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Woman’s 30-year ‘vendetta’ against brother over farm is ‘worst example of weaponisation’ of courts

Litigation was over ‘an everyday dispute that could happen to any family in Ireland’, High Court judge says

A High Court judge has described a woman’s 30-year pursuit of a “vendetta” against her brother in a dispute over a small family farm in Co Sligo as the “worst example of the weaponisation of the courts” he has seen.

The litigation was over “an everyday dispute that could happen to any family in Ireland, a relatively modest inheritance under a parent’s will”, Mr Justice Michael Twomey said.

As Elizabeth Shannon was able to pursue her “litany” of “vexatious” claims against her brother John in the High Court, where costs are affordable only to “millionaires”, she was able to “inflict financial pain” on him up to 100 times greater than if she had to bring her cases in the District Court, and up to 10 times greater than if she had to go to the Circuit Court, he said.

Despite winning the “numerous ... misguided and abusive” claims taken against him by his sister Elizabeth, there was no evidence that Mr Shannon ever recovered any of his legal costs from her, the judge said.

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Due to the fact Ms Shannon represented herself, she was able to “weaponise” the legal system even more than other litigants because she could force her brother to spend tens of thousands each time she sued him but incurred little or no costs herself.

Mr Justice Twomey made his comments in a judgment upholding Mr Shannon’s right to possession of a 64-acre farm and house at Leaffoney, Kilglass, left to him by his mother, who died in 1994.

The order was opposed by his twin sisters, Elizabeth and Gwendoline, who had refused to leave the property, their family home, and claimed to be its owners. Despite numerous judgments holding against Elizabeth Shannon in “a stream of litigation” over 30 years, she continued to maintain at the latest hearing that she is entitled to the property, the judge said.

She was previously made subject to an order preventing her bringing proceedings without leave of the court in relation to the property dispute and the only reason her “unfounded” claim was aired in this hearing was because Mr Shannon had been “forced” to take proceedings over the sisters’ continued occupation of the property, he said.

They had returned there immediately after being removed in 2006 and Mr Shannon, while not seeking to execute a possession order, was concerned they might claim adverse possession. Having concluded Ms Shannon’s defence to her brother’s application was “without merit”, the judge affirmed the possession order.

In 1961, he said, there were 400 per cent more District Courts than High Courts in the State. As a result of various laws introduced since, the judge said, there are now 41 per cent more District Courts than High Courts, meaning access for many people to affordable justice has been significantly reduced.

There are now 51 High Court judges in the State, five times more per head than in England and Wales. The judge stressed that he was not suggesting there are too many High Court judges here “for the amount of litigation” heard in that court. However, he said this case “vividly illustrates” why the apparent concentration of litigation in the High Court resulting from the changes “does not, in this court’s view, make the system better for the litigant”.

The changes increased the likelihood of people like Mr Shannon ending up having relatively minor cases heard not in affordable courts but in the High Court at costs out of all proportion to the value of the dispute, the judge said. In very broad terms, he said, a District Court hearing might cost €500 or more, this increased to €5,000 or more in the Circuit Court and to €50,000 or multiples of that in the High Court, he said.

Mr Justice Twomey said it was the Oireachtas, not judges or lawyers, which determines the rules for calculating legal costs that have set High Court costs at millionaire levels. Any reduction in legal costs would make the system better for the litigant but “might not be regarded as being in the interests of the legal profession”.

Ireland ranks among the highest-cost jurisdictions internationally for civil litigation, he said, and if the most recent calls for legal-costs reform are as unsuccessful as previous calls, this situation will remain unchanged.

An alternative option that the Oireachtas might consider is to have the same number of affordable courts here as Ireland used to have in previous decades and to ensure only serious disputes, or ones where the value is proportionate to the likely legal costs, are heard in the High Court.

The courts’ role is limited to highlighting the issues to try to make the system better for the litigant, he said, noting there is no lobby group to highlight the impact of all of this on the people most negatively impacted, like Mr Shannon.

Legal costs are an issue for every person in the State, particularly those on average incomes because not many people would be willing to face financial ruin, in the form of a High Court legal costs order against them, to obtain justice from a court, he said.

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