deal with publication of indecent matter, one could speculate that the Minister was perhaps aware of section 14 of the 1929 Act and of the opinion that it partially satisfied the constitutional obligation to provide for an offence of indecent publication. Arguably, if the then Minister’s reasoning is accepted, sections 14 and 15 of the 1929 Act must  be retained unless and until Article 40 is amended.

O’Flaherty J, also in the Irish Times case, was of the opinion that freedom of the press is guaranteed under Article 40 “and that the protection in the constitutional provision is not confined to mere expressions of convictions and opinions.” The Supreme Court does not appear to have considered the 1929 Act (despite considering a variety of other laws), but it is hard to see how section 14 be reconciled with O’Flaherty J’s comments.

The purpose of reporting restrictions and in camera rules relied on today are of a different nature than the one contained in section 14 of the 1929 Act. O’Flaherty J noted:

While [various] enactments authorise the exclusion of members of the public, the entitlement of bona fide representatives of the press to attend such trials is preserved. Where a trial involves offences of a sexual nature, while the press may attend, legislation requires that when they report, they must do so in a way that safeguards the anonymity of the parties.

He refers to section 20(3) of the Criminal Justice Act 1951 which allows a judge to exclude the public from criminal trials for offences which are, in the opinion of the court, of an indecent or obscene nature. This sounds like a legislative enactment of the practice referred to by Dr Keating in the Free State era, when judges might invite members of the public to leave a courtroom in the interests of “respect”.

One would have assumed that in a case where section 20(3) of the 1951 Act is invoked and members of the press remain they are free to make accurate reports on the proceedings once parties are not identified. It is hard to see the point in excluding members of the public in those circumstances, if they can subsequently read the indecent or obscene details in a newspaper. However, if a reporter is present in a case in which section 20(3) is invoked and the trial judge is of the opinion that the details of the case are indecent or obscene, it would seem logical that there would be stronger grounds for a prosecution under section 15 of the 1929 Act, but I’m not aware of this ever happening.

Does anyone know more about the 1929 Act?