independent

Friday 19 September 2014

Don't play hard to get with the courts

Published 08/11/2011 | 11:33

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IT DOES not pay to play hard to get with the courts. While their personal spending power will soon be eroded in the wake of the referendum on their pay, judges retain formidable power over the fate of others as they set about their duties. There really is no other profession like it.

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A judge who does not like gum chewers, or cap wearers, or idle chatterers can at the very least require such irritating persons to leave his presence. When Judge Murrough Connellan announced recently that he would hold the owner of the next mobile phone to ring in his courtroom 'in contempt', no-one listening dared to test whether or not the threat was in earnest for fear they would be led away to a cell. We all rummaged and reached nervously to check that our mute buttons were switched on. Contempt is a damned uncomfortable state to be in.

The judge was presiding at a sitting in the timber lined splendour of the new District Court in Gorey, now the centre of justice for all of North Wexford. Gone are the days when verdicts could be handed down in nightclubs or GAA clubs – as used to happen not all that long ago in Bunclody or New Ross. The law is now dispensed in an antiseptic atmosphere of air-conditioned modernity, complete with a public address system that would do credit to an international airport.

The notion that anyone who steps out of line in the presence of a judge may be held in contempt is necessary to allow for the smooth operation of his court. Nevertheless, as Judge Connellan was reminded during his visit to Gorey, there are other ways of snagging the course of justice.

The most common way of derailing the efficient running of the process is simply not to turn up. On this occasion the judge dealt with a lengthy series of defendants brought before him by the Gardaí after warrants were issued for their arrest because they failed to appear at some previous sitting. In each case he asked the arrested person why they had not presented themselves at the appointed hour.

A judge may have all the legal training in the world but he still finds himself cast in the everyday role of a teacher faced with a pupil who has not produced their homework on time. One teenager accused of trespass said he had not received any letter advising him of the date when he was due to show up before the judge's colleague in Dun Laoghaire. Not good enough, said Murrough Connellan. The accused youth had been told the date when granted bail. No gilt-edged invitation need be sent out.

Another defendant said he had lost the charge sheet issued to him after his arrest for alleged cannabis possession at the at the Oxygen music festival in Punchestown. As a result he was marked absent from Naas Court. Not good enough, said Murrough Connellan, who suggested that a simple telephone call in advance to the prosecuting Garda would have cleared up the matter.

One man accused of assault said he had been very sick at the time when he was supposed to be in court and he had medical reports to support this contention. Fair enough, indicated the judge. The next man produced by the Gardaí said that he, too, had been too sick to attend. Not good enough, said Murrough Connellan, who noted that the individual before him had a record of not turning up to deal with long standing motoring charges.

The next defendant was an Enniscorthy woman whose solicitor was able to state that his client had, in fact, gone to court where she sat all day. Unfortunately, it turned out that she was in the wrong place on the wrong date. She should have gone to Wexford, rather than Gorey. The judge allocated her a fresh date.

One defendant said he had been looking after his elderly mother on the appointed day. Another said he did not receive his summons because he had changed address. One man indicated that he could not attend as he was in Cuan Mhuire at the time. The judge responded that rehab was not a great excuse for failure to come to court, though his experience is that those in charge of the treatment often think otherwise. In each case, despite all the great powers at his disposal, he granted bail.

In a recent piece your reporter made misguided reference to a butterfly which depends on the presence of oak trees and wild violet plants. After peering at my badly scrawled notes, I described this attractive creature as the spider web fritillary, causing many a frown among the lepidopterist fraternity. The correct name is, of course, the silver washed fritillary, so called because it appears that the underside of its wings have been washed in silver. Apologies are due to Will Warham who is doing his best to encourage the silver washed fritillary at his farm near Oylegate.

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