High Court: Reversal of decision on jurisdiction breached the rules of natural justice
A District Court judge’s decision to decline jurisdiction in respect of an assault charge in circumstances where the same judge had accepted jurisdiction at a previous hearing was reached in breach of fair procedures.
Granting an order of certiorari quashing the decision, Ms Justice Miriam O’Regan said that a considerable degree of unfairness was caused by the DPP’s “limited description” of the case to the court in circumstances where the purpose of that particular hearing was to fix a trial date, and the accused was represented by an agent solicitor who was instructed for this purpose only.
Ruling on jurisdiction reversed
In the District Court on 12 October 2016, Judge Patrick Durcan accepted jurisdiction having heard that the Director of Public Prosecutions was directing summary disposal of a charge against Stephen Ryan of assault causing harm contrary to Section 3 of the Non-Fatal Offences Against the Person Act 1997.
Mr Ryan’s trial was listed for hearing in March 2017; however, it was adjourned on this date. The matter came up for mention again on 10 May 2017 for the purpose of securing a new trial date – thus, Mr Ryan’s presence before the Court on this date was excused.
Prior to the 10 May 2017 hearing, Mr Ryan’s solicitors agreed with the Inspector who was presenting the case for the prosecution that, subject to the Court, an agreed hearing date would be 13 June 2017. In those circumstances, Mr Ryan’s solicitors instructed an agent solicitor to represent Mr Ryan on 10 May 2017 for the purpose of securing the date of trial.
When the matter was called on 10 May 2017, Judge Durcan considered the same medical report which was furnished at the hearing on 12 October 2016, indicated that the matter was too serious to be dealt with summarily and declined jurisdiction.
In the High Court, Mr Ryan sought an order of certiorari quashing Judge Durcan’s decision to refuse jurisdiction, on the following grounds:
- That the judge failed to give reasons and/or his decision was irrational;
- That the decision was reached in breach of fair procedure.
It was submitted that Judge Durcan, without explanation, reversed his earlier determination to accept jurisdiction and did not give reasons; that the decision was arrived at ultra vires and/or was unfair; that Judge Durcan failed to have regard to relevant considerations and had regard to irrelevant considerations; that the decision was irrational and made without advance notice in the absence of the applicant and his duly instructed solicitor and without the opportunity for submissions. During the hearing, Mr Ryan also complained that only one of two possible medical reports were furnished to Judge Durcan, and that the decision was made on the basis of partial facts only.
Considering the digital audio recordings of the hearings on 12 October 2016 and 10 May 2017, Ms Justice O’Regan said that Mr Ryan failed to establish that Judge Durcan had failed to give reasons for his decision or that his decision was otherwise irrational.
Breach of fair procedures
On whether there had been a breach of fair procedures, Ms Justice O’Regan was firstly satisfied that the issue of jurisdiction had been properly dealt with on 16 October 2016. She said the following factors were present at the hearing in October 2016, but had been absent at the 10 May 2017 hearing:
- The court inquired as to whether or not the accused was present;
- The court insisted on the accused sitting in a particular area – this suggests that he was being positioned within the court to appreciate the significance of what was taking place;
- The court had been advised by the Inspector that the DPP was directing a summary disposal of the matter.
Ms Justice O’Regan said that, in providing a “selective factual background, including failure to advise that the accused was excused from being present on that particular date, and that the court had previously accepted jurisdiction, unfairness in the process was triggered”. Ms Justice O’Regan said the unfairness was compounded by the Court’s departure from the procedure adopted in October 2016.
Considering the fact that the agent solicitor was instructed only for the purpose of securing a new hearing date for the trial, Ms Justice O’Regan said that Mr Ryan’s “unhelpful representation before the court” contributed to the unfairness. However, she added that this had to be seen in light of the fact that the hearing was for the purpose of fixing a new trial, agreed by the parties prior to the hearing, and Mr Ryan had been excused from attending.
Objectively, Ms Justice O’Regan said unfairness was present in or about the hearing which gave rise to the impugned decision on 10 May 2017. Finding that a considerable degree of the unfairness was due to the limited description by the Inspector in circumstances where it was clear that Judge Durcan was relying on the Inspector’s account, Ms Justice O’Regan was satisfied that there was “a breach of the rules of natural justice resulting in procedural unfairness …sufficient to quash the decision”.
Stating that the “complicity” in the unfairness by Mr Ryan’s representatives could be dealt with in the order for costs, Ms Justice O’Regan granted the order of certiorari sought.
© Irish Legal News Ltd 2020