Adjournment Debate. - Circuit Court Decision.

(Mayo): This is an extremely serious case. It goes to the very heart of judicial performance, credibility and the public's faith in a central and vital instrument in the criminal justice system, namely, the courts.

We are now in an era of freedom of information, transparency and accountability. We will not be deflected from our determination to find out the truth. Somebody somewhere in the pyramid of responsibility and accountability in the courts and judicial system made certain decisions in relation to the Philip Sheedy case. We must know who made these decisions, when they were made and why they were made. We are not interested in the usual bland ministerial script. This is an issue of sufficient gravity that unless a satisfactory explanation is forthcoming, we may have to seek to invoke Article 35.4.1 of the Constitution.

Mrs. Ann Ryan was a young mother of two children who was prematurely killed by a car which soared 60 feet into the air. She was killed and her husband was seriously injured in the presence and full view of their two children. The car, recklessly driven, had hit Glenview roundabout in Tallaght on 15 March 1997. The driver of the car was convicted of dangerous driving with excess alcohol at the Dublin Circuit Criminal Court in October 1997. The defendant was sentenced to four years in prison. Crucially, the presiding judge, Judge Mathews, gave the defendant leave to apply for a review of sentence two years later. One month later, however, in November 1997, the defendant applied to have the right of review set aside and thereby forfeited and abandoned his sentence review right.

On 12 November 1998, just one year after sentence and 11 months before the original review date, Mr. Sheedy had the remaining three years of his sentence suspended by Judge Cyril Kelly at Dublin Circuit Criminal Court. Neither the Garda nor the Director of Public Prosecutions were notified or represented. The defendant was freed, resumed his job and 12 days later Judge Kelly was appointed to the High Court.

In February of this year, the Director of Public Prosecutions challenged Judge Kelly's decision.

Deputy Higgins, for the information of yourself and Deputy Howlin I should point out that the administrative aspects of the issue are in order, but any charge against a member of the Judiciary can only be by substantive motion. It is a long-standing rule here that members of the Judiciary are independent by virtue of the Constitution and they may neither be criticised nor have their rulings referred to in the House except on a substantive motion.

(Mayo): I appreciate that. I will merely refer to the text of the case. Edward Comyn, Senior Counsel for the DPP, stated: “How it came to be listed or why has not yet been satisfactorily discovered”. He stated that no proper notice had been given to the Director of Public Prosecutions or the Garda. The DPP contended that once the review date was removed, as it had been at Mr. Sheedy's request a month after sentencing, the four year sentence had to be served. No judge of equal rank to Judge Mathews could interfere with the decision.

On Thursday last, the judicial review took place. There was no appearance on behalf of Judge Kelly. Counsel for the defendant withdrew the objection to the DPP's application to quash the sentence and the defendant surrendered himself at Mountjoy jail.

Has the Minister, Deputy O'Donoghue, established who gave the order for the wrongful listing of the case before Judge Kelly on 12 November 1998? As Minister he is responsible for the Garda. Has he established the reason the Garda were not notified so that they could have their views made known to the court? Has it been established why the Director of Public Prosecutions was not notified so that he could be represented at the court? Has the Minister established if the defendant, Mr. Sheedy, was present in court? Did the Minister become aware before 12 November 1998 that a sentence review was to take place or was he notified subsequent to the review? Was the Government aware, for example, of the review of the Sheedy case when it, on the recommendation of the Minister, promoted Judge Kelly to the High Court a mere 12 days after ordering the release of Mr. Sheedy? Were the views of the original presiding judge, Judge Mathews, sought at any stage? Is the fact that Judge Kelly would have had to have an affidavit presented on his behalf thereby explaining his actions the reason he was not represented in court last week?

The Minister and the Minister of State are responsible for ensuring that court procedures are properly followed. In this case, a coach and four was driven through time-honoured procedures. We will not be fobbed off by excuses about judicial independence. This goes beyond judicial independence to the core of the credibility of the system.

I join Deputy Higgins in calling on the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform to provide a forthright explanation of the circumstances in which a man sentenced to four years imprisonment by one Circuit Court judge had his sentence reviewed and was released from prison, after serving just one year, by a different judge of that court.

What happened in this case was at best peculiar and at worst sinister. After Mr. Sheedy had served only one year of a sentence, his case was relisted and appeared before Judge Cyril Kelly without any notice having been given to the Chief State Solicitor or the Director of Public Prosecutions. Despite the absence of a solicitor or counsel on behalf of the prosecution, Judge Kelly proceeded to review Mr. Sheedy's sentence and decided to suspend the remaining three years. Mr. Sheedy walked free from the court.

It is an elementary principle of judicial practice that one judge will not interfere with a case which is, or properly ought to be, before a colleague of co-ordinate jurisdiction. It is also the most basic rule of natural justice that both sides must be heard in all cases – audi alteram partem.

It is extraordinary that none of this would have come to light if a friend of the family of the victim, Ann Ryan, had not spotted Mr. Sheedy in the street and reported that fact to the family. They queried the early release with their local garda who contacted the office of the DPP. This was the first the director's office heard of Mr. Sheedy's release.

In summary, three unusual things occurred. First, one judge took over the case of another without having been appointed as a substitute or successor. Second, an application was heard by the court without any notice having been given to the DPP. Third, a sentence was purportedly reviewed even though there was no provision before the court to allow for such a review.

This case raises disturbing questions as to whether there was any improper interference with the administration of criminal justice by the courts. The DPP was so concerned at what happened that he quite rightly sought a judicial review of Judge Kelly's decision. However, the defendant withdrew his opposition to the DPP's application and presented himself to be readmitted to Mountjoy Jail. Therefore, there is a danger that we might not discover what happened.

The Minister must provide the House with answers to three questions. How did this case get to be re-listed for an inappropriate review of sentence without proper notice to the DPP and before the wrong judge? It is not open to the Minister to argue that this case is a matter for the courts for which he has no responsibility. The listing of cases before the courts is an administrative matter carried out by civil servants in the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform. The Minister is accountable to the House for the actions of his departmental staff and is obliged to answer questions as to their official activities. He must not seek to avoid giving answers. If he does not know the answers then he must investigate and report to the House.

Some of the information concerning this case is readily available. To proceed with a judicial review of Judge Kelly's decision, the State authorities would have had to prepare and file grounding affidavits setting out the knowledge of various officials as to what happened and when and how. None of this information is confidential or secret. It would have been in open court last week if the DPP's judicial review had gone ahead.

As a preliminary step I am calling on the Government, through the Attorney General, to request the DPP to provide a copy of the affidavits sworn in these proceedings if the Minister does not already have them. Those documents should be laid before the House. If they do not fully answer the questions I have raised then further inquiries are necessary.

This case has caused great distress to the family of Ann Ryan who tragically died as a result of Mr. Sheedy's crime. There is an obligation on the Minister to provide clear answers as to what occurred in this case and to put the matter to rest once and for all.

The Minister would not answer my correspondence over two months.

Where is the Minister?

I apologise for the Minister's absence. He would be in the House to answer this question were he not in Belfast. On 20 October 1997 Mr. Philip Sheedy was convicted on charges of dangerous driving causing death and drink driving. He was sentenced on conviction before the Circuit Criminal Court to 4 years imprisonment and disqualified from driving for 12 years. The judge also ordered a review of the case for 20 October 1999. On 7 November 1997 the defence team returned to court and requested that the review ordered for 20 October 1999 be vacated. The judge granted this request. The case was re-entered on a judge's list in the Circuit Court for the 12 November 1998.

It is claimed the State did not have proper notice of this hearing. It is further claimed that, as a consequence, the State's opposition to the application before the court was not made known to the court and the judge in the circumstances decided that the prisoner should be released from custody.

On 22 February 1999 the DPP obtained an order for judicial review in the High Court which took place on 25 March 1999. Following that hearing the judge made an order quashing the Circuit Court judge's order of 12 November 1998 and further ordered that Mr. Sheedy be held in prison on foot of the original Circuit Court judge's orders and warrant of 20 October 1997 and 7 November 1997. The end result was that Mr. Sheedy was recommitted to Mountjoy prison to serve the remainder of his sentence.

The circumstances in which the case came into the Circuit Court list for 12 November 1998, apparently without proper notice to the State, were naturally the subject of concern. The Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform has been conducting inquiries on this matter. In view of the very serious suggestions made concerning the circumstances of the hearing of this case, the House will agree that in fairness to all concerned, especially the bereaved family, the Minister should be allowed to complete his inquiries before any detailed statement is made.

The questions asked in the House as to who gave the order to re-enter the case on the judge's list and the reasons the Garda and the DPP were not informed will be investigated. This case raises disturbing questions. The Minister expects to make a statement of his findings to the House in the near future in which he will give a forthright explanation, in so far as he can, of the circumstances surrounding this case.

Will the Minister be in a position to report before the end of this session which is the end of this week?

The investigations are ongoing. The Minister must try to get to the truth. He will report to the House as soon as he has done so.