Tag: constitution

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?

Censorship in the 1920s, still on the books?

The Radio 1 History Show recently had an interesting segment on the prosecution of a Waterford newspaper editor.

In the new Irish Free State, low levels of sexual immorality and sexual crime were viewed as two indicators of this nation’s health. The reporting of sexual crime was to remain largely off limits to Irish journalists up to the 1940s and beyond.

A prosecution brought against a newspaper editor in 1929 did much to establish this status quo. The editor in question was D.C. Boyd of the Waterford Standard. He had reported explicit details of a case in which a local business man was accused of raping a 13 year old girl.

You can listen here to Myles Dungan’s interview with Dr Tony Keating, who gave a lecture on the topic in Waterford.

Dungan says that “reporting of sexual crime was to remain largely off limits to Irish journalists up to the 1940s and beyond.” I was curious to learn how far that “beyond” stretched and what became of the offence Boyd was prosecuted with.

Section 14(1) of the Censorship of Publications Act 1929 provides:

It shall not be lawful to print or publish or cause or procure to be printed or published in relation to any judicial proceedings:

(a) any indecent matter the publication of which would be calculated to injure public morals, or

(b) any indecent medical, surgical or physiological details the publication of which would be calculated to injure public morals.

Section 15 says that an offence is punishable by a fine of up to £500 and/or up to six months imprisonment (which could include hard labour). In light of current debates about ISP and website operator liability for online content, it is interesting to note that section 15 specifically provided that the liability for the offence extended to proprietors, editors, publishers and “master printers”.

So, when was it repealed? It wasn’t. Sections 14(1) and 15 remain on the books.

According to Keating, Boyd’s case was the first prosecution of this type and was described by the trial judge as being exactly the type of case the law was introduced to deal with. One can only hope that it remains in force due to oversight rather than principle.

Dr Keating says that the maximum fine of £500 in section 15 would, in today’s money, be £22,000 (I am assuming he was referring to sterling). The Fines Act 2010 means that the offence is now subject to a Class A fine, currently up to €5,000.

I’m not aware of any more recent prosecutions but in 1953 Joseph Blowick TD was asking the then Minister for Justice Gerald Boland whether he had submitted a newspaper report on the murder of a judge‘s daughter in Northern Ireland to the Attorney General with a view to having it prosecuted under section 15.

Surely the Minister will agree that the publication of the sordid details referred to in the particular paragraph should not go at least without protest from the Minister provided that he is not statutorily debarred from making a protest to the Censorship Board? In the interests of the clean journalism practised in this country, very laudably practised I must say, surely the Minister should not allow the publication of sordid details like these to pass.

The Minister informed Mr Blowick that his officials had considered the publication but did not believe it could have been calculated to injure public morals.

It is difficult to see how the prohibition on publication is compatible with the Constitution or the European Convention on Human Rights. Even if freedom of expression were not an issue, the prohibition itself refers to both “indecent matter” which would be defined quite differently today than in 1929. Another difficulty, as was the case with Mr Blowick’s complaint in 1953, would be in proving that the publication was “calculated to injure public morals”. It is a mystery how Mr Boyd was found to have done so in 1929.

There is nothing super about these injunctions

The unfolding superinjunctions scandal in the United Kingdom is one of those legal stories that has gripped the media, broadsheet and tabloid alike. Much of the coverage now focuses on the fact that social media tends to make a superinjunction redundant.

An injunction is an equitable remedy and therefore a number of specific rules (maxims) apply when a judge considers whether to grant one. One such maxim is that equity will not act in vain. Mr. Justice Clarke summarised the position in a recent Irish case involving an attempt to force through the sale of a property where the purchasers had no ability to pay.

It has often been said that equity will not act in vain. A court should, therefore, be reluctant to make an equitable order where there is no reasonable prospect of the order concerned being complied with. I should add one qualification to that statement. There obviously may be cases where persons may simply decline to obey an order of the court. The fact that a party might be most unlikely to obey a court order could not, in my view, be a reason for the court not making the order in the first place. However, where it is clear on the evidence that a party would not, in fact, be able to comply with a court order, then a court should be most reluctant to make such an order.

For superinjunctions of the type currently in the news, there is no reasonable prospect of the orders being complied with. But this results from the fact that Twitter users, for example, are unlikely to obey the order, rather than being unable to obey it. Nevertheless, the issue of enforceability is significant. Proposals to impose editorial moderation on social media are somewhat silly and, as with many of the measures adopted to tackle illegal filesharing, doomed to fail.

As the Guardian commented in its editorial yesterday:

The case is, on the face of it, not a terribly attractive one for arguing either the cause of freedom of speech or for the supremacy of parliament.

However, the issue is not about the peccadilloes of a premiership footballer and the same principles will apply in far more serious circumstances.

What if some people on Twitter decided to name rape victims, or publish the current identity and whereabouts of Mary Bell, the child killer was who has, since 2003, been protected by a court order?

On the other hand, the existence of superinjunctions first came to public attention during the remarkable Trafigura affair in 2009 when the Guardian was prohibited from reporting on a question asked in the British Parliament. The case was something of a nightmare scenario for those with an interest in open democracy and press freedom.

The UK controversies inevitably involve debate on the merits of introducing a privacy law or reforming defamation law. What about this jurisdiction? Reforms have recently been made to our defamation law and while they were to be accompanied by a “deeply flawed” privacy law, that initiative has stalled.

The Privacy Bill 2006 proposed that a court could, in a privacy action, make an order prohibiting a defendant from doing anything that the court considers violate the privacy of the plaintiff. It also allowed for wide powers to control media reporting of privacy actions. It certainly appeared wide enough to allow for superinjunctions. Eoin O’Dell outlined the conundrum that the Bill would present the media with when coupled with the Defamation Act 2009.

[The Bill] has raised the spectre the defamation gagging writ of old simply being replaced by a shiny new privacy gagging writ. One aspect of the two Bills together puts journalists into a potentially invidious situation. To be able to rely on the defence of reasonable publication in a defamation action, one of the factors which the court will take into account is the extent to which a reasonable attempt was made by the journalist to obtain and publish a response from the person who is the subject of the article.

However, a journalist who makes such contacts in advance, now runs the risk of precipitating a privacy action from that person.

The journalist is now potentially damned by the Privacy Bill for contacting the subject of the article, and damned by the Defamation Bill for not doing so.

Of course, we don’t know if there are any superinjunctions in force in Ireland because, by their nature, the media is generally prohibited from reporting even their existence. Given that Ireland is such a small community, however, it seems probable that word of superinjunctions would quickly leak out. In addition, as noted by Flor McCarthy:

The constitutional requirement in this jurisdiction that justice must be administered in public would be a high hurdle for an applicant to overcome; though maybe we just don’t have the right celebrities!

Nevertheless, it is not inconceivable that such draconian injunctions could be issued in Ireland. After all, the ongoing banking crisis in Ireland has been accompanied by an astounding level of secrecy. The Credit Institutions (Stablisiation) Act 2010, a remarkable piece of legislation which should be far more controversial than it currently is, baldly provides:

The Court may order that any application under this Act, or any part of such an application, shall be heard otherwise than in public or may impose restrictions with regard to the disclosure in open court, publication or reporting of any material that might be commercially sensitive.

This is a very broad provision and was relied on almost immediately after the Act was passed. It was quite clear at the time this Act was first used that the parties hoped that the media would not be aware of the proceedings. Could a judge order that an article such as that in the Irish Times not be published on the grounds that the fact of the application itself was commercially sensitive?

There may well be grounds for the use of draconian court orders on occasion but it must be considered that the parties most likely to seek them are large corporations and wealthy individuals. As Mark Stephens, a high profile media lawyer, commented:

They are almost discriminatory justice. Not a single woman has taken out a super injunction and as a result of that, it is only the men. Invariably they are rich men because it costs between £50,000 and £100,000 (€56,000 and €113,000) to get a superinjunction.


Why these calls for the death penalty?

For reasons unknown, the reintroduction of the death penalty in Ireland has become something of a hot topic.

First, a recently retired and highly respected High Court judge calls for its reintroduction so that certain types of murderers “pay the price”. Then, John O’Keefe (Dean of Law at the Dublin Business School) agrees, referring to uncited research which apparently demonstrates the deterrent effect of the death penalty. His contribution is highly charged, with populist statements that range from the vague:

In truly civilised countries, murder means murder.

to the gung ho:

One thing of which we can be certain is that the murderer who receives a lethal injection is now deterred for good. It’s called permanent incapacitation and it always works.

He also raises the old chestnuts of criminals getting off on a technicality and enjoying greater comforts in prison than at home, and refers dismissively to “rehabilitation aficionadoes”.

Now, county councillors from Fianna Fáil and the Green Party have chimed in, despite their lack of a role in national matters concerning criminal justice or the constitution.

Speaking at the January meeting of the Mid-West Regional Authority in Ennis, Co Clare, Cllr PJ Kelly (FF) said that the fear of punishment for crimes among criminals no longer existed.

Mr Kelly said: “I believe that there will be a demand before long for the reintroduction of the death penalty for certain offences. I would support a public debate on the issue.”

Supporting Mr Kelly’s call for a debate on the matter, Cllr Brian Meaney (Green) said: “A debate on the reintroduction of the death penalty is something that would put the focus on the issue of crime and punishment.”

There is a moral argument against the use of the death penalty which people either agree with or they don’t. But many of those calling for its reintroduction do so in apparent ignorance of or disregard for our international obligations and recent history. The attitude of the European Union to the death penalty, for example, can be gleaned from the fact that it marks an annual European day against the death penalty.

The history of the death penalty in Ireland was neatly summarised by the Irish Times when reporting on Mr. Justice Richard Johnson’s comments:

The last person executed in Ireland was in 1954, when Michael Manning was hanged, with the sentence being carried out by English official hangman Albert Pierrepoint. No further executions were carried out and it was abolished in law in 1990.

The abolition of capital punishment is also a condition of EU membership and exists in a protocol to the European Convention on Human Rights, to which Ireland is a signatory.

The 21st amendment inserted [in 2001] a clause preventing the Oireachtas from reintroducing the death penalty without a further referendum. It was passed in a referendum held the same day as the first Nice referendum by 62 per cent of those who voted, with 38 per cent voting against the ban.

In summary:

  1. Executions by death penalty were possible in Ireland until 2001.
  2. The last execution carried out was in 1954.
  3. A public debate and national referendum on the death penalty was carried out within the last decade and resulted in an overwhelming majority of the Irish electorate agreeing to its abolition.
  4. Reintroducing the death penalty would require Ireland to leave both the European Union and the Council of Europe.
  5. Reintroduction of the death penalty would, instead, join us with a colourful club of nations.

There appears no serious reason for this debate to be held at the present time and, Mr. Justice Johnson aside, can only be explained by “law and order” politics.

Judges’ pay: an unnecessary, Government-created controversy

The political football of judges’ pay has been thrown back on the pitch by Fine Gael. In today’s Irish Times, Alan Shatter (FG/DSth) makes the argument for his proposed constitutional referendum.

Fine Gael’s front bench spokesperson on children, and himself a prominent solicitor, suggests that the voluntary scheme by which judges can currently volunteer to pay the pension levy is a “slippery slope”, as it cause judges to fear that they will only be promoted if they volunteer to pay the levy. This would run counter to the spirit of Article 35.5 of the Constitution, which says that “[t]he remuneration of a judge shall not be reduced during his continuance in office” and is aimed at protecting the separation of powers and judicial independence.

Deputy Shatter makes a crucial point: “judges should not be perceived as succumbing to political pressure or as an elite living in a financial ivory tower immune from the financial emergency confronting the State.” The Government’s handling of the issue has invited both possibilities, but is Deputy Shatter’s conclusion that a referendum is necessary correct or desirable?

Today’s piece in the Times and Mairead Enright’s post over at Human Rights in Ireland cover the law on this topic. Many in the legal profession were surprised by the Government’s decision not to include judges in the pension levy. Few appear to believe that the pension levy would obviously contravene Article 35.5, though some weight must be accorded to the suggestion that it would, given the authority of the Attorney General and the esteem in which he is held.

Of course, any challenge requires a plaintiff. In practical terms and in the context of Ireland’s current economic and political environment, it would be surprising if a judge were willing to run the gauntlet of public opinion by litigating on this point.

If a referendum is to be held, could the Government adopt Deputy Shatter’s proposal? The proposed wording of his new Article 35.5 reads:

The remuneration of a judge shall not be reduced during his continuance in office save where it is necessary to address a serious threat to the State’s economy, there is a compelling need to stabilise the State’s finances and as a consequence it is necessary to effect a reduction in public service remuneration; in such circumstances any reduction in the remuneration of all public servants or in the remuneration of a class of public servants may be applied to effect a comparable reduction in the remuneration of all members of the judiciary.

The highlighted words and phrases raise immediate questions. What constitutes a serious threat? What, exactly, is the State’s economy and, if it is something other than the State’s finances, how is a reduction in judges’ pay necessary to address that threat? What is a compelling need?

In addition, the wording imposes requirements of necessity and is cumulative: it must be necessary to address a serious threat in the economy and it must be necessary to stabilise the State’s finances in order for judges’ pay to be cut. Granted, it may be unlikely that you would have one without the other, but the wording is less than solid. (To be fair, any opposition PMB is a political, rather than legal, proposal.)

It would be better to have a simpler, clearer statement that could be fleshed out by means of primary legislation. It could be provided that the remuneration of any individual judge shall not be reduced during his continuance in office, save where such reduction applies to each judge of the same court or to State employees in general. This would avoid unnecessarily restricting Article 35.5 should different circumstances arise in the future which do not relate to the economic sky falling in but which equally require public sector pay adjustments.

The Government has arguably created an unnecessary and damaging controversy. Discussion of Article 35.5 is couched in much hand-wringing of the need to protect the independence and authority of the judiciary: exactly what this controversy has failed to do. Had the levy been imposed, judges would doubtless have been as disgruntled as others who have had their pay cut in recent months, but by creating the voluntary scheme they have invited public opprobrium.

In political terms, the correct course of action would have been to include judges in the pension levy and other financial adjustments and make no particular comment in relation to the matter. This is not to suggest that the Government ignore the Constitution; given that the constitutional position of the levy as respects judges is debatable, there is an argument for this course of action and to do so would not be flagrantly unconstitutional.

Instead, we have unnecessary debate on a niche area of expenditure which has been blown out of proportion, leading to calls for wasteful referenda to introduce constitutional amendments which may not be future-proof.