The State Claims Agency is "commencing investigations" into allegations made by a woman that former District Court Judge James O'Connor romantically pursued her during a period when she was a plaintiff appearing in his family law court, RTÉ Investigates has learned.
The development was outlined in a letter sent today by a solicitor for the State Claims Agency to a solicitor for the woman. It is not clear what the nature or extent of the investigations will be.
A spokesperson for the State Claims Agency told RTÉ Investigates that it does not comment on individual claims.
The woman, a 43-year-old Lithuanian who lives in Kerry, alleges that Judge O’Connor made inappropriate contact with her during a period when she was intermittently appearing before him seeking and renewing a protection order and seeking a maintenance order.
The woman, who can’t be named due to reporting restrictions on family law matters, claims that the judge asked for her phone number and that of her ex-partner during one hearing in 2016.
She claims that he subsequently phoned and texted her. Screenshots seen by RTÉ Investigates show texts and phone calls to the woman from a mobile phone number that is used by the judge.
The woman claims that he asked to meet her and that at the meeting "his body language clearly indicated that he was pursuing an inappropriate romantic relationship".
She says she made it clear that she was not interested in Judge O’Connor romantically and that, soon after, he stopped contacting her. She alleges that the contact spanned a two-month period in late 2016 and early 2017. Judge O’Connor retired in 2018.
RTÉ Investigates unsuccessfully sought comment from Judge O’Connor on the latest development in the case. He had previously said he had "no comment" to make on the woman’s allegations, and failed to respond to a number of written queries.
As first reported by RTÉ Investigates last week, a solicitor for the woman sent a nine-page legal claim to the State Claims Agency alleging that there was a "misuse" of personal data "by former District Court Judge James O’Connor for improper and personal purposes".
The claim stated that her "right to confidentiality and protection of her data has unquestionably been violated. The data was obtained in the course of District Court family law proceedings which are subject to privacy and reporting restrictions."
The claim also contained a threat to sue the state.
According to the solicitor, Kevin Winters, the case "relates to the allegation that a phone number belonging to the plaintiff was accessed and then used for a series of engagements and interaction which is... susceptible to legal challenge".
RTÉ Investigates understands that Judge O’Connor’s application for a further year on the bench was turned down. While the retirement age for judges is now 70, until recently the fixed retirement age for District Court judges was 65 and those who wished to keep working could apply for a maximum of five one-year extensions.
Asked to comment, in general, on any judge having social contact with a person coming before him or her, a spokesperson for Chief Justice Frank Clarke told RTÉ Investigates last week that there were no guidelines in force at present.
"However, respected international guidance, such as the Bangalore principles, would suggest that it would not be appropriate for a judge to seek to make social contact with a party to litigation before that judge or to use information obtained in the context of such litigation to facilitate contact," they said.
The case highlights the absence of a forum for the public to complain about the conduct of a judge.
While the long-awaited Judicial Council has been created, its Judicial Conduct Committee won’t be operational to hear complaints until the board of the Council completes a review of draft guidelines concerning judicial conduct and ethics.
Under the law, the Council must adopt guidelines by next June, at the latest.