Supreme Court: Man can proceed with negligence claim against An Garda Síochána



Supreme Court
Supreme Court

A man who brought proceedings against the State for negligence arising out of erroneous statements made in Sligo District Court by a member of An Garda Síochána can proceed with his claim.

Finding that it was not clear that the State’s defence would prevail on the grounds of immunity alone, Chief Justice Frank Clarke said that the Garda’s handling of their mistake, which involved an erroneous account of previous convictions to the District Court and to the media, did not reflect well on the force.

Background

Mr Damien Jeffrey appeared in Sligo District Court in December 2010 to answer charges brought by the Director of Public Prosecutions arising out of certain road traffic offences. He pleaded guilty to the offences.

During the hearing, a member of An Garda Síochána described what were said to be Mr Jeffrey’s previous convictions to the court – however, these were the previous convictions of someone with the same name as Mr Jeffrey.

Prior to sentencing, Mr Jeffrey’s solicitor told the court that an error had been made and that the convictions did not relate to Mr Jeffrey, who did not have any previous convictions of any sort.

The district judge sentenced Mr Jeffrey and, in view of the fact that none of the offences related to road traffic matters, the judge did not take those alleged previous convictions into account.

Despite this, an erroneous account of Mr Jeffrey’s allegedly significant criminal record was reported in local media. This had significant adverse consequences for Mr Jeffrey.

Thereafter, Mr Jeffrey’s solicitors requested an admission of liability from the gardaí, a published written apology, and compensation for the injury and distress arising from the actions of the State. Mr Jeffrey’s solicitors also requested that the Garda Superintendent appear before the District Court to outline the inaccuracy of the information provided to the court, to formally correct the public record, apologise to Mr Jeffrey, and allow the media the opportunity to report on the matter. Gardaí did not accede to any of these requests.

Chief Justice Clarke said some aspects of how An Garda Síochána handled their mistake did not reflect particularly well on the force. Although there was a belated acceptance of error and acknowledgement of regret, An Garda Síochána declined to go into court and correct the record – Chief Justice Clarke said it was not reasonable to fail to make this public correction. If Mr Jeffrey was damaged by the Gardaí’s mistake in the first place, Chief Justice Clarke said that it didn’t seem to be “too much to ask that a correction should be made in the same forum, in the hope that the damage thereby caused might be negatived”.

High Court

In 2011, Mr Jeffrey commenced proceedings in the High Court, claiming damages for negligence, breach of duty, and negligent misrepresentation. The State brought an application before the High Court seeking the dismissal of the proceedings.

In the High Court, Mr Justice Max Barrett stated that the case centred on whether the immunity from defamation arising in court proceedings also extended to other forms of action, and later asked if it was possible for an action for negligence and breach of duty to succeed where an action in defamation would have failed.

Mr Justice Barrett said that Mr Jeffrey’s action must fail, commenting that if witnesses were “…to be exposed to the threat of any form of litigation for what they said in court, truth would soon be the victim of unreal expectations and our system of court administered justice would quickly flounder”.

Supreme Court

Mr Jeffrey appealed to the Supreme Court. Chief Justice Clarke explained that one of the core contentions made on behalf of the State was that the substance of Mr Jeffrey’s claim was one in defamation, even though it was technically pleaded as a claim for damages for negligence, breach of duty, and negligent misrepresentation. Chief Justice Clarke said that the more fundamental point on the part of the State was to the effect that the presenting Garda enjoyed immunity.

Firstly, Chief Justice Clarke was satisfied that it was “at least arguable that a person may be able successfully to maintain a claim for negligent misstatement where, although the injury claimed relates principally to loss of reputation, it can also be established that economic loss has occurred as well”.

Chief Justice Clarke was also satisfied there was sufficient doubt about the precise parameters of any duty of care which might be owned by a person, such as the presenting Garda, to anyone else arising out of the conduct of court proceedings, such that it cannot be said that Mr Jeffrey’s proceedings would be bound to fail on the basis of an absence of a duty of care. 

Finally, while there could be grounds for believing that the presenting Garda might enjoy an immunity from suit having regard to the proper characterisation of his role in the District Court proceedings against Mr Jeffrey, Chief Justice Clarke said that this question was complex and not one where it could be said with sufficient clarity that the defence would prevail on the grounds of immunity alone. 

Finding that appeal should be allowed, and Mr Jeffrey be permitted to pursue a claim, Chief Justice Clarke said the claim should be claim confined to seeking to establish negligence and economic loss linked to the erroneous statements made by the presenting Garda.

  • by Seosamh Gráinséir for Irish Legal News

© Irish Legal News Ltd 2019



Other judgments by Mr Justice Frank Clarke