High Court reporters
A prison officer is not entitled to have a lawyer represent him at a disciplinary hearing over allegations including that he made inappropriate contact with the wife of a prisoner, the High Court has ruled.
The officer, who cannot be named, has brought proceedings against the governor of the prison in which he serves, and the Irish Prison Service (IPS) over a refusal to permit him to have a lawyer at the hearing.
Mr Justice Anthony Barr ruled he was not entitled to the relief sought.
The judge, outlining the case, said in late 2020, the wife of a prisoner, who was an inmate in the prison where the officer worked, emailed the prison governor alleging she was being harassed by the officer via messages on her phone.
She also claimed the officer was bringing in drink and phones and doing bets for prisoners on the working landing of the prison. She provided screenshots of WhatsApp messages to the prison authorities.
The officer was informed it was intended that a number of investigations would take place, including referring certain matters to the gardaí and an investigation under the IPS code. He was also suspended from duty.
One of the investigations began but concluded without reaching a result because the investigator had not been able to interview either the prison officer or the woman who made the complaints.
In the meantime, further complaints about the officer were made by another prisoner who alleged the officer had brought in a baby Nokia phone, with a SIM card and charger and passed them to the husband of the woman who made the complaint. He also alleged drugs and alcohol had been smuggled into the prison.
It was alleged the woman had been paying the officer to bring these articles to her husband, but he speculated that the officer may have been doing it because he “fancied” the woman.
The prison authorities informed the officer that these allegations were also to be investigated.
The judge said the woman complainant, at one point, complained about another prisoner in the prison who had threatened to burn her house down with her and her children in it. The judge said that, as a result, the sender of the WhatsApp messages made a number of threats about that prisoner, saying he would stab, kill or strangle him.
In 2021, the officer was told a formal investigation would be carried out into various allegations, including over contraband, threats, and inappropriate contact.
An investigator interviewed the prison officer who refused to answer questions because he said he had been informed the allegations had been referred to the gardai.
In a report, the investigator was satisfied in relation to a number of matters including that, on the balance of probabilities, it could be shown that he had threatened to have a prisoner killed or seriously assaulted and that there was inappropriate contact with the wife of a prisoner.
The prison governor decided to convene a disciplinary hearing and the officer was informed he could be accompanied by a Prison Officers Association (POA) official or by another serving officer.
The officer sought to be accompanied by his solicitor saying the POA had refused to represent him because it was being investigated by the gardaí. However, prison authorities confirmed with gardaí that there was no criminal investigation.
The governor refused to allow him to bring a solicitor, and he then brought a High Court challenge which was opposed by the respondents.
In his judgment, Mr Justice Barr said that due to the lack of cooperation from both the woman and the prisoner who made allegations, the investigator ruled the allegations about contraband material should not proceed.
The officer can now be represented by the POA as it has been confirmed there is no garda investigation, the judge said.
He faces three allegations in relation to being the sender of WhatsApp messages, making threats and of inappropriate contact with the wife of a prisoner, the judge said. None of these issues required an in-depth grasp of either legal or factual complexities, he said.
“The court is satisfied that the services of a legal representative are not necessary to ensure that the applicant (the officer) will obtain a fair hearing in the remainder of the disciplinary process,” he added.