The judge in the trial of a Department of Social Protection executive officer charged with coercion has directed the jury to return a verdict of not guilty.
Andrew Gilmartin of Drumfad, Grange, Co Sligo had been accused by Martha Rooney of Colleary Drive, Cranmore in Sligo of asking her to perform a sex act in return for getting her out of trouble for claiming lone parents benefit while working.
Mr Gilmartin denied the allegation but admitted that he had used bad language and had been unprofessional during the interview with Ms Rooney at the Social Welfare office in Cranmore in Sligo in April 2014.
Today Judge Keenan Johnson told the jury that the evidence offered by the prosecution in the case did not meet the essential elements of the charge of coercion.
The charge has to prove that there was intimidation of Ms Rooney by Mr Gilmartin in the course of the interview and while she was distressed, there was no evidence that she was frightened or overawed.
Judge Johnson said that she had the presence of mind after the alleged incident to unlock the door and tell Mr Gilmartin that she had recorded the interview even though she had not.
Judge Johnson said he had made no determination as to the truth of what the two parties had said but he said that Mr Gilmartin had come into the court with the presumption of innocence and he leaves the court with the presumption of innocence.
He emphasised that he was making no findings in relation to the veracity of either the complainant Ms Rooney or the defendant Mr Gilmartin but that he was merely undertaking his judicial function which is to interpret the law.
Important lesson to be learned from case
Judge Johnson said that an important lesson from this case is the need to change the way in which interviews are conducted at the Department's office.
In the course of the trial, the court was told that both doors in the interview room were locked and that this was a policy to protect privacy.
Judge Johnson said that the locking of doors during interviews, where no CCTV cameras are present, leaves both the interviewer and interviewee vulnerable to false accusations.
He suggested changes, such as CCTV cameras, would ensure the requisite transparency and said the Department of Social Protection should adopt these suggestions, if it has not already done so, as a matter of urgency.
The judge said the charge of coercion was an unusual one.
In directing the jury, Judge Johnson said the State’s evidence had not met the essential elements of the charge which had to prove there was intimidation.
He said he was also of this view given the conflict in the evidence of Ms Rooney and Mr Gilmartin and the inconsistencies in Ms Rooney's evidence, her admission of having previously been economic with the truth when filling out her lone parent application form and the absence of any independent collaboration.
Taking these matters cumulatively, a properly charged jury could not but have a reasonable doubt about the guilt of the accused and would therefore have to return a verdict of not guilty, he continued.
If one is to take Ms Rooney's evidence as being true, he said, then it is fair to say that the alleged actions of Mr Gilmartin were reprehensible and an affront to decency and civilised society, however that categorisation does not necessarily make his alleged actions a criminal offence, Judge Johnson said.
He also said it was important to remember that there were additional avenues open to Ms Rooney.
She could have made a complaint to his employers but it appears this was not done.
In her evidence, the Judge continued, Ms Rooney indicated that approximately a year after the incident, she instructed her solicitors to make a claim for damages.
In her evidence, he said, she acknowledged that the letter of claim from her solicitor was incorrect when it alleged that Mr Gilmartin had falsely imprisoned her and perpetrated a sexual assault on her.
The false allegations in the solicitor's letter could not but negatively impact on her credibility, he added.
Judge Johnson said it appeared to him that the current case possibly has its origins in the failure of Mr Gilmartin to accord the respect to Ms Rooney that she deserved as a client of the Department of Social Protection.
Ms Rooney accused Mr Gilmartin of asking her to perform the sex act when she was interviewed by him in April 2014.
She admitted she had been working and claiming benefit and that she lied three times on a Department form about her situation.
She told the court that Mr Gilmartin said he could help her but they would have to keep it between themselves.
Ms Rooney claimed that he asked her to perform a sex act and said that she froze and said: "No, I'm not", unlocked the door and ran out.
Mr Gilmartin denied the allegation but admitted using bad language and acting unprofessionally and said he phoned Ms Rooney afterwards to apologise.