The fathers rights’ activist who gate-crashed this year’s Rose of Tralee festival is back in the news today.
Senior judges in England have ruled that staff acted unlawfully when they excluded supporters of Matt O’Connor from a court hearing because of fears of disruption.
Lord Justice Fulford and Mr Justice Leggatt, sitting in London, said in a decision with potential implications for other cases that the exclusion was "plainly not reasonably necessary" and they were satisfied the lay magistrates from Aldershot would have reached a different decision if they had received the correct legal advice.
The ruling was a victory for Matthew O’Connor, founder of Fathers4Justice, who had appeared before the magistrates in February 2015 accused of a public order offence. Mr O’Connor rose to prominence in Ireland when he stormed the stage of this year’s Rose of Tralee festival dressed as a priest.
The judges said the court managers had no information that there was any plan by Mr O’Connor’s supporters to cause violence or disruption, or that those wanting to enter the court building had any previous history of causing disruption.
They declared: "To prevent all the people who came to support Mr O’Connor, without any valid reason, from exercising their right to observe the proceedings not only created a strong and understandable sense of grievance but had the consequence that justice could not seen to be done."
Mr O’Connor had intended to organise a protest outside the court building, but then decided not to go ahead with it, said the judges.
Hampshire Police had been alerted. Some eight to 10 people had gathered, several of whom had come to observe the trial.
"Unknown to them, however, a decision had been taken to bar anyone who appeared to be associated with Mr O’Connor from entering the court building, unless they were listed as a witness for the defence."
The decision to restrict entry had been taken by Ms Donna Beason, employed by HM Courts and Tribunal Service (HMCTS) as a delivery manager for courts, and security officer Richard Harvey.
Mr Harvey had told the court that he knew of occasions in the past when Fathers4Justice members or other "agitating domestic groups" had caused disruption to court hearings.
The judges said: "In the light of such incidents, whenever members of a campaign group are known to be coming to court to attend a hearing, Mr Harvey has advised court managers to limit access in such hearings to defendants and witnesses and to ban all other persons associated with the group from entering the court building."
Mr Harvey said his advice had been "very well received in the courts system for the South West Region".
HMCTS lawyers also argued that, as the "occupier" of the Aldershot court building, the court service had an occupier’s power to give or withhold permission to enter, or to impose conditions for entry.
Rejecting that submission, the judges said: "Access to a court building for the purpose of attending a public hearing is a matter of legal right and does not require any express or implied permission from the occupier."
Mr O’Connor’s trial has been on hold pending his judicial review application.