O'Brien v Clerk of Dáil Éireann

 
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[2017] IEHC 179

THE HIGH COURT

Ní Raifeartaigh J.

[2015 No. 4888P]

Denis O'Brien
Plaintiff
AND
Clerk of Dáil Éireann, Sean Barrett, Joe Carey, John Halligan, Martin Heydon, Paul Kehoe, John Lyons, Dinny McGinley, Sean Ó Fearghail, Aengus Ó Snodaigh

and

Emmet Stagg (Members of the Committee on Procedure and Privileges of Dáil Éireann), Ireland

and

the Attorney General
Defendants

Administrative and Constitutional law – Grant of injunction against publication – Publication on floor of House – Complaint to Dail Committee on Procedure and Privileges – Privileged information – Art. 15 of the Constitution of Ireland – O. 57 of the Dail Eireann Standing Orders – Public interest – Sub judice matters

Facts: The plaintiff sought various declaratory reliefs from the Court to the effect that certain utterances were made by Dail Deputies on the floor of the House in relation to the plaintiff's private banking information, which contravened the plaintiff's rights under art. 40.3.1 of the Constitution. The plaintiff contended that he had already obtained injunction from the publication of the said information and the matter was sub judice, and thus, the defendants violated the Court's orders. The defendants pleaded that they were privileged in Dail Eireann to debate any matter.

Ms. Justice Ni Raifeartaigh refused to grant any relief to the plaintiff. The Court held that while potential encroachment on sub judice matters by way of parliamentary utterances was highly condemnable, yet the Court could not intervene in the way the Parliament functioned as the division of the executive and the judiciary was clearly provided under the Constitution. The Court left it upon the legislature to find ways to regulate its procedures in order to bring clarity regarding interference with the Court's orders before making any utterances on the floor of the House. The Court held that by virtue of art. 15, art. 12, and art. 15.13, the parliamentary utterances were immune from judicial scrutiny and thus, non-justiciable.

JUDGMENT of Ms Justice Ní Raifeartaigh delivered on Friday 31st March, 2017
1

The principle of comity as between the legislature and the courts in a system embodying the separation of powers has been described as follows:

‘This principle is that of mutual respect and forbearance between the legislative and judicial branches, and it has been recognised by the courts as one of the foundations for the privileges (including the privilege of free speech) enjoyed by the House. … The relationship between the courts and Parliament is a matter of the highest constitutional significance. It should be, and generally is, marked by mutual respect and restraint. The underlying assumption is that what is under discussion or determination by either the judiciary or the legislature should not be discussed or determined by the other. The judiciary and the legislature should respect their respective roles.’ 1

This case raises important issues as to the role of the Court when the principle of comity is breached. Is an individual entitled to invoke the jurisdiction of the courts where a member of the Houses of the Oireachtas has engaged in utterances which, if spoken outside the House, would constitute a breach of a court order obtained by the individual? While this arose in the present case in relation to the revelation of private banking information of the plaintiff, the implications are much wider and would arise whatever the private nature of the information published, be it information relating to a person's banking, taxation or other financial affairs, health or medical matters, relationships or sexual disposition, or any other information of a private and confidential nature. If a court order prohibits certain information from being published, and a member of the Dáil then publishes the information on the floor of the Dáil, has the Court any jurisdiction to entertain proceedings with regard to those utterances, or with regard to subsequent proceedings of the Committee on Procedure and Privileges arising out of a complaint in relation to those utterances? These are among the central questions in these proceedings.

2

Although a detailed chronology is set out below, the facts of the present case can be stated briefly as follows. The plaintiff, Mr. O'Brien, obtained an interlocutory injunction from the High Court on the 30th April, 2015, in order to protect certain banking information which he anticipated would be broadcast by RTÉ as part of a documentary concerning Irish Bank Resolution Corporation. Over the course of a number of dates subsequent to the granting of the injunction, two members of Dáil Éireann revealed most of the information the subject of the injunction by way of utterances on the floor of the House. As a consequence, the plaintiff was forced to concede on successive dates before the Court which had seisin of the injunction proceedings that the orders made had to be substantially varied, until a point was reached when almost nothing was left covered by the injunction. The plaintiff lodged written complaints relating to the utterances with the Dáil Committee on Procedure and Privileges. The Committee considered these complaints and ruled that the Deputies had not breached the relevant Dáil Standing Order. The Committee communicated this to the plaintiff by letter, although, in one instance, the plaintiff learned of the ruling by reading the Irish Times newspaper before he received any letter from the Committee.

3

These simple and stark facts give rise to the issues in this case, which concern the separation of powers as between the Oireachtas and the courts under the Irish Constitution. The plaintiff now seeks a number of declarations from this Court which would, in effect, condemn both the utterances of the Deputies and the rulings of the Committee. The plaintiff argues that the members overstepped their proper constitutional role and trespassed into the judicial domain when they revealed, on the floor of the House, private banking information which was the subject of an interlocutory injunction. The plaintiff argues that by doing so, the Deputies upset the proper equilibrium established by the Constitution as between the Oireachtas and the courts, and that the Court should step in to restore this equilibrium. The defendants argue that, for the Court, that the matters in issue are non-justiciable and that to entertain the proceedings would itself constitute a breach of the separation of powers provided for under the Constitution. Thus, a distinctive feature of the case is that each side invokes the concept of the separation of powers as supporting its arguments.

4

Within the broad separation of powers issue, a number of distinct questions arise. Regarding the utterances made in the Dáil, these questions include the following. First, what is the relationship between sections 12 and 13 of Article 15 of the Constitution and how do they apply to the present case? What is the meaning of the term “amenable” or “inchúisithe” in Article 15, s.13 of the Constitution? Does the privilege in Article 15, s.12 apply to the utterances in this case and, if so, what is the scope of that privilege? What is the significance, if any, of the fact that the plaintiff has not sued the individual Deputies and has confined the reliefs sought to declaratory relief? If the entertaining of the present proceedings by the Court would prima facie breach the separation of powers, do the circumstances of the present case bring it into a category of exceptional cases referred to in some of the authorities, such that the Court might be permitted to step into what would normally be a zone of non-justiciability? With regard to the Committee's ruling, the question arises as to whether Article 15 ss. 12 and 13 have any relevance, or whether the examination of the issues should take place through the lens of Article 15, s.10 of the Constitution only. Also, having regard to authorities such as: Re Haughey [1971] I.R. 217; Maguire v. Ardagh [2002] 1 I.R. 385; Callely v. Moylan [2014] 4 I.R. 112; and Kerins v. McGuinness and Ors, [2017] IEHC 34 (Kelly P., Noonan and Kennedy JJ.) do the proceedings of the Committee on Procedures and Privileges in the present case fall within or outside the zone of justiciability?

5

The plaintiff's case was presented in two distinct tranches. The first limb of the plaintiff's case concerned the utterances made by the Deputies on successive dates on the floor of the Dáil. Complaint was made not only about the utterances themselves, but also the manner in which the Ceann Comhairle or Leas Ceann Comhairle had failed to prevent them or seek to curb the members in making their utterances while they were speaking, even after correspondence had been sent on behalf of the plaintiff drawing attention to the court order and requesting that steps be taken to prevent a recurrence or further expansion. The second limb of the case concerned the plaintiff's complaint to the Committee of Procedures and Privileges and the manner in which it was dealt with by the Committee, including the Committee's conclusion that there was no breach of the Standing Order relating to the sub judice rule. The defendants raised a claim of non-justiciability in relation to both limbs of the plaintiff's case. I propose to deal with the case in the same sequence, namely to deal, in the first instance, with the utterances in the Dail, and secondly, with the Committee decision.

Relevant Provisions
6

Article 15, s. 10 of the Constitution provides:

‘Each House shall make its own rules and standing orders, with power to attach...

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