High Court rules decision to suspend Irish teacher Enoch Burke was lawful

Irish teacher Enoch Burke leaving the High Court in Dublin (Niall Carson/PA)
Irish teacher Enoch Burke leaving the High Court in Dublin (Niall Carson/PA)

A Dublin court has ruled that a Co Westmeath school’s decision to suspend Irish teacher Enoch Burke from his position last year was lawful.

The High Court gave a provisional ruling that the costs incurred by Wilson’s Hospital School should be paid by Mr Burke, and that he should pay 15,000 euro in damages for trespass that took place following his suspension.

The board of management of Wilson’s Hospital School and Mr Burke had been in a legal dispute stemming from incidents over a request from the school’s then-principal to address a student by a new name and the pronoun “they”.

Mr Burke, an Evangelical Christian, argued that his suspension was unlawful and went against his right to express his religious beliefs.

In March, the High Court heard that the board of management had listened to arguments from Mr Burke and had a 40-minute discussion before making the unanimous decision to place him on paid administrative leave pending the outcome of a disciplinary hearing.

Enoch Burke court case
Enoch Burke (left), with his sister Ammi Burke, brother Isaac Burke and mother Martina Burke, with members of An Garda outside the High Court in Dublin (PA)

The court heard that there was concern about further protests from Mr Burke, and was also told that he continued to attend the school after the decision on August 22 was taken.

Witness testimonies were heard without Mr Burke or a legal representative for him being present in court to argue his case, after the judge ordered him not to attend in person unless he complied with the court’s authority.

In assessing the claim of whether the school’s board complied with its contractual obligations to Mr Burke in suspending him, Mr Justice Alexander Owens decided it had.

“The evidence establishes that answer to this question is ‘yes’,” he ruled.

“The board is entitled to a declaration that the decision on August 22 2022 to put Enoch Burke on paid administrative leave was lawful.”

The judge said there was “no evidence” that any relevant matter was not duly considered or that any irrelevant matter was taken into account by the board in arriving at this decision.

Enoch Burke court case
Enoch Burke (PA)

He also ruled that despite legal restrictions facing the board, the decision-makers “knew enough about the allegations and the relevant issues to make a valid decision on whether or not to suspend Enoch Burke”.

He also said that the school’s “apprehension that he would engage in harmful and disruptive conduct if permitted to teach in the school was rational and reasonable”.

The judge also ruled that subsequent behaviour by Mr Burke, though relevant to injunctive relief and damages, “can have no bearing” on the board’s decision on August 22.

“The board was restricted to considering what was known at the time it made its decision to suspend him,” he said.

The judge said that Mr Burke did not have the consent of the board or the school to be on school grounds after he was suspended, and despite being asked to leave, “he refused to go”.

“His repeated attendance on school premises was trespass,” the judgment stated.

It went on to say that Mr Burke should pay damages to the board for trespass, and that “significant aggravating features” meant that it was “proper to award more than nominal damages”.

“These relate to continuing trespass and deliberate disruption caused by entering school premises during school hours,” it said.

Enoch Burke dismissed from job
Enoch Burke outside Wilson’s Hospital School in Co Westmeath (PA)

“This court is assessing damages for this trespass at 15,000 euro.”

The judge said that this award was in addition to any daily fines currently being imposed for breaches of existing High Court orders – namely a High Court order imposing a daily fine of 700 euro for each day Mr Burke breaches a court order barring him from attending the Co Westmeath school.

The judgment also made a provisional decision that the legal costs for the case should be paid by Mr Burke.

“This court’s provisional view on costs is that costs of the board in this action should be paid by Enoch Burke.

“Costs should be awarded to the successful party. This award of costs should include any costs in the cause or reserved costs of interim and interlocutory orders and of other applications which have been left over for the trial judge to decide on.

“It should also include any costs of the board relating to compliance with court directions as to exchange of witness statements, legal submissions and discovery.

“This court proposes to make no order as to the costs of the board on the counterclaim, beyond such costs as are properly allowable for any notice for particulars and the reply and defence to counterclaim.”