Desmond v MGN Ltd

JudgeMr. Justice Geoghegan,Mr. Justice Kearns,Macken, J.
Judgment Date15 October 2008
Neutral Citation[2008] IESC 56
CourtSupreme Court
Docket NumberNo. 317/2005,[S.C. No. 317
Date15 October 2008

Geoghegan J.

Kearns J.

Macken J.

No. 317/2005



Practice and procedure - Want of prosecution - Defamation - Inordinate and inexcusable delay - Balance of competing interests - Rules of the Superior Courts, O. 27

Facts: This was an appeal against the refusal of the High Court to dismiss the Plaintiff's claim for want of prosecution either pursuant to O. 27 of the Rules of the Superior Courts or pursuant to the inherent jurisdiction of the court. The basis for the Plaintiff's failure to progress his claim was inter alia that he acted on legal advice received not to progress the proceedings bearing in mind that the same subject matter was also the subject of the Moriarty Tribunal.

Held by the Supreme Court (Geoghegan, Kearns and Macken JJ) in dismissing the appeal and affirming the order of the High Court that the delay was wholly inordinate and inexcusable. However, the balance between competing interests lay in favour of the Plaintiff being permitted to vindicate his name.

Reporter: R.W.


JUDGMENT of Mr. Justice Geoghegan delivered the 15th day of October 2008


I find myself in complete agreement with the judgment of Macken J. and the reasons which she gives. In particular, I am in agreement with her and indeed with Kearns J. in his judgment that the delay at issue was both inordinate and inexcusable. I take the view, however, as does Macken J., that the balance of justice favours, nevertheless, the action being allowed to proceed.


There are three aspects of the case on which I would like to make some observations of my own.


The first relates to the plea of justification. I entirely agree with Macken J. that as she puts it "in assessing where the balance of justice lies as between the parties,...the scope and ambit of the defence .. is a factor which, in an appropriate case, may be taken into account." The plea of justification in a defamation action has always been considered to be a most serious plea and certainly not one to be made likely. In this case, the appellant pleaded that the words in their natural and ordinary meaning were true in substance and in fact. Macken J., in her judgment, refers to the fact that during the course of exchanges before the court, senior counsel for the appellant suggested that in some way it was not a full justification plea and that at any rate it might be amended to a modified plea of some kind. In my view, no significance can be attached to that submission. If the action was to be struck out now the plea of justification would remain on the record and it could never be disproved. There was also a suggestion coming from counsel that the pleadings might be amended to include what has become known in England as "the Reynolds defence" deriving from the libel action brought against the Sunday Times by the former Taoiseach, Mr. Albert Reynolds. Again, I think that that is entirely irrelevant to the weight to be attached to the plea of justification in considering the balance of justice.


Further significance can be attached to it in the light of the


respondent's submissions before the Moriarty Tribunal. At all material times, the newspaper report complained of was being disputed by the respondent albeit before that tribunal. I am satisfied that the respondent could not be excused for failing to proceed with his action for his own tactical reasons (I would not really call them legal reasons) without giving any notice of his intention to the appellant and that is why I agree that the delay was not only inordinate but also inexcusable. On this point I therefore disagree with the views of the learned trial judge. But, for the reasons which I have indicated and especially in the light of the plea of justification, I am satisfied that there are just reasons for allowing the action to go ahead in the absence of serious prejudice to the defence. I do not think that the reasons put forward for such alleged prejudice are valid. I adopt the views in this regard of Macken J.


The second matter on which I wish to comment relates to the views expressed by Kearns J. in his judgment that the jurisprudence well established by two Supreme Court decisions in relation to when an action should be struck out for delay have somehow now to be modified having regard to the European Convention on Human Rights incorporated into domestic law by the 2003 Act. This view which has been expressed in one or two other judgments exclusively derives, as far as I am aware, from the dicta of Hardiman J. in Gilroy v. Flynn [2005] 1 I.L.R.M. 290 as set out in the judgment of Kearns J. On my reading of that case, these dicta can be regarded as obiter dicta. Macken J., in her judgment, expresses the view with which I fully agree that the basic principles as set out in Rainsford v. Limerick Corporation [1995] 2 I.L.R.M. 561 and Primor Plc v. Stokes Kennedy Crowley [1996] 2 I.R. 459 remain substantially unaltered. I do not think that the case law of the Court of Human Rights relating to delay justifies reconsideration of those principles or in any way modifies those principles. I do not know of any relevant case of the Court of Human Rights dealing with when an action should be struck out for delay.


The dicta of Hardiman J. to which I have already referred indicate that his view is that application of those principles should now change or indeed that the principles themselves might have to be "revisited". I am not convinced that that would be either necessary or desirable. It would seem to me that those principles have served us well. Unless and until they are altered in an appropriate case by this court, I think that they should still be treated as representing good law and


in that respect, I entirely agree with Macken J.


The third matter is something which has arisen in a peripheral way in this case and is the approach which this court should adopt on an appeal from a discretionary order. Traditionally the common law view was that a discretionary order should not be interfered with by an appellate court unless the judge at first instance made an error of law in the exercise of the discretion. In a landmark case cited by Kearns J. in his judgment in Bonis Morelli: deceased; Vella v. Morelli [1968] I.R. 11. It was pointed out by this court that an appeal lay from every decision of the High Court to the Supreme Court unless otherwise provided for by law. Any rule by which the court was inhibited from interfering with a discretionary order was not therefore compatible with the Constitution. However, in the Morelli case as Kearns J. points out, Budd J. indicated that the court would have to give "great weight to the views of the trial judge". I think that that is the true legal principle in the light of the Constitution now. But there is an added factor in my opinion. The expression "discretionary order" can cover a huge variety of orders, some of them involving substantive rights and others being merely procedural in nature including mundane day to day procedural orders such as orders for adjournments etc. I think that in reality over the years since Morelli this court has exercised common sense in relation to that issue. The court would be very slow indeed to interfere with the High Court judge's management of his or her list, but in a case such as this particular case where much more substantial issues are at stake the court, while having respect for the view of the High Court judge, must seriously consider whether in all the circumstances and in the interests of justice it should re-exercise the discretion in a different direction.


As indicated, I would dismiss the appeal.






Record No.




Geoghegan, J.


Kearns, J.


Macken, J.














Judgment delivered the 15th October 2008 by Macken, J.


This is an appeal from the judgment of the High Court (Hanna, J.) delivered ex tempore on the 11th July 2005, and from the order made thereon pursuant to a Notice of Motion dated the 25th May 2005, by which the appellant sought relief under Order 122, Rule 11, of the Rules of the Superior Courts 1986 as amended, or in the alternative pursuant to the inherent jurisdiction of the court, seeking to strike out the plaintiff's proceedings on the grounds of inordinate and excusable delay.


According to the agreed note of counsel of the decision of the learned High Court judge, he found that while there had been inordinate delay in the plaintiff progressing his case to a hearing, nevertheless, having regard to the circumstances surrounding the subject matter of the proceedings, it was "understandably prudent" advice to the plaintiff that he should stay his hand and that this had generated "just about sufficient excuse" for the delay. Although the learned High Court judge found the delay excusable, he nevertheless went on to find that, even if inexcusable, in seeking to strike a balance between the interests of the plaintiff and those of the defendant, that balance was in favour of permitting the plaintiff to proceed with his claim.


Against that finding the appellant seeks to set aside the judgment and order of the High Court and asks this court to strike out the proceedings, on the basis that the learned High Court judge failed correctly to apply the law to the facts arising on the application.


The Facts and the Proceedings


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