Ipsofactoj.com: International Cases [2004] Part 6 Case 5 [SCIre]


SUPREME COURT OF IRELAND

Coram

Foley

- vs -

Commissioner of

An Garda Siochana

KEANE CJ

DENHAM J

GEOGHEGAN J

23 JUNE 2003


Judgment

Keane CJ

(delivered the judgment of the court)

  1. The facts in this case, the arguments in which have raised some novel and interesting issues, are not to any serious extent in dispute. The plaintiff was shot in the finger and the lung outside his house in Dublin by an unidentified assailant. It is said on his behalf that, in the course of criminal proceedings entitled The People at the Suit of the Director of Public Prosecutions v Brian Meehan which were heard by the Special Criminal Court in July 1999, the defendant in the present proceedings admitted under oath that he provided the weapon and instructed an unidentified person to carry out this attack. These proceedings were then instituted by the plaintiff against the defendant claiming damages for personal injuries sustained by him as a result of what he asserted to be the negligence, breach of duty, breach of statutory duty and breach of his constitutional rights by the defendant. On the 22nd July 1999 the plenary summons was served personally on the defendant who was at that time serving a term of imprisonment in Arbour Hill Prison. A statement of claim was subsequently delivered on 1st December 1999. The plaintiff having obtained judgment in the High Court in default of appearance against the defendant on 13th December 1999, the damages were subsequently assessed by Kinlen J who awarded the plaintiff the sum of £120,000 (€152,368.57) on 15th November 2000. The costs of the action were taxed on 23rd February 2001 in the sum of £31,978.85 (€40,604.77). There is, accordingly, a sum of £151,978.85 (€192,973.33) now owing to the plaintiff on foot of the judgment.

  2. It is also not in dispute that the defendant is a participant in what is known as a "witness protection scheme". Under the scheme, he has been relocated abroad, in return for giving evidence for the prosecution in criminal proceedings arising out of the murder of the journalist, Veronica Guerin. The plaintiff's legal advisors were of the view that since there was at least a possibility that he was owed sums of money by the State under the scheme, an application for a garnishee order should be made so as to secure the attachment of debts owed by the State to the defendant.

  3. With a view to bringing such an application, the notice of motion which is the subject of the present appeal was served on the Notice Party (hereafter "the Commissioner"). In the notice of motion, the plaintiff sought an order pursuant to Order 42, Rule 36 of the Rules of the Superior Courts directing that the Commissioner – or such other person as the court might consider appropriate – be orally examined in order to ascertain what debts are owed by the State to the defendant.

  4. The notice of motion was grounded on an affidavit by the solicitor for the plaintiff in which he deposed that the plaintiff was now unable to execute the judgment against the defendant. He further deposed that there was at least a probability that the State had entered into a contractual arrangement with the defendant which provided for the continuing payment of sums of money by way of maintenance payments to the defendant and that the agreement included a term providing for the granting of an indemnity by the State to the defendant in respect of his existing liabilities. He further deposed that, although he had written on a number of occasions to the Chief State Solicitor seeking information of this nature, he had received no reply to his letters. No replying affidavit was filed on behalf of the Commissioner. The notice of motion having come on for hearing in the High Court before O'Neill J, he refused the application in a written judgment dated the 4th December 2002.

  5. In his judgment, the learned High Court judge said that he was satisfied that the examination sought could be carried out without tending to reveal details as to the new identity of, or location of, the defendant. He was, however, also satisfied that even disclosure of so confined a nature as that sought by the plaintiff would be sufficient to give rise to what he described as "a real apprehension" on the part of future participants in the programme that their new identity and location would not be protected from disclosure. He was also of the view that the fact that monetary benefits available under the scheme could be made amenable to a process of execution might also deter potential witnesses from participating in the scheme. He accordingly concluded that granting the relief sought would be contrary to the public interest in ensuring that the evidence of potential participants in the witness protection programme would be available for the prosecution of serious crime.

  6. The learned judge added that, in his view, contrary to what had been argued on behalf of the plaintiff, the inclusion of the defendant in the witness protection scheme would not inhibit the plaintiff in the execution of his judgment. He said that if he were to grant the relief sought, the plaintiff would be put in a substantially better position by reason of the defendant being a participant in the scheme and that this would not be justified.

  7. It is agreed that the only statutory reference to the scheme is to be found in s.40 of the Criminal Justice Act 1999, subsection (1) of which provides that

    a person who without lawful authority makes enquiries or takes any other steps whatever, whether within or outside the State, for the purpose of discovering –

    (a)

    the whereabouts of a person whom he/she knows, or reasonably suspects, to be a relocated witness or

    (b)

    any new name or other particulars related to any new identity provided for any such a witness shall be guilty of an offence.

  8. Subsection (3) defines the expression "relocated witness" as "any person who intends to give or has given evidence in proceedings for an offence and who as a consequence has moved residence, under any programme operated by the Garda Siochana for the protection of witnesses, to any place, whether within or outside the State."

  9. Subsection (4) provides that the expression "lawful authority" means the authority of a court in any proceedings involving the relocated witness or a member of the Garda Siochana not below the rank of Chief Superintendent. Subsection (5) provides that a court is not to give such authority unless it is satisfied

    (a) that to do so would be in the interests of justice, and (b) that another way of proceeding which would not prejudice the continued participation of the relocated witness in the programme aforesaid, including, without prejudice to the generality of the foregoing, the transmission of any documents required to be served on the witness to the Commissioner … for the purpose of effecting such service, is not available.

  10. Order 42, Rule 36, of the Rules of the Superior Courts provides that

    When a judgment or order is for the recovery or payment of money, the party entitled to enforce it may apply to the court for an order that the debtor liable under such judgment or order, or in a case of a corporation that any officer thereof, or that any other person be orally examined as to whether any and what debts are owing to the debtor, and whether the debtor has any and what other property or means of satisfying the judgment or order, before a judge or an officer of the court as the court shall appoint; and the court may make an order for the attendance and the examination of such debtor, or of any other person, and for the production of any books or documents.

  11. The finding by the learned High Court judge that the granting of an order under this rule to the plaintiff would not necessarily have the result of disclosing the location or new identity of the defendant in contravention of the provisions of S.40 of the 1999 Act was not challenged on behalf of the Commissioner in the appeal to this court. The plaintiff's application does, however, give rise to an initial difficulty, having regard to his understandable inability to adduce any evidence in the High Court as to whether there are indeed any sums owing by the State to the defendant under the witness protection scheme.

  12. It is true that Rule 36 provides that the debtor or "any other person" may be orally examined as to "whether any and what debts are owing to the debtor" and that in Patterson v Doyle [1878] 4LR Ir 33, the court made such an order, although the judgment creditor did not depose to his belief that any such debts were owing.

  13. That, however, was not a case where, as here, the order was sought against a person other than the judgment debtor.

  14. The fact remains that there is no indication in the rule that there is any obligation on the judgment creditor to satisfy the court that the judgment debtor is in fact owed any sum by the person against whom it is hoped to obtain an order of garnishee. Moreover, in this case, the Commissioner, for understandable reasons, has declined to file any affidavit in response to the grounding affidavit of the plaintiff's solicitor and one has to proceed on the assumption that there is at least a possibility that there may be sums which could be the subject of an order of garnishee.

  15. The plaintiff, accordingly, in my view, reaches the relatively low threshold which appears to be fixed for the making of an order under the rule. The issue then arises as to whether, for the reasons set out by the learned High Court judge, the order should be refused because it might imperil the effective operation of the witness protection scheme. That scheme has certainly been afforded a form of implied statutory recognition under the provisions to which I have already referred. Moreover, while it can hardly be said that there is a defined and recognised public policy of maintaining in existence schemes of this nature, it was undoubtedly within the competence of the executive and the legislature to adopt such a scheme, provided the constitutional rights of any persons affected were observed. Moreover, it must be assumed in favour of the legislature and the executive that the scheme was adopted in order to assist in the prosecution of serious crime and it is, of course, beyond argument that the achievement of that objective is in the public interest.

  16. If it were the case that requiring the Commissioner, or whoever the appropriate officer may be, to attend before the High Court for the purpose of being orally examined as to any sums which may be owing to the judgment debtor under that scheme and producing any documents relevant thereto of itself would imperil the successful implementation of the scheme in the future, I would agree with the conclusion of the learned High Court judge that the order should not be granted. It is not clear, however, that that would necessarily be the case. It does not follow that, because the relevant documents will be available at the hearing in the High Court, they must, in every instance, be produced for the inspection of the plaintiff or his legal advisors. On the contrary, if the officer objects to the production of any document on the grounds that its disclosure would not be in the public interest, the judge before whom the examination is being held can rule on the validity of that objection and, if necessary, can inspect the document himself or herself without its being furnished for inspection to anyone else. It may be that such an inspection may not be necessary and the very nature of the document may be such that the judge will be able to rule that its production would not be in the public interest and that the public interest in question is not outweighed by any legitimate interest of the plaintiff. Similarly, there should be no essential difficulty in the examination being conducted in a manner which does not disclose either the new identity or the new location of the defendant.

  17. Given the constitutional right of the plaintiff to have access to the courts and to be in a position, so far as the law can enable him so to do, to execute any judgment he has obtained, I am satisfied that he should at least be given the opportunity of having such an oral examination of the relevant officer. Indeed, Mr. George Bermingham SC, on behalf of the Commissioner, fairly conceded that it was the wide ranging nature of the relief apparently being sought which was the substantial ground of objection so far as his client was concerned.

  18. We were referred during the course of the argument to cases which have been decided in the United States courts as to the possible conflict between the operation of a witness protection scheme and the constitutional rights of other persons (Melo–Tone Pending Inc., v United States of America [1981] US App. Lexis 15472; Franz v USA, 229 US App. DC. 396). In that jurisdiction, legislation has provided in detail for the establishment of witness protection schemes and the decisions in question consider the extent to which such schemes when, established by legislation, may legitimately interfere with constitutional rights of other citizens such as rights of access to children and rights of property. The issues, accordingly, with which they were concerned, are more far reaching than those under consideration in the present case and, accordingly, I do not find it necessary to consider them in any detail.

  19. I would allow the appeal and substitute for the order of the High Court an order directing the Commissioner or such person as he may nominate to be orally examined in order to ascertain what debts (if any) are owed by the State to the defendant.


Cases

Patterson v Doyle [1878] 4LR Ir 33; Melo–Tone Pending Inc., v United States of America [1981] US App. Lexis 15472; Franz v USA (229 US App. DC. 396

Legislations

Rules of the Superior Courts: Ord.42 Rule 36

Criminal Justice Act 1999: s.40


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