The final report of the Moriarty Tribunal, investigating political corruption, in Ireland last week has led to some trenchant criticism of the presiding judge (Mr. Justice Michael Moriarty). Perhaps unsurprisingly, this criticism emanates primarily from billionaire businessman Denis O’Brien and former minister Michael Lowry, whom the judge effectively accused of corruption in the award of a mobile phone licence to a consortium associated with Mr. O’Brien.
Mr. O’Brien has taken a particularly robust approach to his criticism of Mr. Justice Moriarty. He has set up an independent and official-looking website (www.moriartytribunal.com) which aims to ‘expose the inner workings’ of the Tribunal and refute the claims made in its final report and which should not be confused with the Tribunal’s actual official website (www.moriarty-tribunal.ie). He has also taken to the airwaves, making sweeping statements in TV and radio interviews (for example this one on state broadcaster RTE) about Mr. Justice Moriarty’s competence and independence, and suggesting more broadly that the judiciary in general had closed ranks around the Tribunal despite being aware of its ‘flaws’
The new justice minister, Alan Shatter, has in turn criticised Mr. O’Brien’s statements as an unacceptable attack on the judiciary. And Carol Coulter, writing in The Irish Times on Saturday, suggests that Mr. O’Brien could be prosecuted for contempt of court for his remarks.
The extent to which judges should be protected from criticism is a difficult issue. Mr. Shatter was arguably entirely correct to respond as he did to Mr. O’Brien’s rather wild allegations (interestingly taking on a role that the Lord Chancellor would exercise in Britain). However, given the countervailing concerns we should have for freedom of expression, I’m not convinced that prosecution would be appropriate.