Thursday 24 May 2018

Barrister may not have had flooding report, Wicklow defamation case hears

The High Court
The High Court

Tim Healy

A barrister may not have had a report stating part of a site for social housing was liable to flooding when he did a review which rejected councillors' allegations about the way Wicklow Co Council acquired the land, the High Court heard.

Senior counsel Seamus Woulfe, who was appointed in 2011 to investigate allegations about the acquisition of the three-acre site at "Three Trouts", Charlesland, Greystones, said while he could not remember whether he had the particular flooding report when doing his review, he knew there was an issue about flooding as it was debated during a Bord Pleanala hearing which he did deal with in the review.

Mr Woulfe was being cross-examined on the opening day of an appeal by a former Labour councillor and a current independent councillor against a Circuit Court decision dismissing their action for defamation against the council and its county manager at the time, Eddie Sheehy.

Barry Nevin, the former councillor, and Thomas Cullen, currently sitting, sued over a press release issued on behalf of the council by Mr Sheehy claiming it defamed them.

The release, issued in April 2013 under the headline "Woulfe Report Rejects Councillors' Allegations regarding Three Trouts CPO" defamed them.

They alleged it incorrectly held them responsible, or solely responsible, for a decision of the Department of the Environment to direct the Seamus Woulfe review into the proposed €3m compulsory land acquisition

This, the release stated, led to an additional cost of €200,000 for the council due to having to pay administrative costs of the review and for interest on a loan it had to take out to buy the land.

The councillor and former councillor claim their reputations were injured by publication of the release and they are entitled to damages.

The Circuit Court judge described as true an allegation in the press release that the councillors’ concerns were misconceived, not well founded, unfair to unnamed officials and that there was the additional €200,000 cost.

In the appeal before Ms Justice Marie Baker, the defendants argue the press release was true while the plaintiffs argue it is not.

Mr Woulfe told the judge while he did not have any statutory powers to compel witnesses or conduct searches, he had co-operation from

everyone involved, including officials and councillors, into what were two reports he eventually compiled.

Asked by Luán O Braonáin SC, for the defendants, about comments made in a Wicklow newspaper sometime after issuing his reports about his (Woulfe's) Fine Gael connections - the court heard he is a member of FG Dublin North Central - Mr Woulfe said he did not think his appointment was in any way party political as he was appointed to do the review by then junior housing minister Willie Penrose - a Labour TD.

"It did not seem to me to have any party political implications and I would not have looked at it that way".

Asked about another newspaper report which seemed to suggest he edited "factual reality" in his (Woulfe) review, Mr Woulfe said this was not the case that he set matters out as practically and as fairly as he could.

Under cross-examination by Mark Harty SC, for the plaintiffs, Mr Woulfe accepted he may not have seen an environmental report commissioned by the council itself in 2006 stating that the location of the housing site, the Three Trouts stream, was liable to flood every five to ten years and one third of the land that was bought could flood.

Mr Harty argued this was in circumstances where a number of better sites closer to Greystones town centre had been suggested before the decision to compulsorily acquire Three Trouts was made as well as problems over access to this land through an existing local authority estate.

Mr Woulfe said even though his review may not have made reference to a particular report, it did not mean he did not get every document.

Mr Harty said the 2006 environmental report was highly relevant, had been referred to in an email to the Department before it was decided to buy the land and pre-dated the Bord Pleanala hearing into the compulsory purchase.

Asked was he presented with the 2006 report which would have laid out the state of knowledge as to the flooding issue at that time, Mr Woulfe said the best answer he could give was that he did not recall but he was not absolutely sure.

The case continues.

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