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Judge in charge of personal injury litigation in High Court opposed new award guidelines

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The judge who manages personal injury litigation in the High Court argued against the adoption of new guidelines designed to reduce the level of such awards.

Mr Justice Kevin Cross and his High Court colleague Mr Justice Anthony Barr spoke against adopting the guidelines at a remote meeting of the Judicial Council on March 6th last, according to minutes of the confidential meeting.

Mr Justice Donal O’Donnell of the Supreme Court and Mr Justice Michael MacGrath of the High Court spoke in favour of the guidelines. Mr Justice MacGrath is a member of the board of the Judicial Council.

The council comprises the more than 160 judges in the State. In the run-up to its vote on March 6th on the new guideline proposals, confidential documents were circulated amongst the judges arguing for and against the new regime for personal injury awards.

A majority of council members – 146 of 168 – participated in the meeting, with 83 voting in favour of the guidelines and 63 voting against.

Mr Justice Cross has since noted that the new guidelines “do not change the law”. He said judges are still required to assess damages that are “fair and reasonable” in individual cases.

The minutes of the March 6th meeting show that following the addresses by the two judges in favour, and the two judges against the guidelines, “some discussion followed, both in favour [of] and against the proposal”. They do not record the reasons why any judge spoke in favour of or against the new guidelines.

The minutes, released under the Freedom of Information Act, show that the Chief Justice, Frank Clarke, told the meeting he would raise the issue of more judges being required for the District Court if the guidelines had the effect of increasing the volume of business in that court.

One of the expected effects of reducing the awards for lower- and medium-range injuries under the guidelines is that many personal injury cases will be heard in a lower court than has been the case up to now.

Reducing premiums

The Government is hoping that the new guidelines, along with a suite of other measures, will lead to a reduction in the price of insurance premiums, not least for small and medium-sized businesses and civic and cultural organisations that are struggling to pay for public liability cover.

The guidelines now apply to new litigation and to claims before the Personal Injuries Assessment Board that have not yet been assessed.

The Judicial Council has an 11-member board comprising the Chief Justice and the presidents of the Court of Appeal, High Court, Circuit Court and District Court, as well as six other judges.

Minutes of board meetings show that a document arguing in favour of the guidelines, circulated to judges prior to the March 6th vote, was a “majority board view” and not supported by all the members.

The document was based on one produced by the President of the High Court, Ms Justice Mary Irvine, in response to a submission from Mr Justice Bernard Barton, according to the minutes.

On March 4th, two days before the council vote, the board had discussed what would happen if the draft guidelines were not supported.

“It was agreed that a virtual break-out room be arranged so that if required the board could meet separately and discuss this on March 6th,” the minutes of that meeting show.

It was also agreed at the March 4th meeting that the interim secretary of the council, Kevin O’Neill, would “write to those members who had submitted papers in opposition to the draft guidelines on behalf of the chairperson requesting that two speakers be nominated for a set amount of time to address the meeting”.

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External investigation into Department ‘champagne party’ needed – Minister

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Minister of State Anne Rabbitte has called for an external investigation into a “champagne party” held by staff in the Department of Foreign Affairs staff in June 2020.

The gathering, which appeared to breach Covid-19 guidance in place at the time, was “inexcusable” and Minister Simon Coveney and his department have further questions to answer, the Fianna Fáil TD told Saturday with Katie Hannon on RTÉ Radio One.

“Having a champagne reception in any government department at that time, I know over in the Department of Health where they worked tirelessly for 23, 24 hours a day, it was far from champagne they were having,” she said.

Ms Rabbitte said an internal report conducted by the department’s current secretary general was not a satisfactory way to handle the matter.

“It’s still within the same department, and we know the answer we will get. I would be one for openness and transparency … it has to be [an external report].”

She added that all departments needed to learn from the mistake.

Officials were photographed in the department celebrating Ireland’s election onto the UN Security Council, and the image was posted on Twitter by the then secretary general Niall Burgess. The tweet was later deleted. At the time of the event, there were strict restrictions on the size of gatherings due to Covid-19.

Speaking on the same programme, Labour TD Duncan Smith said people were angered at the event because June 2020 was a bleak time for most people in Ireland. He said the public had seen other incidents where politicians and others were accused of breaching Covid-19 restrictions.

“These are the elites of society … what has really hurt people is that it really got to the ‘we are all in this together’ philosophy.”

Sinn Féin TD David Cullinane agreed there needed to be an independent review of the matter, adding that Mr Coveney needed to come before an Oireachtas committee and the Dáil to gave a “frank and full account” of what happened.

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Dog-owners bite back at beach rules

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Following a series of reports that An Taisce is leading the battle to ban dogs from the State’s 83 blue-flag beaches, the organisation’s Ian Diamond is feeling misunderstood.

“I don’t hate dogs”, Mr Diamond says, pointing out that Blue Flag International – the global body which governs the coveted awards – warned last year that some qualifying beaches were not honouring long-standing rules.

Under what’s known as Criterion 23, the rules declare that beach access “by dogs and other domestic animals must be strictly controlled” and that they be allowed only in “the parking areas, walkways and promenades in the inland beach areas”.

Faced with the reminder, Mr Diamond said he requested last year that local authorities get more time, as it was “not something that can be introduced immediately in the middle of a pandemic when people are under other restrictions.

“You can’t exactly introduce these things overnight, so we were flagging that,” he said, adding that Blue Flag told them to speak to people seeking blue flag status and “come back with proposals” that comply with the rule.

The issue came to national attention following a meeting of Kerry County Council this week, though it was understood then that the rule was an An Taisce demand, rather than being a Blue Flag International obligation.

Dogs and horses

Consequently, Kerry County Council now propose that dogs or horses will not be allowed on blue-flag beaches from 11am-7pm between June 1st and September 15th, or otherwise the county could lose its 14 blue flags.

However, the restrictions are unpopular with some dog-owners: “There’s a lot more important things to be worrying about than dogs on a beach,” said David Walsh, as he walked his pet, Oreo, on Salthill beach.

Dog-owners in Salthill are already not allowed to bring their dogs onto the beach between 9am and 8pm between May 1st and September 30th each year, in line with Blue Flag International’s rules, though penalties are rare.

Mr Diamond says a national application of the rules at blue-flag beaches would not “strictly prohibit dogs being on the beach” during bathing season, outside of peak hours.

Bathing season

“The blue-flag criteria would apply from June 1st to September 15th, within peak usage hours, so bathing hours – that would be mid-morning to early evening,” said the An Taisce officer.

“What it requires is that there would be rules in place in relation to dogs that say [they] should not be in the blue-flag area within those hours and within the bathing season,” Mr Diamond said.

The restriction is based on public health grounds and dates back to 2003: “Dog faeces actually contain a lot of the micro-organisms that cause illness in the same way that human waste would,” he said.

“There’s no zero-tolerance approach to this. If rules are going to be brought in, then people will be consulted as well, you know, brought in unilaterally, and it’s down to the councils responsible for the beaches to bring those in.”

Not everyone disagrees with An Taisce, or Blue Flag: “I don’t think dogs should be on the beach, because of the kids and all that. And a lot of people don’t pick up their poo afterwards,” said a man on Salthill beach.

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Jail for banned motorist from Limerick caught driving on Christmas shopping trip to Belfast

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A banned motorist from Limerick caught driving on a Christmas shopping trip to Belfast has been jailed for seven months.

Police also discovered three of Leeanne McCarthy’s children not wearing seat belts when her car was stopped on the Westlink dual carriageway.

The 41-year-old mother-of-eight initially gave officers a false identity, prosecutors said.

Belfast Magistrates’ Court heard a PSNI patrol car stopped the Ford Focus on November 26th last year.

McCarthy, with an address at Clonlough in Limerick, provided a different name and claimed she did not have her licence with her.

However, checks revealed that a month earlier she had been banned from driving for five years.

A Crown lawyer said: “Three young children were in the rear of the vehicle, none of them wearing seat belts.”

McCarthy initially claimed they only removed the safety restraints when the car came to a halt, the court heard.

Police were told that she took over driving duties from another daughter who had been tired and nearly crashed the vehicle.

McCarthy was convicted of driving while disqualified, having no insurance, obstructing police and three counts of carrying a child in the rear of a vehicle without a seat belt.

Her barrister, Turlough Madden, said she had travelled to Belfast for Christmas shopping.

Counsel told the court McCarthy spent the festive period in custody, missing out on sharing it with her eight children and four grandchildren.

“That’s been a wake-up call and significant punishment for her,” Mr Madden submitted.

“She is a mother who simply wants to go back to Limerick and not return to Northern Ireland.”

Sentencing McCarthy to five months imprisonment for the new offences, District Judge George Conner imposed a further two months by activating a previous suspended term.

Mr Conner also affirmed the five-year disqualification period and fined her £300 (€350) for the seat belt charges.

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